Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Fellowship, Not a Ring

CS Lewis once wrote very eloquently about the constant human ambition towards the “Inner Ring.” We have this innate social sense that there are others more on the inside of of the know and we feel perpetually outside of the ring. I've been watching a lot of The West Wing lately and I've noticed how they ask each other “Are you inside?” meaning “Are you in the inner ring of the know regarding this particular pressing problem?”

Lewis goes on to say that we spend much of our time here on Earth trying to penetrate deeper and deeper into the inner ring. At work and school there seem to be an elite few who have most of the influence. We feel the rush of being invited into that ring, only to find that in that group, there are those who are closer and more influential than the others, so we strive to enter that ring. And so on and so forth. It starts by being invited to the lunch table, and then to this or that party, and then to just socialize. At work it can be being asked to some particular meeting or social event and so forth.

But we never seem to get to the final ring. We always feel we are on the outside trying to get in. And thus many of us always feel like the pitiful urchin in the cold peering into the homes of the happy and fat, burning with jealousy for those who have what you want. Honestly, how many of us wished that we were taken more seriously at work or while in school wanted to be one of the (oh help me for using this spectacularly awful phrase) “cool kids?”

And I say that all of it, all of the striving deeper and deeper into the inner rings, is pointless.

I mean this in the literal sense: it has no point. Of course we can gain power and influence for some greater end, but that usually isn't the reason why try to ingratiate ourselves by those we perceive as our betters. We want to be well thought of and admired by those whom we admire. But why? Seeking admiration for its own sake is what has led to our celebrity-crazed, facebook-tell-all culture. We seek to be famous, even if we are infamous, because we think it will generate some kind of affection or attention.

I remember years ago I spoke to a girl in high school who wore a Playboy bunny necklace. When I asked her about it, she said that her life's goal was to be a Playboy playmate. She wanted to be desired and to have the men of the world burn with lust for her. She wanted to be in the inner ring of those whose bodies would cause men to lose control of their wills and their morals. Very little I said could convince her otherwise. And before anyone condemns her too harshly, how many of us airbrush our idiosyncratic personalities in order to be appealing to our bosses, colleagues, and those in our inner ring?

The reason why I said it was pointless is that ultimately a ring is something with no center. It is empty. If your experience of society is climbing the social ladder then you missed the point of being social. The main point of engaging in others socially is friendship.

Friendship is one of the greatest pleasures in all the world. It is not simple affection, because we can feel that for anyone, even total strangers. It is not romantic love, because so much of that depends on the passions, which come and go like the seasons. Friendship is more solid than that. It is more real. What are we seeking when socializing with others if not friendship? If we are seeking to move further into the inner ring, then the people we meet are means and not ends in themselves. Our friends are our friends for no other reason than that they are.

Here are a few reasons why friendship is so important:

  1. Friendship is a choice. You cannot choose your family; Providence has done this for you. These are people you will hopefully love and be loved by no matter what because of the fact of your blood. Marriage is a bond forged in a vow, and vows by definition are unbreakable (although the courts are curiously filled by those who do not believe so). But with friends, the bond you hold is only by the constant and persistent choice. Like our grip on the Monkey Bars, once we attach we only stay that way as long as our will and our strength hold out. Every person who is a friend in your life has chosen you freely. And you have chosen them. 

    Yes, circumstances may push you together, but you are the ones who choose to stay together. This means that not only do you acknowledge the value of this person simply for who they are, but they do the same for you

  2. Friendship crosses space. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is hardly true for most long distant relationships. Most of them don't last. Romantic love needs the other with them. The person is desired bodily. This is not a bad thing since the ultimate goal is the sharing of bodily intimacy in marriage. But friendship is less about the body, but more about the mind. Lewis said that you make the bond of friendship when you and another see the same truth. 

     One of my best friendships started after I did a show and tell piece for my junior high class (please do not ask me why were were doing show and tell in junior high) about my comic book collection. After feeling and sounding like a total geek, one of my classmates came to me and talked to me about his copy of Wolverine issue #25, which I had not read. It was a moment when I realized that I was not alone in how I saw the world. Someone else occupied the same mental space. And since our minds and thoughts our immaterial, we can share that mental space across large distances through letters, email, texts, phone calls, assassinating each other in Halo Reach on XBOX live, etc. Distance only matters if you let it cut off your thoughts from your friends.

  3. Friendship defines you. There is so much of who I am as a man that is from my parents. But there is much that is not. I am a devout Catholic. My parents are practicing and were sure to get me through Catholic School and Sunday Masses. But in all those in between times, I found myself curiously surrounded by men and women of faith my own age. My friends treated women with respect and honor, even when they fought with their girlfriends. My friends avoided the drug scene (either out of principle or because we never got invited to the "cool parties"). My friends would look me in the eye and tell me when I was being a selfish jerk and I needed to hear it. 

    Friends should be that thorn in your flesh that prevents you from being too elated at your own seeming magnificence. It's hard to have vanity when your friends remember that your 11th birthday party was at the Ice Capades starring Barbie (junior high, as you can tell was not the highlight reel of my youth). And my friends opened up my eyes to faith. Don't get me wrong, none of us were saints. We have a long history of horrid missteps, one involving cops knocking on the door a birthday party letting us know that they were chasing down a number of the attendants through the woods at midnight for robbing a construction site (again, don't ask).

     Friendships, as Lewis said, not only are places to strengthen virtues but it can be a place to cultivate vices. And how many of us wink at the “small” sins of our fellowship because, “oh, that's just how So-and-So is.” But who we are, for good or ill, is defined by our friends. One of my best friends once said to me “I've grown up with you and because of you.” I don't think I can put it better.

Pushing further and further into the inner ring is pointless. Because even if you stand in the most central of circles, you are always looking into that empty center. But a circle of friends is not looking at the empty center. Friends are looking at each other. And seeing each other, they enjoy each other.

I wrote an article for my high school year book where I said “I love my friends very much, and I hope that our friendship will stand the test of time.” I stand by that to this day. My best friends from high school and earlier are still my best friends today.  I would not be writing this blog if not for the encouragement of my friends. In fact if there is any virtue in me, I would not have an ounce of it if not for my friends, especially my wife who is my best friend. To this day they support, challenge, and love me. And I them. I can say without hyperbole, that I would not trade any of them for all of the riches of the earth. Because without them I would be truly poor and empty.

I think this is why Christ made clear on the night He was betrayed that those seated with Him were His friends. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 5:15) 

 He then says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”(5:16) Jesus made the choice to come to each one of us and offer His friendship. By our creation, He is Our God and is due our adoration. But He also asks our friendship. 

 And though He ascends to the Father, He is with us always. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, so am I there in their midst.” (Matt 18:20) This is not mere sentiment, but an metaphysical reality Our minds and our souls mingle with the Master when we call upon Him in prayer. Space is no barrier to the One Who fills eternity.

 And He, more than any friend, should define who we are. Paul said it best when he wrote “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) Christ shaped so much of Paul that “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:19)

Christ wants us to follow Him not just as a disciple but as a friend. The road upwards through the Church toward the communion of saints is not a incursion into the ultimate inner ring.

It is an invitation to be part of the Fellowship of the King.

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