One View of Friendship

“Distinctions drawn by the mind are not necessarily equivalent to distinctions in reality.”
–Thomas Aquinas

I have always been a stickler for precise terminology. (I took the Strengths Finder assessment last night and “stickler” wasn’t a possibility. If it had been, it’s safe to say that would have been at least three of my top five.) Being able to make subtle distinctions can be an important tool for arriving at new insights. Just ask Isaac Newton …or Todd Akin.
One such distinction I have been forced to make recently has been between people I describe as my friends — of whom there are only few — and those I enjoy and get along with but haven’t laid claim to that status. People invariably feel slighted by that distinction, but I am not alone in making it. CS Lewis, in describing the difference between companions and friends, said,

Companionship … is often called Friendship, and many people when they speak of their “friends” mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense I give to the word. By saying this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubbable relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.

With that in mind, here are the ways I segment and section “friends.”

Weak ties I don’t like the word “acquaintances,” but this is basically what is meant by the expression. You know that guy who’s your Facebook friend but, to quote Shawn Spencer, you would actively avoid on the street? That is a weak tie. In his excellent essay, Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell explains, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties…. (They are)a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.” In short, a weak tie is someone you know — and may even like — but do not actively try to involve in your life with any sort of regularity.

Companions These are the people with whom you share common interests and values and make an effort to incorporate into your life. CS Lewis described companionship as the matrix of friendship, that thing which is distinct from friendship but necessary for it to exist. Most of your voluntary interactions are with people in this category. You can have deep affection for some people, share secrets with them, trust them and serve them. And yet they will never spring readily to mind when someone says, “Hey, what five people do you most want to spend your birthday with?” Does that give you an intuitive understanding of this distinction?
Now, think of the right half of a Bell curve. Oh, you don’t want to? Let me just show you, then:

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If the blue represents weak ties, the red companions, then the orange is for friends. (Ignore the percentages.)

Friends Friendship is rightly described by Lewis as its own unique, wholly unnatural, form of love. Whereas the other loves have some merit or survival value on their own, friendship does not. Some argue that friendship is just a transformation of another form of love. Lewis has a ready reply: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
A lot can be said on the distinction between companions and friends, but I don’t want to belabor the point or introduce some crude measure. My goal was to make a distinction. But if my hand was forced, I would say it is companionship combined with an overlap, the unspoken agreement that I understand you and you understand me in a way that most everyone else does not and cannot. Most of my friendships have had a singular moment where the transformation from mere companions to friends was made. I would encourage you to think on yours and see if you can identify similar moments. Were they awakenings of that form, or something else entirely?

(Note: I call this a prerequisite because a lot of the things I plan to touch on — dating, whether men and women can really be friends — rely on these distinctions.)

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A Concert for One

Today would have been my grandma’s 90th birthday. She died four and a half years ago. I miss her very much, and I wish I would have learned more from her when I had the chance. This is a Facebook note I wrote just after she died, describing the last time I saw her.

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I don’t know why I focused so hard on the thermometer, a big white one that looks like your garden-variety classroom clock. The temperature was sixty degrees, and it seemed to stay that way for an hour and a half. It was probably the most prominent item within my field of vision, since I couldn’t bear to look at my grandma except with fleeting glances, each of which would throw me into a frenzy of concern. Is she still breathing? Her chest was so still as she flirted with death, but each new breath eventually came, rhythmic as any metronome.

My mom had called me yesterday to tell me that she expects my grandmother will be dead by the end of the week. I hadn’t answered that phone call, but instead heard the steady, self-medicated voice break way into sobs in the form of a voice mail. She told me that I should visit her as soon as I could, since it would probably be my last chance.

