Text: Dear Friend: — If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I would never think again of trifles in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever or never.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
In a crass, profane age of advanced species endangerment, global warming, 16% real unemployment and constant threat of economic collapse worldwide, surety is indeed a rare and precious commodity. Paralyzed leadership and dysfunctional government clouds our hope even more. My best friend tells me this quotation will be unfathomed by at least 90% of the American public; alas, she may be correct — judging from our current cultural mess. Nineteenth-century prose and syntax puts us off and tries our patience in the digital age. And yet, who doesn’t still need a friend.
In his essay Emerson cautions the reader that “these fine pains” in regard to friendship are for curiosity, not for life. We should not indulge these high-minded notions lest we “weave cobwebs and not cloth.” Emerson was an idealist but he knew the place of idealism: — examining the conduct of life against an ideal. In the Twentieth Century JFK”s New Frontier and Johnson’s War on Poverty come to mind as examples of idealism’s limits. Another contrast is the inspiring rhetoric of JFK contrasted to the plain-spoken realism of Harry Truman. We are sadly lacking in both these days.
Assuming that sure people make sure leaders, I want surety not only in my leaders but in my friends. When I see a potential friend approaching, I am immediately cautious, guarded, ready at any moment to withdraw my head back under my shell. However, I also want to stick my neck out, take a risk with a new acquaintance in the hope that some bond may be built between us. I want surety in my friend
I do not claim to be all wise. I try not to be dogmatic despite apparent evidence that may challenge my set beliefs. I often fail in this. My beliefs do not go willingly into doubt and then into renaissance. As a true liberal I have a little dogma myself, but I am not worthy of liberal mindedness if I don’t try to know my own prejudices. I’ve got blind spots in my vision as do all men and women. I must keep an open mind, for example that libertarians and conservatives can be right. I must at least entertain the possibility that Michelle Bachman can harbor a thought worth considering. And she and anyone, politician or not, must have the same openness to me — if America is to succeed. I expect a friend to listen.
Regarding “perfect intelligence” of another, I don’t possess it. I have no radar or sonar that can reveal the truth to me about a potential friend approaching me. Late at night in the middle of the Pacific when my ship steamed alone in unlimited acres of water, we came across other ships. Depending upon whether the blip “closed” us or seemed intent on its own course, we in the radar shack were more or less curious. At some point we could use IFF or identification friend or foe. If the contact responded with the correct code, we were assured of a bogey and not a skunk. Human beings apply the same technique when they take fine pains. Trifles indeed can be excellent warnings if they are confirmed. The more trifling thoughts we can dismiss regarding another, the greater the potential of safe passage or encounter in the darkness. Without this process, we are naive sitting ducks. We must presume in others the same intelligent facility of us. Thus begins the delicious torment. The mutual sniffing begins.
Unfortunately we often refuse even to sniff around, to check each other out, to even participate in trying to understand another person and his opinion. It is quite unnatural to behave this way. Animals instiinctively perform this ritual that ends up in coitus, play or battle.
We no longer quite understand genius as the spirit of a person or a place. We think of it as bright IQ. Nothing can be more unfathomable to one person than the spirit, largely intangible and powerful, of another. Truthfully we do not fully understand our own spirit, our own genius, but it remains our essence. The best we can do with the genius of a friend is to love it, to befriend it without question. Of course, we must have decided it is a genius worth respecting. More often than not, liking a friend will be non-rational if not irrational.
All of this goes on whether we have a personal agenda or not. So when Emerson says, “Thine ever or never,” he means “I apprehend your genius and I determine that it is good and at least compatible with my own which you must also see in me. When we do this we cease to make of our friendship “a texture of wine and dreams.” Instead we weave “the tough fibre of the human heart.” And he adds, “The laws of friendship are austere and eternal.”
“Twitting” and “friending” on the Internet are nothing more than the sniffing when two dogs meet — assuming we don’t leap into a bad deal. Children and young kids are incredibly vulnerable to predators because they don’t understand the virtues of coyness, camouflage, watching the back trail, reserve. playing hard to get, checking things out, even those trifling thoughts.
Steadfast and cautious,