I don’t recall Sue every writing to me before, but I was glad she finally did. Sue sent me an e-mail tonight – I think my best messages come in e-mail, what can you really say in a text message?
She lit me up.
“When I read your blogs,” she said of me and Maria, “I have no question about the authenticity of your words. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with you or not. The truth is what is important.”
But the real question, she added – and this really caught my eye – is whether there is an opportunity for authentic friendship. Or, is authenticity so scary in our culture that it precludes a friendship?”
What a good question, and how challenging for me to try to answer it. I’m sure authentic friendship is possible in the Facebook and texting era, but I have not been able to find it or keep it.
I can say I no longer believe it is likely or even possible for me. And I am no longer certain I ever needed it or really wanted it in the way I thought I did.
In his essay “Loneliness and Solitude,” the philosopher Paul Tillich wrote that most of us experience the many faces that loneliness can have. We are surrounded by friends and neighbors, co-workers and countrymen, we live in family groups and enjoy the connection of sex.
If we number ourselves among all of these people, we might wonder about this question, Tillich wrote: “I never felt so lonely as in that particular hour when I was surrounded by people but suddenly realized my ultimate isolation.”
I had a good friend who stopped being a good friend or who perhaps, was never a friend at all.
Our separation was sudden, and we have never managed to talk about it. I tried, but he keeps telling me he will call and set up a time to talk, but we both knew that will never happen, it is just something he says, not something he wants to do.
My friend is, I realized, what I call a Facebook Friend, he only knew me from my blog or from Facebook messages, the very idea of actually talking to me seemed frightening to him now, even though he was a faithful commenter on my Facebook Page.
A Facebook friend is one who religiously reads the Facebook feeds of all of his or her friends, making sure to like or comment or commiserate in the appropriate ways. Facebook friends generally have the arena of eye-to-eye contact, of sitting across a table and looking someone in the eye and learning who they might really be.
I have a bunch of Facebook friends, it I died tomorrow, I’m not sure they would even know, let alone care.
How could this be, I wondered? How can we know anyone from Facebook pages or blogs or text messages. I remembered Tillich writing once that the mystery of a person cannot be encompassed by a neat description of his character.
Neither can it be learned from a neat blog post or five-line Facebook comment, or a like or a Smiley Emoticon. Am I the only one who knows they are not real? I suspect Sue knows, or she wouldn’t have asked this very good question.
I have another friend who seems to know absolutely nothing about me or what it is that I feel, even though she follows my blog closely and also comments on Facebook. She is astonished when she learns something about who I really am, yet she has never once asked me who I really am.
The texts and posts are real to her, not me.
Why should she know? I write a blog and she says “hi, how are you?” in text messages once in a while.
I’ve told her many times how much I hate messages like that, but she keeps sending them. This is what friends do in our world. Is our friendship authentic? Not yet.
We live in this Orwellian time where friendship is simply a matter of one click of a mouse. No charge.
People “friend” me all the time, and recognizing the value to a writer of many likes and “friends’ on Facebook, I always accept these invitations.
I am still so often surprised to see that the people who send these messages think we are real friends, just like the Disney movies or Thornton novels.
They invite me to dinner, ask when they can visit, send me 50 inch mails about a beloved dog that died, bemoan the rebellious child, notify me about their surgeries. I suggested to my publicist that I stop accepting “friend” requests, and he almost came through the phone. “But these are people who might buy your book, silly!”
Friends like these mean no harm, but they make me feel lonely and isolated, because so many of them think now that this is how you become a friend and maintain friendships. And I hate to disappoint people, as I inevitably do. I lose a lot of friends being friends.
You “like” and cheer and commiserate and enable on Facebook posts, from people who may or may not be real. How can you possibly be friends with someone whose very existence you can’t trust?
Sue, friendship is, after all, all about trust, I think.
In my world, I get more texts and Facebook messages every day and meet and speak to fewer and fewer people. I haven’t spoken to my editor in years, he only communicates by e-mail, and only rarely, I can’t swear that he even exists, he might be an algorithm.
In the other world, I had lunch with my editor every couple of months, we were, actually friends.
He was laid off, and I don’t speak to editors any more.
Sue’s question goes to the heart of loneliness in our time, because to answer it, I first have to understand what authenticity is. For me, authenticity begins with vulnerability. Vulnerability is the path to honesty and trust and empathy, the foundations of friendship.
If you can trust someone to show them who you really are, and they care about you enough to hear it, than friendship is possible.
And how does one find it in a text message or e-mail or a warm and fuzzy Facebook post (“I am so sorry for your loss”) or tweet. We don’t actually see each other as individual humans anymore, we are all avatars, representations of ourselves, labels or stereotypes.
How can I tell who the real person is, how can anyone really know me? I can’t be friends with ghosts.
Authenticity to me is the choices we make every day. The choices to overcome our fear and limitations. To take the risk of living fully. To show up and do real good in the real world. To be real.
I risked love and found my purest friendship in Maria.
But I will admit that I am lonely, I have always been lonely, I have always lived with the ultimate loneliness that Tillich says lives in all men. We know how the story ends.
Friendship has eluded me, perhaps because of how troubled I am, but it is also possible, as Sue suggests, that the kind of authentic friendship I want just isn’t possible any longer, the modern world seems to have no room for it.
The closest I have come to discovering authenticity in friendship was with my friend Paul Moshimer, he and I became friends while he sat in my living room one night talking until the morning light when he stayed over.
We talked about wanting to be better men and what that might mean. We talked about how far we had to go to get to be better men, about change and commitment. I wanted to cry.
I felt so much love for him that night, I remember thinking “so this is what it must mean to have a friend.” A few days later Paul send me a message saying how much he looked forward to the wonderful things he would do together.
A few weeks after that, he was dead, he hung himself on a pine tree on his farm, just months after he had gotten married. It seemed I didn’t really know him at all, and could have been an “authentic friend” if he never even hinted of his deep despair and unhappiness, and I never sensed it.
I guess the truth is, I don’t know.
I fear Susan’s question is a good one. I don’t know if authentic friendship is possible, at least for me. I don’t know how to love a Facebook friend, or someone who reads my blog and thinks they know me, but who will never take the trouble to find out. Facebook friends don’t need to talk things through or work things out.
New friends are just a few clicks away, Facebook will even suggest some for you.
At moments like these, I break through the surface of ordinary life and plunge into the depths of man’s great predicament.
I want to think more and write more about Susan’s good question. Tonight, what I am thinking is that loneliness can be conquered and and friendship found only by those who can bear solitude.
In solitude, I feel who i am – alone, not in pain and despair but with joy and courage.
In solitude, I will face the truth about myself and wait for that authentic friend Sue writes about, I believe he or she is out there, looking for me as well. Like me and Paul, I will know it when I see it.