But what do you talk about with someone who barely knows you’re in the room? She was eating breakfast when I arrived, and though I touched her on the hand and she looked up at me, she looked away and forgot I was there. She was feeding herself, spilling sloppy bits of oatmeal onto her blouse as I looked on like I was on novocaine. It is difficult to converse with one afflicted with dementia, and so I decided to try something else. I brought my guitar with me, set up a chair in front of her, and played for her every calm and soothing song I could think of as I stared at the thermometer out the window.

I played every song I could think of: “Naked as We Came,” “Hallelujah,” “If I Stand….” Even if the song dealt with death. When I finished singing my last chorus — I will hang my head, hang my head low… — she looked at me through the grayness in her eyes and told me, “I’m glad I could live long enough to hear you play again.”

Strained Metaphors and Some Preliminary Thoughts

“There is no fear in chasing; there is fear in being chased.”
— Jack Nicklaus

I spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, and relationships of all kinds. What is it about a person that makes them your friend, as opposed to just someone you know? Can you identify precise moments in time when you became friends with certain people? Is it significant when you can, or when you cannot? I learned tonight that a great way to learn about people is to ask them about break-up lines. Turns out, they seem to draw from experience and tell you all about those experiences. (To be clear, this was a happy accident: I was trying to figure out if the line I’ve heard three times myself just happened to be printed in Cosmo’s breakup guide or something. Conversation flowed naturally from the question.)
I even saw my math major as being predominantly about the study of relationships. In that vein, I have come to the conclusion that you can get a great handle on dating by understanding three things: chess, poker, and ballroom dancing.
I plan to write a bit more on my philosophies on dating and friendships over the next couple of weeks. I have very strong opinions on these matters, so brace yourselves. Your homework is to play a game of chess, a round of poker, and dance the waltz with a reluctant partner. Okay… Go!

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By the way, I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers go to great lengths to point out that they are not experts on something. This is a fine thing to do, but I think many of them just do it to diffuse disagreement. I don’t want that. I want to present you with my ideas, and I want to hear about it if you think they are wrong, misinformed, or just plain stupid. That is the refining process of thought.

Love and some verses

“I found the dark honey I’d known in the woods (on your lips).”
— Pablo Neruda

Tonight, I’ve been going through old notebooks. This is something I do from time to time: exploring old heartspaces, seeing how well I recognize myself. (I wonder if it is like visiting a house you lived in but moved from long ago. That’s right, there was a loose board there where I could hide my secret things. Or whatever. I didn’t move around as a kid.) I’ve been finding letters I wrote but never sent — do you ever do that? If it’s a lyric to a Goo Goo Dolls song, it can’t be all that uncommon. My favorite line so far: “The way I miss you changes, like how sometimes you might want to remind your tongue what strawberries taste like.” Did she know I had an aversion to strawberries when I wrote that?

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In addition to that gem, I found another: the outline of my philosophy (theory?) about how to create attraction in someone you’ve just met. Considering I criticized men for using spy tactics to get closer to women, it’s only fair to elaborate on what I think is a good way to do so. Here it is:

Break the ice. Introduce yourself into her consciousness in a way that makes her want to keep talking to you.

Communicate your value. Communicate — through your words and your nonverbals — the things that make you interesting, compelling and attractive. (Does it matter that interesting and compelling are synonyms?)

Let her prove hers. If she never offers you a reason to find her interesting and attractive, you are basing your interest on superficial things alone. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, I think women get suspicious of interest without basis, but feel secure in interest they believe they’ve earned. So let them earn it!

Bridge to an activity. A phone number is just a string of numerals if you don’t have a valid reason to use it. Find an activity you both find exciting, and plan to do that together. Then a phone number becomes incidental, a piece of logistics rather than an end unto itself.

Though I stand by this, it feels an awful lot like an online guide to navigating job interviews. At best, it’s a mental checklist for the things you should naturally cover when you meet someone new and want to see them again; at worst, it oversimplifies things to such a degree that it might make interactions mechanical. (Besides, what woman wants to find out she was won by a formula? Every other woman may be the same, but she is a beautiful and unique snowflake. Make that step five.) Take it for what it is: a set of guidelines, not a recipe.

