One of my best friends passed away last week.
I’m twenty-nine years old, and up until last week, I was immortal. I’m down to one grandparent, and a stepcousin committed suicide a few years ago, but a) my grandparents were old, and b) my stepcousin was kind of crazy. We, you know, would never die. Maybe in 40 years, but that would obviously never come (I mean, had it ever come before?).
He was good. And interestingly, he was somewhat of an anomaly: he wasn’t, like, good after the fact, in a never-speak-ill-of-the-dead way, or a look-past-his-faults way. He was smart, athletic, committed to his faith, funny, curious, loyal, diligent, and friendly. He was an uncomplicatedly virtuous (in all senses of the word) man.
One foundational concept of this area of the internet is the mannerbund, a group of men bound to each other by trust in (possibly loose) hierarchy and cooperation. I have been lucky in that I seem to naturally form these; I have a tight group of male friends that has endured since high school (I talked to one of them today, and another the day before that), and one that formed in college.
My friend was in the college one. Of course we all showed up to the funeral, and when I saw the rest of the group, I couldn’t hide my grief anymore, because how could I hide from them what we in particular shared?
Why did this hit us so hard? It didn’t impact any of our careers. None of us were dependent on him for anything.
What I miss from my friend is the opportunity to trust and be trusted, to serve and be served, to honor and be honored. I’ve heard people say things like he’ll watch over us from heaven, but, like, I’m a big boy now, I can negotiate life OK without the “extra” divine help. What I want is not so much help from him, but the opportunity to help him.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out
the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”.
Ownership, possession, hierarchy, and duty are complicated, messy topics, with spectra of meaning. The modern world does not understand this—and neither does Hell(again from Letters):
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.
But readers of this blog likely have a more nuanced understanding than most. Relationships that seem uncomplicatedly hierarchical (and by the Screwtape view, necessarily exploitative) can take on surprising qualities of love and self-sacrifice.
Service within a well-functioning mannerbund gets triple (at least!) value, because
- It provides opportunity for meaningful action. As the inimitable Tyler Durden says, “Self-improvement is masturbation.” Self-anything is masturbation. One of the qualities of the image that men want to have of themselves is the ability and willingness to help their allies. How to prove this without allies?
- Improving their welfare is a win for the group, which means it’s a win for you
- It gives them an opportunity to honor you, which, in a well-functioning group, they want to do. But because one can only honor the honorable, you have to provide them with opportunities. See also.
What happens is that seemingly zero-sum interactions become positive-sum. A braggart among strangers is an annoyance; a braggart among comrades merits a hearty toast. This can even develop feedback loops where it is honorable to honor another, and all parties benefit (although).
Thus the sacred declarations of foiled intent: Aragorn’s assurance (see below), followed soon after by Boromir’s longing promise (“I would have followed you, my brother,”).
Boromir’s final moments provide us another window into how to love men. What are Boromir’s last actions? He reaches for his sword and declares his fealty. He is, in other words, seeking honor. And Aragorn grants it, helping him grasp his sword and accepting his (unfulfilled in life) loyalty.
What grieves me (although somewhat less so now, as I have pondered how to do what little I can after his death) is that I was deprived of the opportunity to honor my friend in life to the extent that he deserved. I grieve not so much for him as for his honor—which would sound unloving except that I know that’s what he would grieve for.**
*(Honestly you could just watch this scene all day and get 90% of what’s good about reaction. It’s all here: hierarchy, honor, compassion, male groups, loyalty, resolve rather than despair)
**to himself, not publicly—but I can grieve about it publicly. One duty of men is to work on behalf of each other’s (Freudian) ids, because honor demands that they don’t do this themselves. Thus the hallowed stations of wingman and best man: one to make the wedding happen, and the other to make the groom look good at it.