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When I was a kid, it wouldn’t be unusual for some smart-ass to ask me if I was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I can tell you the ask was never real curiosity (note the smart-ass), but I suppose an attempt to be cute or mean. Though if my school mate really knew who Ralph Waldo (RW) was, mean didn’t translate. Who wouldn’t want to be related to such a transformational thinker? Alas, our familial connection is unlikely. Anyways, this past week, I came across a couple of articles that explore RW’s writings on friendship. Given a big part of our game at MenLiving is creating spaces for friendship, I thought it would be interesting to see if Ralph and I not only shared a last name, but friend philosophy.

First, an admission, it’s been a while since I have dipped into RW’s writings, and shit, he is dense! If my “translation” feels off to you, I expect you to straighten me out in the comments, please.  That said, here we go.

Let’s start with this excerpt…Emerson wrote, “[Friendship] is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution… We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom, and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.”

Certainly, true friends support each other during the ups and downs of life, but what resonates most for me in this passage is the call to not settle for routine. A friendship should be alive, dynamic, energizing. Thus, we need to be intentional (one of our 5 Suggestions!) about fostering these connections. Like any relationship, same old, same old gets stale. What are we doing to bring excitement to our closest engagements?

Next, RW identifies two equal elements that compromise a real friendship. He wrote, there are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another.

 The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.

Truth and Tenderness. First, truth. The translation here for me is I can be open, candid (another Suggestion!) and be accepted, embraced for my openness. I would say two friends crave such openness. “Arriving in the presence of a man so real and equal,” they know truth will bring them closer.

And then, tenderness. So beautiful. I think if I asked 100 men what the two key elements to a true friendship are, not one would pick tenderness. I wonder how many would say love. Yet, for me, love is number one. The “superior” element (what can I say, RW?). In fact, I suggest love covers truth and tenderness. Hmmm…

Lastly, Emerson wrote, “I find this law of one to one, peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals at once merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.”

Yikes! A long one. My translation…friend groups are great, but the magic is in the one on ones. Couldn’t agree more, RW! This sentiment is exactly why we introduced MenLiving Connect. Our Full Houses, Small Batches are wonderful, but it is tough to have a “conversation of the most sincere and searching sort” in a group. Connect jump starts the process of making the one-on-one connections by matching guys based on their MenLiving profile. I will add, while I do enjoy our group discussions, they often serve as a place for me to “meet” guys that I think I’d like to get to know one on one.

So, it seems Waldo (he allegedly went by his middle name) and I agree on much when comes to the idea of friendship. Are you with the Emerson’s or do you have other perspectives to share with us (well, me, cause he’s dead.)?


  • todd says:

    Well thought out blog shaun and relevant to who we are and what we do. loved all three Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. it was my favorite part of american lit. thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Gustave Carlson says:

    I think truth and tenderness is very important for friendship. I also think acceptance- the ability to listen and accept wherever the friend is at in any particular moment- is important to the connection and builds deeper friendship. I appreciate the clever pieces on and by the Emersons.

    • Shaun Emerson says:

      Gustave! Thank you for the comment. Couldn’t agree more. We were talking yesterday afternoon on RGT about acceptance, bridging the gap between different belief systems. Feels like we are living in a time of more acceptance needed.

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