He preceded Nathan Hale by almost two millennia, and his cry was almost the same, but far different. He was a Jewish sage who lived around the first century B.C. According to one story of his death, he fell into a coma that lasted 70 years, and when he awoke, nobody knew who he was and all his friends were long dead. His solitude was too much, and he said to God, “Give me friends or give me death!”
His name was Honi ha-M’agel [Honi the circle drawer] and he died shortly thereafter. One may question how long he was asleep, but the import is the same. Friends! People who share our confidences, our experiences and our beliefs are usually our friends, and the ingredient that binds this all together is a sense of humour.
Socially, something has gone missing in the past few years, or even the past decade. People just aren’t connecting in the usual way. Maybe it’s the growth of suburban living, where meeting people can take more of an effort than just running into them on the way to the bus stop or at the drugstore. Maybe it’s deeper than that.
Maybe it’s the decline of religion, of deeply shared beliefs.
Showdowns between what a secular state is supposed to be and what its citizens are supposed to believe are always cropping up in the news. In the U.S., it’s about whether some institution or another is allowed to have a certain display or organize a certain event if there’s federal funding involved.
The merits of each case may be up for debate, but the result is that religion and its core beliefs are under siege. Religion is looked at as an anachronism, at least in the mass media. Churches, especially in Quebec, Canada, are museum pieces that can’t be sustained by their dwindling congregations.
Synagogues seem to be holding their own, but the size of the Jewish population is nowhere near the Christian one. Other faiths are constructing houses of worship, but again, they’re nowhere close to the majority.
In its place? In Quebec, where this writer lives, many say it’s secularism of the state, with some talking about banning any display of religion. Aside from the matter of impinging on individual rights in all sorts of ways, this trend denies us a familiar way of meeting. But what has taken its place?
Limited places to find friends
Most people find friends or mates at work or school. University works in that regard. There are societies, team sports and leagues that encourage bonds to form, and these can be healthy bonds, as well.
The emphasis is on the single worker who goes from contract to contract. He or she has no steady workmates, no one to share a triumph, a grievance or a thought with.
But what about work? The gig economy is encroaching more and more. From the low-level, hand-to-mouth wage-chasing of the Uber driver, to people offering graphic design or any supporting role to a major business, the emphasis is on the single worker who goes from contract to contract. He or she has no steady workmates, no one to share a triumph, a grievance or a thought with. Or even a coffee.
We all buy more and more items online. Things we thought couldn’t possibly be purchased in any way but in person can be obtained with a few (sometimes quite a few) clicks of the mouse. Returning them for any reason is easy, maybe even expected. And that casual interaction with the sales staff is gone. That doesn’t (and never did) count as making a friend, but it counted for something, and it broke up the solitude of our existence.
Facebook friends have been dismissed long ago. We don’t know each other, except for birthdays and whatever else we put on our bio page. Chances are, we’ll never share a coffee or a chat or a real corner of the physical universe. In fact, we might even regret a real meeting. I saw a statistic once, which I sadly have never been able to trace, that one in 300 of our Facebook friends is probably a criminal.
What about people from the gym, or Yoga class, or a running group? How close do we get to each other? How many share confidences, a glimpse of some dark secret (assuming that we have one or two)? How many would help us when we need it? Would they take our side in an argument?
Would they give us shelter in those dark times that have visited the world in so many instances? There are places that promise just that—some honourable institutions, others less so.
Some join the military, an institution that counts comradeship as one of its core, even essential beliefs. Nobody would march into battle if they couldn’t count on their friends to be there with them, sharing the danger, maybe even the thrill. They know that a friend is there at their side, come what may.
Then there are other, more malevolent organizations that a lonely, often troubled person can go to in order to find company. There are the gangs, made up of those who swear a blood oath never to betray a fellow gang member. Those who follow a twisted branch of religion also offer their benighted loyalty to their God, along with their comrades-in-arms.
Often, these souls have no tight family or friends. Some may have those, but simply feel an emptiness in their soul, and search out a cause that needs them while offering a spiritual home and comradeship in return.
These days, with ISIS in the news every so often, the returnees are interviewed on the radio and television from time to time, and that feature always comes up. They found something they believed in, a cause greater than themselves. Although one has to wonder how they could’ve been blind to the true nature of these outfits, the call of loyalty and brotherhood can be powerful indeed.
Going online for companionship
Most of us find a friend or a lifetime mate and get married. But some don’t. Whether because of poor luck, a lack of opportunity or any of life`s random walks, they wander into their late twenties and beyond alone. So where do they gravitate?
Some go online for companionship of a sort. Some males, who seem to have given up hope of finding a normal girl, share virtual solace in this grotesque group called the Incels, or involuntary celibate. There was a time when they would just go bowling, or join a church-sponsored activity. Maybe somebody would suggest a blind date. But that’s gone.
We’ve gotten used to finding shared interests in the cyberworld, where we can present one facet of our personality, often one that’s abhorrent in real, face-to-face life. These particular people dream of committing mayhem.
What is a true friend?
What is true friendship, anyway? I believe it’s a relation that can withstand months, even years of separation, and still be as vitalizing and invigorating as if the two had never parted.
It’s two people who can handle each other’s faults and relegate them to a sideshow. The core of each person is rock-solid and provides shelter and warmth to the other. And especially, it’s not so much about consoling a person after the fact, but about sharing the burden, helping him or her contend with life when needed.
For a shining example of what a friend does, I’ll go back to my late father, who was a better man than I am in many ways.
My father was a child of the Depression, who never made a lot of money in his life. He wasn’t especially devout, considering he was a member of the Young Communist party in the early 1930s. But he did attend synagogue, partly because it was a part of his upbringing and provided a social milieu.
This event took place around 1967, when I was about 12 years old. Dad had a friend named Hershy. This fellow made his living as a stretcher-bearer, and also by hauling cast-iron bathtubs up stairways. He was as big as a bear, with a voice like a cement truck, but gentle as a lamb. He was also a bit slow. Think of Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Hershy had an assigned task on Saturday night in our synagogue. He had to bring the various utensils used at the end of the Sabbath ceremony; namely, a silver spice box and wine goblet and tray.
Another member of this small and aging congregation thought it would be fun to watch Hershy search and fumble for this kit if the items were hidden away. So he hid them in another cubby.
On cue, the elderly members started chuckling, as Hershy searched for the items. My Dad saw what was going on, went to his side, faced them and yelled out,
“Why are you laughing? You’re the foolish ones!”