After a bold essay on losing her phone in a foreign country and managing to survive, and after an essay on walking and how the world is different when you experience it directly without a windshield between you and it, Clare Coffey gets down to the deepest problem of modern life. We don’t have enough friends.
Her focus, though, is not on what a real friend is. Close friendships—real friendships—are rare, yet they are “also undiminished by small quantities.” You don’t need very many. She says that “one friend like this is enough for a lifetime.” I disagree with the “one is enough for life,” but that’s a quibble.
The low-intensity friendship she is pointing to are not what’s on display in “shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother” where friends are basically props for one’s own “quips” and “antics.” It’s not this, and it’s not the real, close friendship; it’s “civic friendship.” These are what we have little of and greatly need.
A civic friendship is “based around shared ownership of something external”; it is a friendship of serendipity. It has to fight against “two very powerful technologies: the automobile primarily, and the smartphone secondarily.” Here’s how she sets it up:
“First, I get coffee. If there’s no line, I’ll lean, elbows at the counter, getting an update on the barista’s love life. I’ll carry my coffee to the back office and the kitchen, to see if there is any food up for grabs, say hi to the early morning crowd—lots of old men in Carhartts. Back up the street, under the green tunnel of maples, I’ll run into neighbors starting their day. More chat. After working through lunch, I’ll usually run errands with the woman who lives above me. She owns the coffee and beer place across the street from my apartment; there is always a deposit to be made at the bank, milk for lattes to pick up. There is town gossip from the man who owns the restaurant supply store, there is the U.S. Foods delivery man to hassle and be hassled by. We bring snacks and bicker and scheme and talk about our lives. Later, at night, I might help pull pints if it’s busy. I might have people over for dinner on the scrap heap picnic table I swear I’m going to sand one of these days. I might go to the bar and dance if there’s a band, or see friends, or meet new ones. Last time it was a beekeeper and his buddy who runs a landscaping business, although ‘in the winter time there isn’t much to do, so I mostly deal with feral cats.’”
That’s of course only one way it could work out. Each of the friendships in that paragraph is low-commitment. They are these “civic friendships” that are necessary for our happiness and for having good societies. In the rest of the essay the author gets to the nitty-gritty: she has seven tips for making friends, each laid out in small steps.
I read this on Friday. Sunday I was talking about friendship, and a lovely, ageless woman who navigates with a walker said that she used to know all her neighbors, but people move in and out and things change. Not long ago there was a paper in her mailbox inviting her to a get-to-know-your-neighbors party. She hesitated, but went anyway, and now, once again, she knows them.
Rereading Coffey’s essay for this column, I saw point number four: “Invite your neighbors over.” The event should be “low-effort and fairly generic”; you don’t have to know their names; the invitation needs to be time-specific to make it easy to refuse without anyone losing face. One realizes this is not rocket science.
Three steps to having a happier life: Less smartphone. Less car. More civic friends. What’s not to like in that?
Out & About. On Sunday, February 5, I am to preach at the contemporary services at Incarnation in Dallas; they are at 9 and 11:15 a.m.
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be Sunday, February 19, on A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In this case it is more true than usual: Don’t see the film—read the book. The conversation will begin at 5 p.m.
On the Web. The trio of essays by Clare Coffey—phoneless, carless, and friendless—are in the Winter 2023 issue of The New Atlantis. Here’s a link: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/collections/phoneless-carless-friendless