The criminalization of friendship: Have we gone so far?

I’m sitting in a café in Copenhagen thinking about friendship. I’m here because a dear friend of mine asked me to show up, and I said yes. It has been three years since my last visit, and during that time, her father passed away. So I’m here now despite being in the middle of a book tour that has me away from home through to Thanksgiving. Even so, this was a good decision.

I’ve been learning quite a bit about friendship lately. In the last few Walk Out Walk On workshops, the Intervention to Friendship distinction has been the most provocative and revelatory, and it’s got me wondering what it is that makes friendship—the dearest nourishment to our hearts and souls—so threatening to our professional lives.

A week ago, I found myself hosting a conversation about walking out and walking on among 60 people who work in mental health and addiction services. The room was filled with doctors, nurses, social workers, hospital administrators and people who work with youth, the elderly and the homeless. The essence of their work is intervention—helping people who are victims of substance abuse and mental illness. Stepping into relationships of mutuality and reciprocity—the essence of friendship—is not only “unprofessional” in this field, it could actually cost practitioners their license. Would I dare introduce the notion of walking out of intervention and walking on to friendship?

I did. And someone spoke up, a social worker in her fifties, who began by saying this: “I have had some fear speaking out about this. But I know it’s right when a person I’m working with walks beside me and calls me friend.” She then shared three stories of friendships she’d created with her clients, healing partnerships that worked because they engaged in a two-way exchange of emotional energy. Her clients were not people who needed to be fixed, problems that needed to be solved. They were individuals with dreams and fears and desires who, like the rest of us, yearned for connection, intimacy and understanding. This social worker was bold enough to offer that. She concluded her story by saying, “I am so grateful and blessed to know that people trust me and know I’m willing to take risk. I love them.”

The room was silent after she spoke. I can’t say what others were feeling—perhaps a mixture of relief, admonishment and encouragement. No doubt there were some in the room like her, and others who would question her professionalism. As for me, I was disturbed by the notion that we had created a society in which friendship had become dangerous. When I shared this story a few nights later at an event in London, Vanessa Reid, a Berkana Exchange community member, was in attendance and reflected on this as the “criminalization of friendship.” That phrase has been sitting with me ever since. Have we really gone so far? Do we fear one another’s weaknesses so much that we mask our own vulnerabilities and desires behind our professional expertise?

I believe that friendship offers the quality of relationship we need to get through hard times and hostile environments. In this age of insecurity, I can’t imagine what could be more potent than relationships that are strong enough to tolerate disagreement and discomfort. A true friendship does that. It is for our friends that we drop whatever we’re doing to show up. It is for our friends that we say yes.

I’m so happy I came to Copenhagen.