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Issue: Friendship

FRIENDSHIP

THE BONDS OF A LIFELONG BROTHERHOOD

By Laura Benys

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Albert Keshishian’s office was like his life: full to the point of overflowing. Shelves were crammed with books about rugs beside books about history and horse racing. A vibrant abstract painting of his father hung on one wall; lithographs of horses and family photos with his sister and parents filled the others. Antique chairs were wedged behind two massive wooden desks, and filing cabinets took up the spaces between. 

A few small, high-end rugs were tucked into a stack for safekeeping. “It was a very narrow path to a chair,” says Tigran Agadzhanyan. “But at the same time, it was very well organized. Al had a system for everything.”

In the showroom beyond, upwards of a thousand rugs held court: Indian and Chinese rugs laid flat; huge Persian rugs rolled up; a frequently changing display of hanging rugs. At the back of the room, a long work table was laid bare for stitching and repair work. The air was heavy with the musty, complex smell of antiques.

This is where the brothers spent most of their time, sometimes a plate of cheeses or bottle of wine between them, classical music often playing on vinyl or cassette. Keshishian owned thoroughbred racehorses and his favorite song was Rossini’s galloping “William Tell Overture.” “He had a cassette we’d put on really loud and just listen and sit there smiling,” says Agadzhanyan.

The brothers met at Oakland Durant Rockridge Lodge No. 188 in 2016. Keshishian was 89 years old, a lifelong Oakland resident, and a third-generation rug merchant; his grandfather led a caravan through Turkey selling rugs, and his father opened the Oakland store after immigrating to the United States. Agadzhanyan was 19, a recent valedictorian of his Southern California high school, and a political science student at the University of California, Berkeley. But once their paths crossed, friendship “sprung up,” says Agadzhanyan. They were kindred spirits. Both were the first generation of their families to be born in the U.S., with ancestral homes in the same part of Armenia. Both were brimming with passions. 

They loved talking about art. About books. About classical music – Agadzhanyan’s mother is an opera singer and he grew up playing the piano; as a young man, Keshishian trained briefly to be an opera singer. They talked about their shared heritage, and about the struggle for success as immigrants. They talked about old furniture, pianos, prized collections, and travel. “We could sit there for a week straight and talk,” Agadzhanyan says. Although they could have been grandfather and grandson, they were first and foremost friends.

Agadzhanyan got in the habit of coming by Keshishian’s store before lodge meetings. They’d visit for an hour or two, then walk together across the street to lodge. One afternoon Agadzhanyan arrived several hours early and found his friend struggling to tidy up for the day. His hand was badly swollen from arthritis and a muscle strain. By then 90 years old and no taller than 5’2″, he was still remarkably hale. But for the past few years, he had been running the store without any employees, lifting rugs that weighed up to 400 pounds. From that day on, Agadzhanyan started coming by two or three times a week, taking care of some of the heavy work. He hauled rugs around the showroom floor, opened them up to vacuum and dust, and wrestled them back into tidy rolls. Keshishian taught him about the rug trade and how to weave and repair stitches. They chose a rug to restore together.

Keshishian helped the younger man in his own way. Although Agadzhanyan, by all accounts, already had a full life – classes and school activities; family to visit in Southern California; the lodge – the friendship filled a space that he hadn’t realized was empty. He’d found someone who understood him and shared his expansive interests. If he was worried, he had someone to talk to who could reflect his values back to him, and also add a new perspective. “I was happier,” he says.

SEEKING DEEPER CONNECTIONS

Ask a roomful of Masons how the fraternity has impacted their lives, and friendship will be among the first and loudest answers. In Masonic circles, good friends aren’t hard to find.

But they’re increasingly rare in society. A recent survey from health company Cigna found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. One out of five has no person they can talk to. Another one out of five has meaningful in-person encounters less than once a week. Today, we are a lonely nation.

During his recent term as U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy spoke extensively about a loneliness epidemic. As he traveled from cities to small towns, he says he witnessed people who felt “profoundly alone. This was true across socioeconomic classes, geographies, and ages.”

There are plenty of reasons we find ourselves starved for friendship. For starters: Not enough time. In a constantly connected culture, work has crept into every part of our day – and evenings, weekends, and vacations. In the precious moments between, we are often forced to choose between family and friends. Family usually wins.

Then there’s location. According to census data, more people move away from home and live separately from family and friends than ever before. Just when we’ve built our community, we up and leave.

