Monday, 7 June 2010

The Death of Friendship

UPDATE: Thanks to Frank, who sent in this interesting NYT piece about Eve Tushnet.

What do you call your same-sex, not-related-to-you, not-married-to-you, but liked-by-you housemate?

If you're like most men and women, you call him or her your FRIEND.

"Oh, no, we're just friends," satisfies a hundred nosy enquiries.

I mention this today because there was a major scandal in a Catholic diocese in Canada over a fellow with SSA who simultaneously called his same-sex housemate his "partner" while also claiming to be following Catholic teaching about sexuality. (I would not have cared less, but he went on to drag a whole lot of people, including his bishop, before a tribunal into the bargain.) And having written extensively about the case, I really don't want to be having this conversation again. But someone sent me an interesting article about men and friendship, and the whole issue of friend vs. partner came roaring back to mind.

On the one hand, I think it is lousy when people gossip about same-sex housemates and say "Oh, they must be a gay couple, tee hee hee." On the other hand, if you go around calling your same-sex housemate your "partner", your hearers are going to think there's something more than friendship, even deep SS. Cyril-and-Methodius, womb-to-tomb friendship, going on.

Practising Catholics don't have "partners." We have husbands, wives, and friends. We also have relatives, mentors, teachers, employees, employers, doctors, clients, students, proteges, neighbours, flatmates, colleagues, priests, bishops, parishioners and business partners. Some of us have rulers, and some of us have subjects. All of us had parents, and some of us have children. We have co-religionists, and we have co-nationals.

We have an awful lot of relationships, and very few of them are sexual. Sadly, sexual relationships get the lion's share of people's attention. This cheapens all relationships immeasureably. Is there anything more disgusting than someone sniggering over the loving relationship between an uncle and niece, or someone making crude remarks about a boy who is fond of his sister? And isn't it horribly limiting that great and famous friendships, like that between Cardinal Newman and Fr. Ambrose St. John, get read by strangers with axes to grind as long-term erotic affairs? I certainly think so.

The interesting article I've linked to above starts with the feudal relationship between Frodo and Sam, and I too was enraged when teenage boys sniggered their misunderstandings in the darkness of the cinema we shared. On the one hand, education is such that few contemporary teenagers can get their minds around the idea that once upon a time a man might have acknowledged another man as his lord, and that the lord would have felt a paternal responsibility for his servant. But on the other hand, how stupid and how tooth-grindingly disrespectful for the stupider members of Tolkien's audience to read Frodo and Sam--in their terrible danger--as characters out of Brokeback Mountain.

A friend is not a partner, but friendship is a many-splendoured thing. Friendship is often something great and noble, and many a woman has cried and felt brokenhearted over the death of (or betrayal by) a female friend. I imagine men are the same way, although these days, of course, they would be in great danger of having their platonic love misunderstood by both fans and opponents of the gay revolution. Perhaps women will be fitted for this beloved friend=partner straitjacket, too, one day, but I darn well hope not.

Love your friends boldly, and call them your friends. Friendship is glorious enough without you needing to aggrandize your friend, even your best friend, by calling him or her your "partner." Like it or not, that word no longer means what it did. And neither traditional Catholics nor other traditional Christians are to blame for that.

Update: Read the whole article, seriously. Then the fact that I flee the dinner table when the port goes around might make a little more sense. It's not just that I need a break; it's that the men deserve a chance just to be men friends together. And, man, do I miss my girlfriends back home right now.


Annie said...

Oh Seraphic, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! This is an issue that has been on my heart a lot lately due to my relationship with my best friend and how she and I have without doubt been mistaken as a couple. We laugh about it, but deep down it worries me for people lacking the strength of faith that she and I have. If people continue to view two women who have deep affection and admiration each other as inherently lovers, because it is already happening to us even though it is true that men more often suffer from such things, what is to keep their minds from wondering whether they really ought to be lovers. This phenomenon is sad, and threatens both friendship and marriage.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thanks for the link. That was a very good article.

I hate the way certain words, such as "gay" and now "partner" have been co-opted by certain groups in such a way that they can never be innocently used with their original meanings.

When my daughter, who is an affectionate person, was in her late teens, we would frequently walk with our arms around each others waists as girls in 19th century novels used to. At the time it briefly occurred to me that other people might be putting a different construction on our mother-daughter affection. But I decided to ignore the possibility. A mother & daughter nowadays might not be able to.

bolyongok said...

Auntie Seraphic, I hate to say it, but we women have already been hit with the deep relationship=sex stick as it were. Like Annie, I'm pretty sure that people have mistaken me and my close friends for lesbians. Through no fault of our own. It's just the way things are getting. The sort of collective mind of society is getting closer and closer to the gutter. What can we do? I'm out of ideas. I have long been of the school of thought that dirty minds can think what they like but it's getting ridiculous when I feel self-conscious about my mom hugging me in public. Living with a man you weren't related to used to be auto-scandal. Now it seems like living with anyone at all is getting to be that way. So what are we supposed to do? All rent single occupancy rooms unless we're married?
Sorry, I'm a bit inarticulate today...

Seraphic said...

This is how you deal: you ignore the dirty minds. You just ignore them. You hug your female friends (and mother) in public, you dance with them, you move in with them (if need be), you share your bed if they need a bed. (Although I've discovered three adult women in a bed is a very crowded proposition, especially if one kicks.) You walk arm-in-arm (hand-in-hand, alas, is probably imprudent) whenever you like. And if anybody ever asks about it, you demand, indignantly, "What are you talking about?" And if anyone makes rude remarks at you, you either ignore him or wheel on him saying, "How dare you!"

theobromophile said...

Wonderful post, Auntie!

May I also add that a part of the value of friendships with women, in which you share an apartment, walk arm-in-arm, hug each other, and fuss over each other is that you don't run around looking for that from men? If you come home to an empty apartment, don't get touched except by boyfriends, and don't have anyone making you meals or letting you cry on your shoulder except for boyfriends, and you need that in your life, you're going to date any schmuck that comes along, just to have someone in your apartment and hugging you and caring for you.

There are a lot of things that a husband or a boyfriend can do for a woman that other women just can't, but there are roles shared by both, and it's just foolish to exclude women from those things.

FrB said...

St Aelred's work On Spiritual Friendship is well worth a read.