Catherina von Flensburg and the humility of giants

“As long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
— CS Lewis

In 1786, a Danish ship called the Catherina von Flensburg departed from St. Petersburg bound for the Italian port city of Genoa. It never finished its journey, instead sinking near Plymouth off the coast of England. (For those of you historically-sensitive types, the entire crew survived. You can breathe easy.) (Okay, that was entirely for my own benefit.) Its cargo holds were filled with reindeer leather which, through sheer nautical happenstance, was covered in mud and survived the 200-year submersion in salt water. When the wrack was discovered in the 1970s, the hides were sold to various craftsmen and today you can buy shoes, wallets, and belts made from 18th century Russian reindeer leather.

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I can’t fathom spending $5000 on a pair of shoes — I step in mud far too often — but if I were to do so, this would be the kind I would buy. They tell such an interesting story. I can think back to the hunters who pursued reindeer through the frigid tundra of Russia armed with spears and beards thick enough to make any hipster’s knees knock through his skinny jeans. I can think just as easily to the tanners whose techniques have been lost to history, another victim of the Bolshevik revolution. Or even the Italian artisans who never got their pelts: what purposes did they have in mind for them? The Divine Comedy bound in that leather? Were they making shoes of their own?

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When he speaks publicly, the great chef Thomas Keller likes to talk about the continuum that travels from the farmer, to the market, to the chef, to the diner. If he is serving a wine of a much older vintage, could it be that the feet that stomped the grapes have since stopped roaming this earth? To encounter Thomas Keller is to encounter his lamber Keith Martin, a man who gave up a career as a stock broker to become a farmer. (“The first time I walked into Edgar Miller’s barn,” Miller says, “it didn’t smell bad to me. It smelled good. Something locked into me and I knew I was in the right place.”) It is to encounter his mentor, Roland Henin. (Says Keller, “There was Zeus, and there was Roland, god of cooking.”) It is to see his brilliance in its proper context: a link in a chain, one step in a ceaselessly stumbling on.

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Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” Since we can see even further than Newton, isn’t this all the more reason to be humble? We are where we are because we are lucky enough to have been hoisted up here: The best thing we can hope for is to one day lift someone else so they can see further than we ever did. To that end, this is my prayer tonight, the same as the Apostle Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies-in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Who are you, O man?

“The heart knows the immensity it wants to achieve, but it is limited.”
― Nadia Scrieva

Once upon a time, I was foolish enough to complain to willing ears that I was too talented: I felt my gifts were so abundant it was hurting my prospects. I can’t even blame this insolence on the shortsighted sincerity of youth. But I cannot make my own dreams come true, much less make a tree. Where was I when You laid the foundation of the earth? I was less than an apparition orbiting a speck of dust.

And yet I was infinitely more, since I was held in Your mind. I cannot begin to will myself to obey and You still knew me before the creation of the world. You uphold Your glory by abasing the proud. Who am I? But one of a trillion trillion grains of sand propping up a mountain that pales next to Your majesty.

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A long-winded axe to grind

“What we believe to be the motives of our conduct are usually but the pretexts for it.”
— Miguel de Unamuno

In 2011, Aaron Rodgers was the best quarterback in football. Through eleven weeks — leading into their matchup with the New York Giants — Rodgers had thrown 33 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His lowest passer rating to that point was 111.4. These are video game numbers. He was, to put it simply, playing on a different level than everyone else. But in that game against the Giants, he threw an ugly interception right into the arms of Chase Blackburn — a player who wasn’t even on an NFL roster the week before.

Understanding how Rodgers could make such a poor throw helps illuminate what a great quarterback he actually is. The Giants were playing a defense familiar to football fans as the Tampa 2. Without going into too much detail, this means that the two safeties are responsible to cover deep halves of the field, and it’s the job of the middle linebacker (Blackburn) to get as deep as possible to help cover the space between them. Blackburn failed to do this, and as a result got an easy turnover.

