Well, my jagged friends, I have been found by the COVID. And what a week to be stuck inside with nothing to do but stare at the social media! COVID has been bad for my body (though, all things considered, I’ve had a rather mild case of this beast, thanks be to God). Social media has been bad for my soul. Cynical certainty, accusations, insurrections, conspiracies, calls to make life-defining stands/posts based on hearsay and half-truths, Christians defending the indefensible, other Christians self-justifying by accusing those Christians for their defending the indefensible, systemic racism, big-tech fascism, this -ism, that -ism, -ism, -ism, -ism…sigh. This has been my intellectual diet for my past quarantined week. And I feel sick.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of all this. Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, “there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” It feels like this is a time to speak, but I’m silent for not being sure what to say. No one disagrees that we need to speak out against evil, lest the hour grow too late and we find ourselves subjected to tyranny. But, which evil shall I choose to counter? Trump? MAGA? The democratic party or the GOP? ANTIFA? QAnon? White Evangelicals? BLM activists? I’m exhausted by all of them, demonized for not taking a stronger stand against or with any of them, and uncertain about all of them. Yet, they all fight for my heart while I consume them through my eyes.
I feel it crushing my spirit and I find myself just wanting some kind of internal peace. I just want things to calm down. This desire for psychological relief is certainly not a bad thing. However, the danger comes as I find myself wanting this as an end unto itself. Which means that I find myself in a rather compromising position. I’m willing to listen to anyone who promises to grant me the relief I desire, anyone who promises to remove the irritants. I find myself wanting relief from anxiety more than truth. Obviously, that makes me vulnerable to false and evil leaders. What’s more worrisome is that millions of people are in my position, isolated and on the same diet. Not to sound too conspiratorial here, but our current situation is one that, historically, has lead to a lot of bad political consequences.
What is one to do with all of this? How is one to process it all?
As I was stewing over all this, spiraling down a grey hole towards depression, it struck me: I need friends. We all need friends.
Now, this is kind of a funny thing to say. Its almost a joke one would use with a person who spends too much time talking about his Lord of the Rings obsession: “Man, stop talking about hobbits and wizards. You need some friends.” And yet, friendship is precisely what we all need.
Speaking of Lord of the Rings, it was towards the end of my COVID, LOTR binge session (yes, I watched all the extended versions last Friday) that I was struck by this need for friends. Remember that scene where Frodo can’t carry the ring up the mountain? He’s all but dying from the evil he bears, and his friend Sam says, “I may not be able to carry it, but I can carry you!” and he picks up Frodo and carries him up the mountain on his shoulders? It is an incredibly cheesy line. It is an incredibly beautiful scene. And I got choked up. Later, when towards the end, as the hobbits are sitting around at the pub, the friends toast each other, having been through a hell no one else could understand. My eyes again grew a little more than damp.
Why? Besides the fact that I am an emotional movie watcher, it is because in the friendship of these hobbits, Tolkien has captured the beauty of one of the great gifts God grants us in this veil of tears. As I sit in this social media cesspool, I need to get out and take my anxieties and concerns and thoughts and work them out over a couple of beers with my friends. I’m not intellectually or emotionally strong enough to handle these things, and they can’t carry my burdens. But, they can carry me by making me laugh at my overreactions, rebuking my unfounded fears, and challenging my shallow perspectives. Most importantly, unlike anyone on social media, they can and will forgive my sins in the name of Christ. This then makes me stronger to face the world. As CS Lewis says, “Men who have real Friends are less easy to manage or ‘get at’; harder for good Authorities to correct or bad Authorities to corrupt.” (The Four Loves, 80)
That leads to another reason why we all need friends. We become harder to ‘get at.’ By this, I don’t mean to imply that we need to surround ourselves with some sort of self-approving echo chamber that prevents us from being corrected. For the sake of truth and in the name of humility, we all need to recognize our need for correction. What I am saying is that, in our current climate of internet sparked outrage and isolation, we need to be surrounded by those who will fight to protect us. We need friends who will help us foster an intellectual fortitude against manipulation and lies. Isolating and outraging voters is politically advantageous to those who are seeking power. One is easier to manipulate in that when they are alone, mad, and longing for relief. Friendship is a bulwark against this and, thus, a threat to those desiring power. As my good friend, Paul Koch, once wrote, “There is a different sense of loyalty among these friends, a different value system, a different accountability system, and different goals…[Friend groups form a resistance] to the values and goals of the larger group.” (“Theology of Friendship” in Where Two or Three Are Gathered, 12)
What is needed now more than ever is for you and I to take some time away from social media, to grab some drinks, and to laugh with some friends. I’m not telling you to stop engaging with politics or important social issues. I am suggesting that doing this among friends in a pub is far more valuable and important than doing it on social media. Read some philosophy or the Federalist Papers or, good gracious, even the scriptures and then, together, talk them through in light of the current social climate. Be corrected, encouraged, forgiven and laughed at by those who’d die with you in the foxhole. That laughter among friends may not save society or the world (or it might). But, that laughter will make you much harder to get at, and it is good for your soul.