Friendship through the eyes of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen

A draft of my Sunday Assembly NYC talk on 5/4/14. Links and updates added as conversations flow, so this may get quite fluid. 


Pop culture has ruined our learning curve when it comes to friendship. Celebrity and fictional BFF’s and bromances annoy me. They are fun and funny, but blah at best.


I’m showing a fictional pair but there are reality show pairs I’m sure spring to mind as well. And I’m sad that I, along with much of America, turn to pop culture for a friendship fix. I want to see fictional or fiction-ish friends in my feeds and on my tv who really enrich each others’ lives. Because we believe the stereotypes we see and even when they seem like good friendships, they are only cloudy reflections of the real thing.

I’ve been reading a book called Friendfluence by Carlin Flora. “The surprising way friends make us who we are.” And as I’m reading it, I’m surprised we’d be surprised. We all have a hope that our friends help us shape ourselves to who we want to be. But she’s right. It is surprising how much our friends affect our growth.

We are starting to learn that the strength of friendship bonds may be key to our longevity and happiness as individuals. We have evolved as a species through the help of predictable allies who share their food, shelter, energy and time. And it’s not only among humans. Chimpanzees, baboons, horses, and even bats have been studied for their friendship bonds. But how do we pick our friends? What exactly do they do? And for that, I went to the wisdom and philosophy of an iconic thinker: Bill Murray.



This is what I found. This is all I got. Friendship is weird. But recently, a friendship has gone viral that transcends the vapid camaraderie we generally see on screen and in our feeds. Two beings who epitomize friendship in our modern time. So I’m going to go through a casual list of what friendship is through the eyes of these two men. So let’s study the world of friendship through the eyes of…


Evolutionary psychologists theorize that friendships started in our need for aid in survival – hunt for food, harvest crops, defense from attack, create new tools, etc. And to be honest, if we look at it that way now, it hasn’t changed a bit.


Our survival needs have changed. We stop requiring someone to fight off predators in the wild. Now, we need someone to help us fight off predators in our day to day life –liars, thieves, bad exes, etc. We need allies as we harvest, but the harvest is not often berries and wheat. It is now a harvest of excel sheets or some other gathering of resources and data. I don’t need a friend to show me a rock can be used to exact more force onto a point, but I may do well to have one show me how to program my new iPhone.


Now, not every friend fulfills every role or provides every perk. And some friends are bromances, just purely for some mancave time and light football. (I think that’s Brit football, yeah? And that’s okay, I guess.) Some are best friends, they know and do it all. They remember your first crush and favorite comfort food. And they have a Tupperware container with that comfort food on hand at all times. The depth and glue of our friendships are not one on one as much as a cluster of singular and group friendships.


We say friends make us happier. That’s difficult to define and quantify, but we do know, friendship lowers stress levels, not only for us, but also in the animal kingdom. So in lowering our stress levels, we lean toward a longer life. So happier and healthier can be seen as a friendship perk.


And it doesn’t stop there. Some studies are showing that a conversation with a friend might make you smarter…for a minute. At the University of Michigan they learned that friendly conversation (as opposed to competitive or combative conversation) will raise your focus and increase your memory for a bit. But the discussion does lead us to another benefit that overlaps this. If we are creative people, we will have friends who help us creatively.  Musicians befriend musicians and writers befriend writers.

I know for me, I’m a writer and it’s a lonely process. I have friends who understand it on a level where they can, with the right language, tell me I’m not alone. We may collaborate or we may not. We may network, we may not.  It’s more about the “getting you” that makes that friendship a good jumping off point in being a source of energy and inspiration to pursue your creativity. And you know, you don’t have to be Dorothy Parker and her table, or here, the X-Men. Creativity could be your sewing circle, fishing, or exercise, reading, etc. You get better with a companion helping you, playing with you and cheering you on.


Finally….Okay, that may not be the right pic. But I do like it. Magneto and Professor X, once friends, now arch-nemesis because of an ethical difference. But you know, at one time, they were really good for each other.

[Note: When I spoke, I called Charles Xavier “Dr X”….er…sorry. Sooooo wrong.]

Let’s try this one.


Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have a lot in common. Brits, Shakespearean trained thespians. Activists. There is one small difference. One is straight. The other is gay. A small difference, like the gender one prefers, is a great layer to friendship. Friends can bond with what they have in common and expand someone’s mental and emotional scope with new ideas and different cultures. They help us create positive change within and without. That tweet is Patrick Stewart responding to an article that outed him as gay. It may have been a typo, it may be because he holds hands with Ian McKellen and has no problem with how it’s perceived.


So our sphere of friendship builds us up. Each friend has a different emotional and social tool to help us do that. They invest in us. And we invest in them. And that investment is mutually beneficial. When a friend asks for help, they are strengthening the friendship. It’s not selfish. It’s actually dangerous to not ask for help from a friend. This is a fragile thing here. A friend accepts all of a person and they will work hard at safely communicating red flags in their friend’s behavior. If there is betrayal or toxicity, that’s different, but in healthy friendships, the level of honesty in how I assess you and how you assess me is key. And honesty is not just about the spinach in someone’s teeth. It’s also when someone is not being true to self. Asking for help is communicating to a friend that they capable of generosity and trust. So friendship is mutually beneficial.

“happiness cluster!”

There is a theory that not only friends influence us, but so do our friends’ friends. That there is an emotional and, I guess, sociological contagion among social networks. Nicholas Christakis did a Ted talk about this and his examples ranged from the tiny day to day to the extreme mass mentality. If I smile at you, you may smile back. You don’t think about it. Unless you’ve lived in NY long enough and you wonder if I’m crazy. But generally, you smile back. And riots are a large version of the organic spread of emotion.

And he asked in that Ted talk. “Could emotions spread in a more sustained way than riots across time and involve large numbers of people. Maybe there is a kind of, below the surface, quiet riot that animates us all the time. Maybe there are emotional stampedes that ripple through human social networks.”

#gogodididoNY is a quiet riot of giddy, childlike friendship. Those of us who followed, became fans of Patrick and Ian and we connected to each other in the virability of these two men. And that is something that is more than just bromances and BFF’s. They sparked our own love for our friends.


Kurt Vonnegut said, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” I actually gasped when I read that.

The core of these stable communities is not just commonality. It is possibly friendship. Healthy, inspiring friendships create social circles which expand into an intricate web of communities. All connected, more tightly bonded by the strength of the friendships to cure the disease of loneliness.




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