What's Tony Thinking

Some Thoughts on Friendship in the Harried Age


I’m just back from spending the better part of a week with a group of friends from across the country. We’ve been meeting annually, in some iteration, for nearly thirty years. We are all clergy, people who share what has been called “this odd and wondrous calling.”  We get each other in ways that only those who have been ministers can.

We meet in different places both to share the travel burden, but also because it’s fun. This year we were high in the Colorado, Rockies at the little town of Allenspark, a neighbor to the more well-known Estes Park. At 8,600 hundred feet the air was a bit thin, but the fall light and colors spectacular. Here’s a photo taken on a hike on Wednesday. The temperature during the hike was a pleasant 70.

That night the temperature dropped to 7, and by morning the season’s first snow had transformed everything. With the snow the quiet of the high county became even deeper. Here’s a scene of the snow on Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after my earlier photo of aspens by a small lake. A reminder that conditions can and do change rapidly at high elevations.

It is a kind of miracle to have friendships that not only endure over time but deepen — as ours have. During our time together we take turns cooking for each other, which stirs just enough competitive juices for wonderful dinners. In the mornings, we also take turns — 20 minutes each — (more if needed) to “share,” updating one another on our lives, interests, troubles and triumphs. Mixed in among the morning sharing this year, were compelling articles. Each of us had picked one.

Last year we each brought several poems. Some years we read and discuss a book. Our days begin with a service of morning prayer and closes with evening prayer. In the afternoons we hike, nap or both. So it’s a bit like a monastery, with a fair bit of wine, Scotch and frivolity.

Friendship is increasingly a challenge for many today. Here is an excellent article from the Atlantic on that topic. In “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” Judith Shulevitz points out that work is crowding out everything else, both at the level of hourly wage workers and among salaried professionals.

The gimmick among employers of hourly workers is the unpredictable schedule, being called to work when you thought you were off, finding yourself off when you thought you were on, and having a totally different schedule week by week. I guess this works for employers but its a disaster for families and other social connections. Seattle recently passed legislation to prevent this sort of thing.

At the other end, the salaried professional is often expected to put in way more hours than 40 and is never, thanks to technology, really “off” work. Shulevitz thinks we’ve lost something as we have given up more or less common schedules, weekends off, Sunday as a non-productive day.

Here’s Shulevitz:

“I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity, and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.”

She describes a movement called “Opt Out,”

“The ‘opt out’ movement . . . call(s) for people to reject the cult of busyness, in part by rejecting the notion that, as Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing, our every minute should be ‘captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.’ But it’s one thing to delete Instagram from your phone so you can be more present for your wife and kids. It’s another to decide unilaterally that your boss’s emails can wait until morning.”

Rejecting the cult of “busyness,” takes us back to my group last week. One of our number refuses to use the word “busy” or its cognates. She calls it an idolatry. I think that’s right. One sign of its power is how many retired people say of their lives, “busier than ever,” as if to assure themselves of continuing worth.

In some ways, getting older may make friendship more challenging. You don’t meet folks standing around at the soccer field or in the PTSA or going out for a beer after work. But if Shulevitz is right, and I think she is, we elders do have at least one of the things needed for friendship to flourish — time.

I thank God for several groups of friends that have endured through time, and which like this one prioritize time together on a periodic basis. I doubt that I would have made this experience a priority without the support and accountability that comes with such a group.


Categories: Uncategorized