One of the saddest commentaries on American life is that we have made it so hard for men to have male friends. We have done such a good job of teaching men that all other men are potential rivals or potential customers, and that they should never expose their vulnerability to another man (which I suspect, is why men have trouble asking for directions, and why they would rather try to fix something themselves than ask for help). Men have buddies, guys they go fishing with or watch football with. But it is rare for a man to open himself emotionally to another man.

Go into a restaurant at lunch hour. If you see two women talking over lunch, chances are they are friends taking time to catch up with each others' lives. If you see two men talking, chances are they are discussin a prospective business deal. I would speculate that a lot of extramarital affairs are the result not of men looking for sex but of men looking for friendship, for a kind of intimacy they don't find with other men. When I have been in settings where men were assured they would be safe if they opened up emotionally--12-step groups, the Men's Forum of the Young Presidents Organization--men have seemed so grateful for the opportunity to speak about their fear and their feelings.

Recently, I called a friend to get the address of a mutual acquaintance. By all rights, it should have been a one-minute conversation. But something in his voice prompted me to say, "You sound a little tense. Is everything all right?" For the next ten minutes, he proceeded to tell me about problems with his work and how those problems had revealed fault lines in his marriage to a point where the marriage was in serious trouble. It was frustrating for me not to be able to do anything more helpful than listen, but I would like to think that listening helped, and that being able to penetrate the typical male facade of "I'm okay, just a little distracted" helped as well.

Just as the best present is often not the one you were hinting about but the one you didn't know you wanted until someone gave it to you, the best gift of a friendship wil often be the friend's ability to know what you need even before you do. And just as with material gifts, the satisfaction of pleasing someone you care about is as gratifying as the pleasure of discovering how much someone cares about you. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: "The glory of friendship is not so much in the outstretched hand or even in the kindly smile. It is in the spiritual inspiration that comes when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with his friendship."

Friends have been defined as people who know you at your worst and like you anyway, people in whose company you can be yourself. But perhaps more than anything else, friends are people who care about you for who you are, not for what you can do for them. They worry about you when you're sick or depressed, and they rejoice with you when you have something to celebrate. Perhaps the truest friend is the person who can be genuinely happy for you when something good comes your way that may never happen to him or her, whether marriage, financial success, talented children, or any other blessing. There is a kind of holiness in true friendship, because it does for us what organized religion tries to do, to make sure that we are never alone when we desperately need to not be alone.

At some of the darkest moments of my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me--some because they cared about me and it hurt them to see me in pain; others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability, and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort and came to sit with me. If they had no words to make me feel better, they sat in silence (much better than saying, "You'll get over it," or "It's not so bad; others have it worse"), and I loved them for it.

I can't tell you how often, as a rabbi, I would meet with family members before a funeral and one of them would say to me, "Rabbi, we're not religious. Do we have to observe the shiva memorial week, and have all those people crowding our living room at a time like this?" And I would tell them, "Yes, you have to do that, not for God's sake, but for yours, because you're going to feel alone and abandoned and you need to know that you're not alone. And you need to do it for your friends' sake as well. They feel your pain and want to take some of it onto themselves, to grieve with you."

That is why we have to make room in our lives for people who may sometimes disappoint us or exasperate us. If we hold our friends to a standard of perfection, or if they do that to us, we will end up far lonelier than we want to be.

When Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, was asked "Where is God?" he was wise enough not to give cliche answer: God is everywhere; God is found in churches and synagogues. Buber would answer that God is found in relationships. God is not found in people; God is found between people. When you and I are truly attuned to each other, God comes down and fills the space between us so that we are connected, not separated. Both love and true friendship are more than a way of knowing that we matter to someone else. They are a way of mattering to the world, bringing God into a world that would otherwise be a vale of selfishness and loneliness.

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