Adult Friendships

Four years ago David Brooks wrote a column that stuck with me. Startling Adult Friendships]. I saved it.

In it he fantasized about what he would do with $500 million dollars. He said that he would try to set up places that would cultivate friendships. He would take the sort of networking programs that seem to transform people’s lives and make them less career oriented and more profound.

That’s what I do.

(Minus the 500 million)

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Over the last few weeks I’ve facilitated a number of gatherings anchored by the understanding that friendship provides the best conditions for emergent collaboration. And this is the only way to turn to the complexity of challenges facing humanity today.

I was in Puerto Rico facilitating the last retreat of the Barr Fellows class of 2015. It was love. Authentic love. There is no doubt in my mind that this cohort of Boston’s civic leaders are now engaged in a web of relationship that will last a lifetime.

The Barr Fellowship (though changing) is a pioneering investment in this possibility. The cadillac version of these fellowships. It is an intensive three-year experience that includes a three-month sabbatical and begins with a two-week learning journey to the global south.

I was privileged to facilitate three cohorts of fellows (12 participants each), as well as early efforts to bring the network together across cohorts. The foundation was my longest serving client until I chose to bring the relationship to a close.

I appreciate the way Brooks lifts up friendship:

Ancient writers from Aristotle to Cicero to Montaigne described friendship as the pre-eminent human institution. You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life. Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects. Lovers face each other, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world — often working on its behalf. Aristotle suggested that friendship is the cornerstone of society. Montaigne thought that it spreads universal warmth.

This is the song of my own heart. I always loved friendship. By the age of 12 I had elevated it to sacred status, as I grieved having to leave my friends in Puerto Rico when my parents moved us to Massachusetts. How could I have known the ways in which that sense of loss would lead me to cultivate my own friendships and give my life force to helping others become friends?

Brooks reminds us that friendship is not in great shape in America today. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled since 2004. And middle-aged people have particular problems nurturing friendships and building new ones. They are so busy with work and kids that friendship gets squeezed out.

So what is happening to this preeminent human institution? And what can we do about it?

After the Barr Fellows retreat I joined a stellar facilitation team to host the first immersion of the latest crop of BALLE Fellows. These are 24 individuals who each in their own way is dedicating their life to building a “living local economy” somewhere in North America. The fellows will gather six times over the next two years, and we are off to a great start.

It was powerful to go from the end of one fellowship to the beginning of another. It is special to hold the trust and confidence that something beautiful, something life changing, is possible here.

Our extractive economy needs to be re-invented from the ground up. Forging relationships of trust among the people leading the way is the best strategy I can think of for getting this this earth-saving project off the ground.

Friends care for each other. They think well together. They connect each other to people, knowledge and experiences that will further their purpose. The hold each other, celebrate each other, strengthen each other.

This is the stuff movements are made of.

I just finished facilitating a rather unique gathering way up on the Colorado Rockies. It was a self-organized, cross-cohort gathering of the Young Climate Leaders Network. It was unique because no one had any obligation to go. Each participant prioritized it over other work. It was unique because all participants had already gone through a year-long fellowship experience with their specific cohort, so they all came with an experience based understanding that the magic of friendship was possible here. And it was unique because while they certainly wanted to focus on strategy, these climate leaders were looking for a place to heal. And they knew they could find it with each other.

These unique conditions, the clarity of such a yes, the willingness to step into the vulnerable void that makes friendship possible, yielded a retreat that blossomed like no other. And the climate movement is better for it.

I like to joke that one day I’ll start a church and that I will call it the Church of Co-Evolution Through Friendship.

Maybe I will.