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When we face a familiar sequence, we store it in our memories as a single unit. This is a phenomenon known as “chunking,” and it’s why you can remember your Facebook password or phone number without really thinking about it. This is also why experienced dancers can acquire new choreography so quickly, why chess masters can memorize a game in progress but not randomly placed pieces, and it’s also why Aaron Rodgers couldn’t see Chase Blackburn until the football was in his arms. Rodgers’ understanding of football is so advanced, he doesn’t see twenty one other men on the field with him. He sees three or four discrete units, and understands without conscious analysis where everyone will be after the snap of the ball. The vast majority of the time, this enables Rodgers to play his position at a level as high or higher than anyone else in the NFL.

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The interesting thing to me now is understanding how this applies to dating.

We make a series of snap judgments about the people we meet and interact with using this process in concert with a part of our minds known as the adaptive unconscious. We don’t have enough time to evaluate everyone we meet in depth and detail, so our brain has simplified this process. Ever gotten the feeling you couldn’t trust someone you just met? That’s your adaptive unconscious at work. (That or they have a Snidely Whiplash mustache, in which case they’re bringing it on themselves.)

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Knowing all of this, let’s turn our attention to the man who tries to gain the confidence of a woman while nurturing surreptitious romantic feelings. (This is the sort of man who finds himself consistently entrenched in the friendzone.) Never mind the fact that women prefer a man who has the confidence to be direct. Women — maybe without even realizing it — have a very finely-tuned ability to detect authenticity. This is one of their gender’s many chunking advantages. I’m not saying they can see right through the lie of omission; rather, this perception will make the man seem inauthentic. More often than not, that is a bad thing. On top of all that, when those feelings do come out in the long run, they end up seeming either cowardly or devious. Which of those sound appealing to you?

Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying men should just announce their affections to a woman as soon as they realize they have them. (I plan to write more on that later.) Rather, I am saying we shouldn’t pretend we don’t have them. It is possible to be both sly and honest. and anyway, the real key to beating Aaron Rodgers isn’t lucking out by doing the wrong thing, but by doing things exactly the way you are supposed to do them.

Hmm. That feels kinda strained, too. Good thing the real tie-in was chunking and not that silly metaphor.

Running for Hope (and their many bearded interns)

“I love running. I’m not into marathons, but I am into avoiding problems at an accelerated rate.
”
— Jarod Kintz

Running is one of those things that you can never understand from the outside looking in, and in that way it’s one of the best metaphors for Christianity you could hope to find. People look at you and see all of the changes — your improved health, endurance, & physique, a more upbeat persona, and a vague musty odor — and they still ask why you do it. And they make excuses for why they’re still not ready to try it themselves. You need a great pair of running shoes to follow Jesus.
I may be straining my metaphor.
Hope Community Church will be hosting a 5k on May 11th to support their LDI interns. LDI is Hope’s leadership development program. As I understand it, Hope wouldn’t really function without their interns. If you can imagine a circus without carnies, that’s Hope without its LDI interns. And the interns have better facial hair.

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I want you to consider doing one of two things as a result of reading this.
1) If you are a runner, sign up for the 5k!
2) If you are not a runner — or just can’t make it to Minneapolis that day — then prayerfully consider sponsoring me as part of your giving.

I am asking for pledges based on my run time: $5 if I finish in less than a half an hour, $10 for less than 25 minutes, $15 for less than 22:30, and $25 if I finish under twenty minutes. (For the record, I ran a sub-30 5k on a sprained knee, and my current personal best is 23:37.) Not only will you be providing financial support for an important ministry, you’ll be helping to keep me focused and motivated on improving my skill as a runner.
On top of all of that, I will be putting together gift bags for everyone who sponsors me featuring contributions from local artists and artisans. (The specific entries are still being ironed out, but three contributors have already agreed to participate and I hope to get a few more as well.)
At the very least, think and pray about it. There are many worthy places to put your money, but here is another one. And this one carries the distinct possibility of cupcakes. Just sayin’.

