27 August 2011

Touch and Masculine Friendship

(This one is dedicated to Flaman and all the Regina boys, who gave me the benefit of a physical friendship.)

The stillness is stirred by the voice of the herald:

“One hundred Philistine foreskins!”

Cut, counted, and carried to the king’s own feet. The newly arrived youth had passed the test–– or rather he had failed to find the death to which the older man had sent him. You can read the whole sordid tale here.

Put yourself in this court. See the young David approach, his grizzly bride-price in hand, and chances are slim that you will second-guess the redness of his blood.

But flip over two chapters to 1 Samuel 20, have a look at our phallic scalp-hunter kissing his friend, Jonathan, and see if you aren’t left squinting at the situation, wondering if there isn’t something here that is not quite on the level.

Before we go further, however, let us turn that gaze around: Should we measure the friendship of these men against the norms of our own, oversexed culture? In the words of our Davidic role model himself: Far be it, far be it from you to do this! That we should smirkingly detect anything off-kilter in their affirmation of affection says as much about us as it does about him.

What does it say? It says we’ve been skewed by the idea that the affectionate touch is for romantic intent and little else, so that if one man doesn’t want to make either an enemy or a lover out of another, he’d better keep his hands to himself.

But isn’t this the way it’s been at all places and times? Not even close.

Say hello to the sixteenth U.S. presdient, and meet a man who made a habit of holding a friend’s hand while walking on the way, and sharing a bunk when quarters were tight. Nor is honest Abe the historical exception, but the baseline from which we ourselves have deviated.

To see this with perspective, consider our original architecture:

Then the LORD God shaped the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus became the man a living being. (Genesis 2:7, my translation)

Feel the down-to-earth physicality of those words: shaped, dust, and ground. A man is something you can touch, whose feelings can be felt in the beating of his heart, pulsing now slower, now faster, in rhythm with his soul. He is physical. He is spiritual. He is a man.

Consider also the words of the sage in Proverbs 27:17:

As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens his friend. (my translation)

What does this image depict but physical contact between two sharpened objects? To be sure, such sharpening is something more than a hug or a handshake. But it is not less. To neglect these fundamentals of friendship is to ignore how we are made and to lose a concrete sense of where we stand with each other.

But what about those of us feeling tentative, even awkward, when our outward ease is not equal to our inward feeling? How, then, shall we touch? A couple of pointers to keep things plumb:

1. Whenever possible, try opening and closing every encounter with some form of touch. It may seem like a small thing, but even a handshake establishes a bond that can stand as the basis for mutual trust and disclosure. And it needn’t stop there. I know that for myself, when another man touches my arm for emphasis in mid-conversation, I feel not threatened, but valued and respected. Imagine the warmth this simple adjustment might infuse into talks with your father, your son, your brother, your friend.

2. Let the depth of the friendship determine the closeness of the touch. You shake hands with acquaintances, you hug with friends, and should you be so blessed as to find a David & Jonathan kind of bond... well you don’t have to kiss–– just hug with greater vigor!

It can feel foreign for us to put our bodies into our friendships, but even a pat on the back in the middle of the day has an affirming power in the community of manhood to let a friend know that things haven’t gone sideways–– that everything is on the level.


Anonymous said...

InterestIng story, the linked Saul and David story. I'm not sure if you noticed this, Saul's jealousy very nicely parallels the speech by the "modern day guru" Robert Greene you linked to in a previous post, which he gave at Yale. He directly says that the turning point in his life came during a job in which he outperformed his boss, who resented him for it. Of course his boss responded in the much more politically correct and modern way of passive aggressiveness in the work place rather then hurling a spear at him.

I'm thankful you included that Robert Greene speech btw, he's unabashedly Machiavellian and expresses it in a fresh, clear, modern way, a bit easier to relate to then the 15th century Florentine version in the Prince. I especially liked the questions at the end, though his answers largely side stepped them. What is the good life, is it power? And - to what end do we take this world view and attain power? To my mind these represent crippling objections to the power ethos.



Daren Redekopp said...

I hadn't noticed that, Skye. Nice observation.

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