How I Met Andrew Sullivan

Matthew Sitman —  Feb 6 2015 @ 10:00am
by Matthew Sitman

One of the first questions I get when a person finds out I work at the Dish, and that Andrew is not just my boss but my friend, is about how we met.

Unlike most of my generation, and probably most readers of this blog, I first encountered Andrew’s writing in his books. I read Virtually Normal with the thrill of genuine intellectual discovery when, as a young doctoral student at Georgetown University, I pulled it off the shelf during an afternoon haphazardly exploring the stacks. I turned to Love Undetectable and The Conservative Soul in quick succession, with the former, in my estimation, being Andrew’s best and most beautiful book. But perhaps most importantly, in early 2008, Andrew’s dissertation on Michael Oakeshott finally was published. During my graduate studies, Oakeshott had become an intellectual hero of mine, a thinker whose writing genuinely changed my life. So I scraped together the money to buy Intimations Pursued, read it slowly and deeply, and then sent Andrew an email asking if we could get coffee to discuss it.

I was a nobody – a poor graduate student in a city in which proximity to power or money is what gets people’s attention. I had nothing to offer Andrew in that regard. What I now realize, however, is that that was a good thing.

I wasn’t asking for anything other than an earnest conversation about a somewhat obscure English philosopher. I wasn’t seeking an internship, I wasn’t trying to secure a “connection,” I didn’t want Andrew to introduce me to anyone. I certainly never believed I’d work at the Dish. Andrew was just a writer who fascinated me, not a celebrity blogger. I wanted to ask him questions. That was all. And that’s why, I now feel certain, he wrote back to me suggesting we skip the coffee and just get dinner at the Duplex Diner.

That evening we shared what would be the first of many long meals together, with me awkwardly asking questions about his dissertation and trying not to seem as nervous as I really was. (Confession: I downed a beer on my way to dinner to help me relax.) I met Aaron that first night, too, and we all ended up going to listen to jazz at Blues Alley. We promised to do it again soon, and in short order we became friends – a title that he and I both revere.

Working together these last two years necessarily impinged on our friendship, with discussions of “business” always threatening to intervene. So while I will miss Andrew’s blogging, and now find myself considering what comes next in my own career, I am relieved that Andrew and I simply can be friends again. Because, after all, true friendship is entirely non-instrumental, and fits uneasily amidst the demands for productivity and performance. As Oakeshott puts it in “On Being Conservative” (pdf):

Friends are not concerned with what might be made of one another, but only with the enjoyment of one another; and the condition of this enjoyment is a ready acceptance of what is and the absence of any desire to change or to improve. A friend is not somebody one trusts to behave in a certain manner, who supplies certain wants, who has certain useful abilities, who possesses certain merely agreeable qualities, or who holds certain acceptable opinions…The relationship of friend to friend is dramatic, not utilitarian; the tie is one of familiarity, not usefulness; the disposition engaged is conservative, not ‘progressive.’

Andrew, to borrow Oakeshott’s phrasing, certainly does not always have acceptable opinions, nor is he always agreeable. Far from it, as readers of this blog certainly know. But Andrew, more than anyone else, has taught me that any genuine form of love, especially friendship, does not seek to change or improve the other person. Friendship is marked most of all by simple delight, by finding the world a slightly less lonely place because of another person’s proximity. It exists for no purpose beyond itself; it is “useless” in the very best sense of what that might mean. And so, it turns out, entering into an abiding friendship actually is the beginning of a more general wisdom: that striving must give way to acceptance, that present laughter should be valued over future reward, that life is not a series of “problems” to be “solved” but a mystery to enjoyed. I’m not sure I’d really understand these things, to the extent I do or in the same way, if Andrew hadn’t decided to answer my email that day.

I can’t help but feel joy that my friend is leaving blogging behind. His deepest interests are not political, as my own story of meeting and getting to know Andrew should indicate. The daily jousting on the web, however brilliantly he executed it, does not reveal the core of the Andrew I know. Instead, if asked to describe the man, what comes to mind is the time we talked about God hour after hour one sunny Spring day, or the eagerness with which he showed me Provincetown my first visit there. I look forward to the day, soon arriving, when reciting our favorite Philip Larkin poems supplants discussion of web traffic, and when, after going to Mass together, we can converse about Jesus without worrying over Monday morning’s blogging.