By Eugene C. Scott
What do the TV shows “Seinfeld,” “I Love Lucy,” “Cheers,” and “Friends,” all have in common? They are all listed in TV Guide’s 50 most popular shows ever. Also each could be described this way:
Seinfeld (#1) is a sitcom about a group of friends living in New York City who navigate the meaninglessness of life together (Subplot: who they do or do not have sex with).
I Love Lucy (#2) an old sitcom about two couples who are friends trying to survive Desi’s stardom and Lucy’s craziness (Subplot: nothing about sex).
Cheers (#18) is another sitcom about friends. These friends meet in a bar and deal with life from there (Subplot: who they do or do not have sex with, except Norm).
Friends (#21) is a sitcom about a group of friends (go figure) who do or do not have sex with each other.
These shows depict people in “life on life” friendships in which they depend on one another for most of life’s seen and unseen necessities.
Sadly, for many, this kind of friendship is as unreal as the TV shows portraying it. Researcher John Cacioppo estimates 60 million Americans struggle with chronic loneliness. And “Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent” between 1985 and 2004.
But loneliness is not only a matter of how many friends one has. Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, claims, “Some of the most profound loneliness can happen when other people are present.” Lonely people can just as often be surrounded by others. What most of us are yearning for are what twelfth century monk Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendships.”
What is a spiritual friendship?
These deep are friendships are often born out of pain. Ruth and Naomi, that most famous of biblical friends, clung to each other after the loss of both of their husbands. I met my best friend, who also happens to be my wife, in a time when I was struggling with addiction and felt I had no future. Through the years the all too frequent pain in our lives has only driven us deeper with each other.
Yet, many of us hide our pain, even from those closest to us. This hiding only further isolates. Spiritual friends are vulnerable and that deepens our relationships.
Spiritual friendships also are non-utilitarian relationships. This is where the above TV programs promote a fallacy. Many of the friendships depicted in them are friendships with benefits: friendships that include so called casual sex.
The phrase “friends with benefits” reflects an assumption that other people often exist for what they can do for us or give us.
“Did you get any?” boys masquerading as men often ask each other after a date. Many times, if we think about it, we even speak the words, “I love you” to get the same words in return, at least in part. Interestingly, these “give me” relationships most often leave us empty.
The Apostle Paul told some of his friends, “I have no interest in what you have–only in you.” Spiritual friends aren’t in the relationship for their own gain.
Spiritual friends also value your soul. In the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” blues guitarist Tommy Johnson admits he sold his soul to the devil in trade for his guitar skills. When Everette, who values Tommy’s soul, is shocked, Tommy says, “Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.”
We talk of being soul mates but rarely develop the vulnerability to dive beneath the surface where the soul resides. But our souls are what make each of us unique. Not, as advertisers claim, our clothes or toothpaste. Souls are the God-breathed image of our Creator.
A spiritual friend will look beneath the designer jeans for your designer soul.
Spiritual friendships are also redemptive. To be redemptive in daily life means to be part of the process that helps turn pain into beauty. Recently a friend of mine honored a mutual friend, Jay, by recognizing Jay’s deceased father Jim during a military ball. He awarded Jay with a plaque displaying all of Jim’s lost Korean war medals. Suddenly Jim became more than an old man crippled with Emphysema. He became a hero. And those of us still mourning Jim’s loss, especially his son, had our grief overlaid with pride and hope and healing.
Friends who walk with us through our pain, and refuse to use us for their own gain, and care for our souls also then care about growth.
Why are shows about friendships the all-time most popular? In part because they portray something we all yearn for: life on life communities. Do they do so with complete authenticity or reality? No. But, just as any good story does, they give us hope for what could be.
Eugene C. Scott has friends who occasionally call or text him for no reason whatsoever. Several of them also show up at The Neighborhood Church and nod their heads if he ever says anything profound.