The Fifth Step as “Sacrament of Friendship”

The Fifth Step as “Sacrament of Friendship” November 12, 2019

…and other thoughts from my talk at Notre Dame. I was there to talk about “friendship in narratives of addiction and recovery” aka my ranting about “Drinking Song” and We Shall All Be Healed and Withnail & I. The only, how to put this delicately, book I treated in depth was Dan Barden’s 2012 neo-noir, The Next Right Thing. I’d read it in early sobriety and liked it quite a bit. I re-read it, finishing up on the plane to South Bend, and people, I love this book. The word I kept thinking of was “consoling.” It was so good to be back in that very idealized-version-of-AA atmosphere, where everybody’s simultaneously obnoxious and submissive, where the hard-boiled noir coating covers a gooey sweet center of kind sincerity. Anyway, here’s the Barden portion of my talk, and if you’re interested in this stuff, I can’t recommend his book highly enough.

One recurring theme in the literature of friendship is the transparency of friends to one another. I could tell her anything, the friends say. St. Aelred emphasizes that friends must be totally trustworthy because you will entrust to them all your secrets. Andrew Sullivan writes, of the friend whose death prompted the beautiful essay [“If Love Were All,” in Love Undetectable], “I remember how hard it was to lie to him or not to tell him everything.” The Next Right Thing, that neo-noir novel, repeatedly returns to the image of the Fifth Step, in which an alcoholic shares his or her resentments, fears, and sins with one other person. The Fifth Step resolves the novel’s plot and themes, but also, more deeply, serves in the novel as a kind of sacrament of friendship. If friendship, even more than marriage, is the realm not of self-sacrificing privacy but of self-exposing honesty, then friendship must be a necessary component of any drama of recovery.

[Many philosophers have argued that] friendship is a realm of choice and freedom. St. Aelred emphasizes that one must test potential friends, and extend friendship only to those who prove that they can bear it. Sullivan, again, describes the classical philosophical ideal of friendship thus: “A virtuous man… comes to a friend in exactly the opposite way that a lover comes to his beloved. He comes not out of need, or passion, or longing. He comes out of a radical choice.” “In a utilitarian world,” Sullivan writes, friendship “is useless in the best sense of the word.”

And once the friend is chosen, there are no scripts; we make no promises, we pledge no troth. We are friends for as long as both of us choose to be. There is nothing we have to do and no time we have to serve.

All of that is turned on its head in narratives of addiction and recovery. Here friendship is the site of moral drama because it is unchosen, because it has duties which you can fulfill or shirk, and because you need it as you have never needed anything since the day you were weaned.

The writer Helen Andrews noted that nowadays even some people who have never experienced addiction have “AA Envy.” I suspect one aspect of this envy is related to friendship. The ideal (if not always the real) sponsor in AA is a kind of Army-issue friend: not the friend you would have chosen for yourself, a little too one-size-fits-all, not chic or charming; but sturdy. You can get the friend you need and don’t deserve, and all you have to do is admit that you are a helpless failure.

[In the q&a I talked about how Barden portrays a world where people who are acting badly can nonetheless build a kind of “virtue friendship.” That’s a fraught process, and Barden shows the way it fails and damages people as well as the way it leads some people to life and hope. To me it makes a lot more sense than the standard way philosophers talk about “virtue friendships,” where you’re supposed to be a good person (HOW) and find good people to be your friend (WHERE) and somehow this is, eventually, fun or whatever.]

Dan Barden’s novel The Next Right Thing is all about this ideal of sponsorship as friendship. The antihero, Randy, begins the novel in that bad state of mind where “you’re too lonely to talk to your friends.” These are his friends of necessity, met “in the rooms” of AA. They’re your friends because you’re like them, even if they don’t like you: Randy’s sponsor, whose fatal overdose sparks the novel’s plot, frequently emphasizes that he doesn’t like Randy much, but he needs Randy, he needs to serve Randy, in order to stay sober. This need is messy and sad, and it saves Randy’s life, and slowly it emerges that “I don’t like you very much” is how tough-guy AA types say, “I love you.” (When people in this novel say, “I want you to be my sponsor,” you feel like they should be on one knee with a ring.) In a world where “friend” is a word more strongly associated with Facebook than with Christ, Randy struggles to explain his relationship to his potential sponsee Troy. Some cops first think Troy is his son, then guess, “…Your boyfriend?” Randy resorts to comparing them to Batman and Robin, as if this will clarify things. Outside AA there’s no word for what they are to one another.

Everything Randy does in this novel, from breaking a guy’s nose to building a crib, is motivated by friendship: a friendship of need, a friendship of duty, a friendship which can be criminal and stupid and destructive and still remain somehow rooted in love and the desperate desire to act better than you are. When this is friendship, how can it not be a site of moral drama? And this is what friendship is in the Gospels, not a radically free choice but a response of gratitude to Jesus’ love for us in our helpless failure. Where Peter, who is all in his feelings as always, cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave Malchus because he thinks that might help his friend. Where Jesus dies stripped and criminal, to save His friends from spiritual death.

Pic via Peakpx.

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