New Girl disappointed me last season with the way that it treated (or trivialized) Eros. But one episode surprised me with a more sincere look at love between friends.
Besides wisdom, Cicero says, friendship is the greatest gift ever “given to man by the immortal gods.” Nick and Schmidt have been friends for ten years—one third of Nick’s life. But in his first exchange with Schmidt in the episode “Models,” Nick appears to take the gift of friendship for granted.
Schmidt comes home to find Nick watching TV in their apartment. He walks over and tosses Nick a bag from a coffee shop:
Nick: What’s this?
Schmidt: Got you a cookie.
Nick: What’d you have, like, like, an extra?
Schmidt: . . . no.
Nick: So you just, like, got me a cookie?
Schmidt: Yea, I was thinking about you.
Nick: What do you mean you were thinking about me?
Schmidt: What do you mean? I don’t know; I was thinking about you. I think about you a lot, bro.
Nick: . . . why?
Schmidt: Uh I don’t know because you’re my friend; you’re on my mind. Do you not think about me?
Nick: Of course not.
Schmidt: . . . oh.
Schmidt doesn’t buy Nick the cookie in order to get something in return; he tosses it to Nick rather offhandedly. But he’s clearly hurt when Nick says he never thinks about him. The conversation gets interrupted so Schmidt raises the issue again that evening. Exasperated and confused, Nick bursts out, “Why would I think about you?!”
Why would one man think about another for no particular reason? Why buy a cookie for someone just because? To Nick, Schmidt’s action seems unnecessary. But that is part of the nature of friendship. C.S. Lewis observes in the Four Loves that friendship is “the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary . . . Without Eros none of us would have been begotten and without Affection none of us would have been reared; but we can live and breed without Friendship. The species, biologically considered, has no need of it.”
Especially, Lewis notes, to those “who see human life merely as a development and complication of animal life,” behaviors such as friendship that do not exhibit some survival value are suspect.
“We’re not animals!” Schmidt protests.
“We’re men, Schmidt,” Nick replies. “The only time a man is allowed to think about another man is when that man is Jay Cutler.”
Nick argues that it’s somehow not manly to think unnecessarily about another man. It reminds me of how young men today often attach the caveat “no homo” to words of praise or affection directed to their male friends. It’s as if, without that footnote, such displays of affection would automatically indicate erotic love.* This practice tends to affirm the view of the human person that Lewis describes above: survival and utility above all; anything superfluous to survival—like friendship—is suspect. Lewis speculates that those who have such a narrow view of friendship “betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
To Lewis’s statement, I’d add that those who misunderstand or minimize friendship betray the fact that they have never been a friend. In Schmidt and Winston (their other roommate), Nick certainly has good friends. But we see throughout the episode that, often, Nick is not a friend to them. In one flashback, young Winston is sad about the loss of his pet and young Nick, oblivious to his friend’s need for comfort, starts talking about a rock. According to Winston, nothing has changed for adult Nick.
This is a paradox of friendship. Friends do things for one another freely, just as they enter the friendship itself freely. We do things for our friends without any expectation of being paid back or praised; as St. Therese put it: “when one loves, one does not calculate.” Yet a person who loves another freely does hope to be loved freely in return. It’s not about breaking even or balancing the scales; love is not something we can quantify. But friendship does depend on a degree of mutual self-giving.
This is why Nick’s attempt to make up with Schmidt initially upsets Schmidt further. Nick buys Schmidt a cookie and thinks that’ll put things right between them because it will make things “even.” But of course that isn’t the point. As Winston explains, the cookie Schmidt gave Nick wasn’t just a cookie; it was “a piece of his heart.” Schmidt isn’t looking for a cookie in return for a cookie, but for love freely given by his friend. Cookie for cookie just doesn’t cut it.
In an earlier conversation with Jess (the fourth roommate), Nick indicates he has some idea of this. Reflecting on his history with Schmidt, Nick says: “Schmidt loves me so much. And to be honest, Jess, it scares me. I don’t think I deserve all of Schmidt’s love . . . Do you think I’m a bad friend?”
As a character, Nick tends to avoid responsibilities. He doesn’t take many risks; he doesn’t make many commitments. He doesn’t want to impose on anyone or be imposed on. But friendship is an imposition, of sorts. It’s an imposition on our tendencies towards selfishness and indifference. It’s an imposition on our desire not to be held accountable by anyone. We don’t like to have to answer to other people; we don’t like to be in debt to other people, especially when that debt isn’t easy to measure or pay back. It’s fitting that Nick throws a sort of fit when he tries to pay Schmidt back in this way and it doesn’t work. As Nick expresses an immature understanding of friendship, his speech becomes immature—even infantile:
After this protest, Nick breaks down and speaks more from his heart. He admits his true fear to Schmidt:
You love me too much, Schmidt. And you picked the wrong guy. And when are you gonna get that in your giant head of yours? I’m just gonna let you down.
Well, that’s true. How often do we fail our friends? I certainly don’t deserve the love my friends show me, and I don’t return it as much as I should. Do any of us really deserve the friends we have in our lives?
But that, again, is part of the nature of friendship. Friends are gifts. We don’t earn our friends and we don’t really choose our friends, either. “A few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart,” Lewis points out, and Nick realizes this when he thinks back to his first chance meeting with Schmidt. And these chances aren’t really chances. Lewis says that “a secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work . . . Christ . . . can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’”
I suppose that, in some ways, Nick’s initial no-obligations, keep-it-simple, cookie-for-cookie approach is easier. It’s less demanding. And it’s cleaner. But it’s cleaner in an anti-septic sort of way. Is that really what we want? A clean and cut-off sort of life? Or do we accept, with all the attached strings, what Cicero and C.S. Lewis describe as a divine gift?
Friendship is an imposition of sorts, but it’s the sort of imposition that also frees us from the small prison of a self-centered life. Although it’s a struggle, Nick finally steps outside of himself and his normal limits to demonstrate his love for Schmidt. It’s a clumsy attempt, but we see that, between friends, clumsiness and awkwardness don’t matter very much. A big hug between the guys at the end says it all:
*Can you imagine David and Jonathan, or Achilles and Patroclus, or Sts. Xavier and Ignatius adding a sentiment like “no homo” to their conversations?