Finally, there is technology, the effects of which we’re only just realizing. Studies now link social media to depression, anxiety, and isolation. As surgeon general, Murthy cautioned against using social media in place of real, offline connection: “They are not equivalent,” he writes. “The more we shift from speaking on the phone to texting, and from having an in-person conversation to emailing someone down the hall, the more layers we place between ourselves and others.”

This erosion of our free time, our communities, and our interpersonal relationships is catching up with us, and the consequences are alarming. Men may have it hardest of all. Billy Baker summed this up in his viral Boston Globe article last year. “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness,” Baker writes. “[There is] all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.”

What sorts of problems and just how terrible? Since the 1980s, loneliness has been linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke risk, and Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and carry worse risks than obesity. This sounds astonishing, but in the end, this data boils down to the fact that human beings are social creatures. We have evolved with a physiological need for connection. Without it, our bodies react exactly as they do to any other kind of stress: by releasing cortisol and other hormones. Over the long term, that increases our risk of physical and mental illness.

We need ongoing, meaningful friendships to sustain our health as individuals, and in the big picture, for the health of our communities.

The point is that we need ongoing, meaningful friendships to sustain our health as individuals, and in the big picture, for the health of our communities. Particularly for men, this is a challenge. First, there are no substitutions. A study by the University of Oxford found that men need to meet up in person and share an activity in order to make and keep a bond. (The same study showed that women can get by with simply talking, in person or by phone.) Second, there’s no quick fix. Cambridge psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, who cowrote “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century,” says the best way for men to create and sustain friendships is with a regular schedule – something that’s always set on the calendar, and frequently recurring. Third, there’s no mailing it in. Lasting bonds require an emotional connection. This can be difficult in some circles, especially when cultural expectations about masculinity have a habit of getting in the way.

In other words, making true friends is an uphill battle for men today – at least, in most corners of society. Then again, there is Masonry.

BEYOND WORDS

In the early 1780s, Austrian poet Joseph Franz Ratschky wrote an essay lauding the virtues of Masonry for the development of young men. In it, he insists that no organization is designed better for “either improving the heart or perfecting it,” “continuously developing the propensity for good,” and “through friendly exchange with fellows… transforming cold, insensitive self-love into universal, warm, brotherly love.” In his experiences with brothers, he saw that the path to self-betterment – that great aim of Masonry – was forged not only through the fraternity’s symbols and degrees, but through its friendships.

Scholar Heather Morrison, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the State University of New York, New Paltz, expands on this, writing of the fraternity during the Enlightenment: “The powerful draw of Freemasonry was due in no small part to this idea that the brotherhood saw into a man’s soul and celebrated all the hidden things that made him good. Outside the lodge, propriety isolated men. Within the association, however, sincere affection and trust between brothers took its place.” In the safety of the Masonic lodge, men had a rare opportunity to open themselves up to others. The relationships they made helped them develop into a “feeling, moral man in society.” Simply put, friends bring out the best in us. In Masonry, this is uniquely true.

Masonry dismantles the silos we usually build around ourselves. This is one of the many ways the fraternity was groundbreaking 300 years ago - and why it remains so important today.

Part of this comes from being exposed to new points of view. As every initiate learns in the first degree, one of Freemasonry’s remarkable abilities is to “conciliate true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.” Perpetual distance is all too easy to come by: Left to our own devices, research shows that we tend to become friends either with people we see a lot – those who live near us and work with us – or people who are similar to us. That’s an awfully small pool. But Masonry dismantles the silos we usually build around ourselves. This is one of the many ways the fraternity was groundbreaking 300 years ago and remains so important today.

“Masonry presents us with opportunities for relationships that would never have happened otherwise,” says Gene Goldman, past master of Amity Lodge No. 442 and Black Mountain Lodge No. 445 in San Diego. And, he is quick to add, it cements those relationships with the degree experience. “I’ve known people who are pilots. Once they perform their first solo landing, they understand something no one else could understand about every other pilot. Going through the initiatic experience of Masonry is that moment. That bond is something you could never in a million years communicate with words.”

Many of Goldman’s close friends are men he wouldn’t otherwise have met or formed a bond with if it weren’t for Masonry. He became close with one brother, Leonardo Ilog, when a group from Black Mountain Lodge decided to check out the local “swap meet,” an open-air flea market in San Diego. Other brothers came and went from week to week, but Ilog and Goldman never missed it. They started carpooling, then grabbing lunch. Their texts each week evolved from formal (“Should I pick you up at 8:00 at the Park-n-Ride?”) to familiar (“The usual?”) to their own shorthand (“?” and “!”).

