Men, Women and the Art of Friendship

University Essays, Lesson 9, Reading 4

By Colman McCarthy


Someday, I’m going to put aside the day’s chaos and take time to report the details of a love story between a woman and man who were not lovers but friends. If sexual love is a dosage of intense feelings, a widening of the veins that lets the emotions pass through unclogged from heart to heart, friendship can permit a rarer sensation: raising affections higher than the passions of the emotional.

Lovers have it easy, which is why so many try it: They can mate but not always bond. Friends, in the harder role, bond without mating. Instead of jumping into bed, they jump into life, and find there privacies of the mind and spirit that don’t need glands to be aroused. Some wives and husbands marry as best friends and then, blessed, live as better friends.

The woman and man I would write about were friends because their closeness was based on distance. They could stand back. She functioned best as his critic. His main flaw, to her, was that he didn’t think he had any flaws. When the air-pumps of public acclaim inflated his egobecause his latest book pleased reviewers or lecture committees invited him to speak on whatever topic he wishedshe held up the cue card of friendship: Come off it, pal. Off he always camechoiceless, really, because, while she looked up to him, she also saw through him. It was her version of a buddy system, the keeping of a rope tied to the hugeness of her friend’s male self-importance, so that when he wandered off into believing his notices she could, with gentle protectiveness, pull him back to reality.

That was where he best flourished. He was happily married to a woman much better than he deserved, with part of that betterness being his wife’s un-jealous expansiveness about his friendship with this woman. Nothing was secretive about the friendship. She wasn’t a girlfriend, but a friend who happened to be a woman. Were she a man, the relationship would have been the same. The man’s wife—also his best friend—was also close to the woman. After 20 years of marriage, she had learned something about physics as well as love: Her husband’s woman friend would never fall for him because her loyalty was in standing up to him.

She was no threat to the couple’s marriage. By caring about the husband’s professional life, as it filtered through in written and spoken words, she was, perhaps unknowingly, bolstering the marriage. She had been helping the husband to grow up, not grow away.

The matching gift to that generosity was the man’s being a support group to the woman. Where she was full-hearted, he was lighthearted. His joking and fooleries were the epidermis that kept life’s bogs from getting under her skin. They worked for the same company, but on different floors and separate terrains. All he wanted his coworker to know was that he thought her to be as creative, or more so, than any of his male buddies. She wasn’t one of the boys. She was one of the best.

With AIDS and herpes now enforcing the one-person one-bed rule, the art of friendship may be about to enjoy a revival. Are Americans too hurried for the slower pace of working up to be a friend? It appears so. Two people can rush off to Las Vegas or Elkton, Md., to become husband and wife but many can go there 10 times and still be only acquaintances, not friends.

It’s impossible to divorce a friend, because friendship means not going away when the other says “go, get lost.” It isn’t really meant. A friend knows how to decode the message of rejection by going beyond the meaning of words to the words of meaning. Too many of the latter have been said before to be washed away by a moment of anger. Between friends, anger is not harmful because it is a sudden burst of feeling. In marriages, anger can sometimes be the final burst, an eruption of the too-long held back. When friends blow up at each other and retreat for the normal licking of wounds, they can come back scarless: “I’m glad it was nothing serious, that we were only mad at each other.”

It was either an Irish mystic or poet, and it’s usually one or the other, who said that “a friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and plays back the words when you forget how they go.” This weekend, with St. Valentine reminding loved ones to love, some homage is due for friends who befriend. If you have a few someones who can’t remember the words of their song, sing them back. It’s sweeter than chocolates.

from The Washington Post

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.