Update: as we get closer to the race, I will provide details about how to donate. Until then, just let me know if you plan to sponsor me so I can get all of the logistics sorted out. Thanks again!

Fight Club and the gospel of prosperity

“When you make the kind of movies I make, you get weird letters from people.”
— David Fincher

Fight Club has long been one of my favorite movies. It combined great acting, stylistic filmmaking, and a stellar script. It took years for me to realize how close it comes to the Christian message — if you leave God out of the picture and leave men looking elsewhere for their salvation. On the one hand, it’s about how we are clawing, longing, desperate for something more than what this world has to offer. On the other, it’s about how let down we are to not have attained the success we believe we deserve. Tyler Durden says, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Could you have put it better?

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Christians believe — and I think correctly, otherwise I couldn’t call myself a Christian — that we have the answers to both of these problems. For the former, we find an apt summary from CS Lewis: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” (Sunday School gives us the correct answer as well: Jesus.) To the latter, we know — at least philosophically — that the greatest purpose we can find in life is not to exalt ourselves as stars but to humble ourselves as servants. Here again, Christ is the answer and example: let us stoop over and wash each other’s feet. As His rock Peter instructs us, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another!”

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But even if we understand that, we have a temptation to believe a false gospel: that faith in Christ entitles us to financial security, safety & longevity, and relational success. But this just isn’t true. We may be seeing the story from our own points of view, but we must not forget we are minor players in a much greater production.

I was oblivious to just how much I think this way until last Sunday, when Pastor Steve preached on Jacob and Esau and pointed out how all the nations of Israel were born into heartache and despair. Genesis 29:31-32 says, “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.'” What’s important to note here is that Leah never gets the love she sought from Isaac. Even when it appears our prayers are being answered, when it seems our desires are about to be fulfilled, even when we can clearly see God moving, we cannot know what purposes and plots the Author of Life has in mind.

This should not be a discouraging notion. Rather, it should serve to remind us that God is still in control, that He still plans to prosper us, and like Leah we will not be forgotten. Knowing that, how much more easily can we abandon our dreams of fame and joyously throw ourselves into working for His?

The truth about the friendzone

“First find the man in yourself if you will inspire manliness in others.”
— Amos Bronson Alcott

This post will be closer to a rant. I hear men talking about the so-called “friendzone” way too much. It came up on the 93X morning show today. On the verge of pursuing a new paramour, men advise each other, “Careful not to get friendzoned!” Elaborate conversations take place where men try to figure out if it’s even theoretically possible to escape this Venusian Alcatraz.

When men talk about being friendzoned, they mean one of two things. The first is that the woman refuses to act on her romantic feelings because she doesn’t want to lose their friendship. I have seen this in movies and in television, but in the dozens (hundreds?) of conversations I have had with people in relationships, hoping for relationships, getting out of relationships, I have never encountered this scenario. I’ll allow for the possibility that it happens, but I think it’s relatively rare. (And ladies, if you ever actually feel that way, I have a rude awakening for you: you are going to lose that friendship out of your desire to preserve it.)

No, what men really mean when they say they’ve been friendzoned is that they failed to generate a spark of attraction in the woman they desired. Rather than owning up to this fact, they push blame onto that woman. Perhaps this is so they won’t have to address their shortcomings. Perhaps it’s too difficult to turn a critical eye on ourselves and ask, “What could I have done differently?” I’m not sure. But I do know there is nothing attractive about petulance. And there is nothing sexy about blaming someone else for your inability to turn your desires into reality.

Maybe this trend is part of the greater one where men act less and less manly. I think a big part of manliness is owning up to the things you could have done better. This may be easier said than done, but haven’t you gotten tired of making excuses for yourself yet?