They were a classic odd couple. Goldman, a software developer and technical writer, is an extrovert who can be counted upon for frank discussion; some of his brothers have suggested the title “grand troublemaker.” Ilog, a retired Navy cook from the Philippines, is soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and averse to conflict. But as they wandered together past the booths at the swap meet – Goldman looking for tech gadgets, Ilog for kitchen knives – and over many drives and lunches, they began to open up about their lives, and to lean on each other.

“There’s no way that we would have met or formed that kind of relationship if it hadn’t been for Masonry,” Goldman says. “We didn’t move in the same circles. We didn’t have the same friends. We didn’t have the same interests, for the most part. He’s not into technology. I cook badly.” He laughs.

Their friendship evolved like their text messages. Goldman helped Ilog pick out a new cellphone. Ilog presented Goldman with a good kitchen knife. When Goldman and his wife went out of town for the weekend, they asked Ilog to swing by the house to check on their teenage daughters. When Ilog’s daughter got married, the Goldmans attended and helped celebrate. When Goldman was laid off from work years ago, Ilog was the first to call and offer support.

Ilog, who is 72, has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, forcing their weekly outings to end. “But our great friendship will remain forever part of my life,” Goldman says. “I’m thankful that Masonry brought us together.”

FRIENDSHIP WITHIN

Such is the legacy of true friendships: They continue to sustain us, even when they’ve ended. On an overcast March day in Oakland, Agadzhanyan stopped by his friend’s rug store for one of their usual visits. At one point, Keshishian disappeared into his office and reappeared with his pocket watch, a worn pewter piece. “Tigran,” he said, “I don’t need this anymore. You should have it.”

Agadzhanyan hesitated, reluctant to take the watch his friend had used for so many years. He asked, “Are you sure? Are you ready to give it away?” Keshishian insisted.

They ran errands together, going to the bank, then to buy groceries. They returned to the rug store, and talked about history. Finally, Keshishian set about finishing some paperwork. Agadzhanyan left to study, and the next day he arrived at the store to find it locked. He learned that a few hours after they parted, his friend had closed up shop and headed home. He passed away that evening, while cooking dinner.

It’s been a hard eight months. “I have truly lost an immense part of my life,” Agadzhanyan says. “It isn’t that there are just a few things that remind me of Al. It’s that he hasn’t left my mind.”

But when he’s feeling low, it’s still his friend who cheers him. In these moments, he returns to their conversations. “Al had a favorite saying, ’Life moves on in the big city.’ He had such a positive outlook on life,” he says. “He lived by faith. He’d always say that whatever happened was meant to be, was the good work of the universe, whether positive or negative. He lived through so many tragedies in his 90 years, but he kept that same positive outlook – that it was all meant to happen, that it was always leading somewhere. He didn’t question it one bit.”

The friendship changed Agadzhanyan. “Even as a college student, things get difficult. You question the path of your life. Al helped me remember that it’s all leading somewhere,” he says. “His friendship made an impact that I’ll carry until my deathbed.”

“In society outside Freemasonry, it’s really hard to find solid friendship. We’re all dispersed. It doesn’t feel like there’s a natural atmosphere for it,” he says. “But Freemasonry brings men of all ages and all backgrounds, all sects, all opinions, all religions into one space, and friendships form out of nothing. One day you have nothing. The next day, you have everything.”

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Longtime members and new brothers can use these questions as the starting point for a discussion in lodge, or in one-on-one conversations.

  • This article quotes scholar Heather Morrison, who wrote, “The powerful draw of Freemasonry was due in no small part to this idea that the brotherhood saw into a man’s soul and celebrated all the hidden things that made him good.” Consider your own Masonic experience. What little-known attribute of your character has been brought to light or strengthened through Freemasonry? What character attributes might you like to share, and how will you do so?
  • Freemasonry has the ability to “conciliate true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.” Aside from age, what are some examples of “perpetual distance” that separate people today? How does Freemasonry overcome these barriers? How do you and your brothers build bridges and create consensus between brothers with differing opinions?
  • Consider a Masonic friendship that has been particularly meaningful to you. What did this friendship teach you about yourself? About Freemasonry? About life outside the fraternity?
  • Tigran Agadzhanyan and Albert Keshishian enjoyed an extremely meaningful friendship despite a 70-year age difference. Do intergenerational friendships exist in your lodge? Why are these connections important?

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Congratulations to Our Winners!

The results are in: Help recognize this year’s recipients of the Lodge Communication Awards! See the full list of winners and view samples of their efforts. These brothers are truly raising the bar for the quality of lodge communications throughout the Golden State.

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