Saturday, January 19, 2008

"The Friend of Your Youth," Revisited

Back on 30 August, the seventh anniversary of the passing of the best friend I made during three years of high school, my post was primarily a meditation on friendship, but it also included the text of the eulogy I read at my friend's funeral. Only two paragraphs into that remembrance, I leaned on a quote from All the Kings Men, by Robert Penn Warren, to help me explain the special bond that we shared:

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will every have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name--Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave--which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night . . . the Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you any more.
I find myself now forced to reconsider the appropriateness of those words. I pointed out, even then, that they were only partly true--that Randall and I never really became strangers to one another. I now recognize that the phenomenon I have in mind when I consider Randall, and a grand total of about three other men I know (and two women), is a thing completely different from Warren's "Friend of Your Youth." What it shares with Warren's concept is that backdrop of shared youthful experiences, trials, and growth that no later bonds can encompass or sometimes even comprehend. Where it departs from Warren is in the depth of connection I have in mind. A better explanation of that facet was captured in one of my favorite quotes from Richard Bach's, Illusions: "Your friend will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintance will know you in a thousand years." Occasionally, rarely, for some even never, one finds those two concepts conflating. I have had a blessed life. Oh, there have been trials, disasters even, nearly always of my own causing, but I have friends, more than one, where those two descriptions meet.

Perhaps the best way of explaining what that means is to dwell for a moment on the principal quality of reunions with such friends. The predominant theme of Warren's concept seems to be a sort of tolerance--a polite humoring of "the drooling doddering confusion of the universe." And, now that I recognize that, I find myself feeling sad for Warren, especially if he believed what he wrote (and all the "unreliable narrators" in the world can never fully enable one to do otherwise). Bach, on the other hand, seems to recognize that your true friend is that person from whom estrangement is never really possible, even before you have met. That is the sort of friend Randall was.

The hallmark of such a friendship is that polite tolerance never enters the picture, nor would the words "boring," nor "not too happily met" ever come into play. Reunion with such a friend is more like coming back together with a piece of yourself that you had forgotten was missing. You feel suddenly whole again. These are the friends who, from the moment you met, at whatever age, saw within you some essential self that transcends all the masks we wear for the world: father, lover, spouse, commander, teacher, student, citizen. We all are many different people at different times, but within us all is something that infuses, informs and animates all those other selves.

Essentially, what occurs with such friends is an inversion of Ahab's mission in his quest for Moby Dick. In chapter 36, Ahab explains, somewhat, his hatred of Moby Dick to Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (Melville was not happy with God, in whatever form he conceived Him, and Ahab here is Melville's spokesman.) The friendships I have in mind, turn this entire dynamic on its head. Perhaps the first requirement for such a friendship is that both parties begin with a more charitable view of the Almighty Himself, or of whatever Force they credit for pervading the universe and all life in it. Because what such friends see in us, celebrate in us, treasure in us is that thing which is inscrutable to others, but which they see clearly, without needing to strike through any mask. And that thing is unchanging, even when we ourselves lose touch with it or forget its nature. The joy that we feel in the company of our true friends originates in the role they play in facilitating the emergence of that best self. And the overwhelming joy we feel in reunion with those friends after lengthy separation is, in some ways, as much a joy at reunion with ourselves as with them.

In its literal translation, the Sanskrit word Namasté means, "I bow to you," but in its widely accepted and richer connotations, the expression has come to encompass much more, one version of which is, "The Divinity within me perceives and adores the Divinity within you." That is a lot to claim of most instances when it is passed between people on meeting or parting, as it is frequently in some communities, especially those who practice yoga for instance. It is then, I think, more a statement of an idealized goal, an aspiration, than a statement of fact. But between the sort of friends I have in mind, it is more or less the perfect word, for it captures, I think, exactly the essence of that bond.

And so, to my friends as a statement of fact, and to my acquaintances as a longed for goal . . . Namasté.

Postscript: As with every really decent contemplation I post here, this one too is inspired by life. I spent the last few days in Montgomery, Alabama. We flew there with the intention of parachuting into the graduation parade for a class of freshly minted Air Force lieutenants, but on both the day of the practice and the day of the parade, a cloud layer less than a thousand feet thick from top to bottom parked itself over the intended drop zone. At 2000 ft above the ground, we were just below the clouds, but too low to exit and safely open. At 3000 ft above the ground, the sky was blue for miles as we skimmed along the tops of that cloud layer, unable to see more than brief glimpses of the ground. So, a couple of hours in the air, all dressed up, and no place to go. But the trip was far from a total loss. We pinned a medal on the graduate for whom we had made the trip--a former enlisted staff member of our squadron. And I spent two evenings, the first in 16 years, in the company of one of those rarest of friends, in whose company I have always had the honor of truly perceiving the Divinity in another, and through him, within myself.