For better or for worse, a theme of friendship has been quite prevalent in my life lately. The speaker at Brewing the Faith, a large group social in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for young adults, was about friendship. An upcoming talk I’m giving is about community (which is hilarious because I feel like I’m failing at it recently). With graduate school taking up the majority of my life, a variety of friends have complained that I’ve been MIA.
I used to be able to see whoever I wanted. I used to be able to be in a weekly small group, like the one that’s the featured picture in this post. I used to be able to make time. But now, graduate school and work run my life.
I was told once that when you’re in graduate school, you can concentrate on 3 of these 4 things: work, school, sleep, or social life. I cannot operate on less than 8 hours of sleep. I have to work to pay for my life and health/vision/dental insurance. I committed to going to school. Automatically, my social life has taken a back seat to everything else in my life.
Over the summer, I did not have any classes. It was really tempting to not go on 4 different dating apps and see who I could meet. Instead, I took advantage of the fact that I had three months of only being scheduled 20 or 30 hours a week to try to focus on my friends. I made a trip to St. Louis and Waterloo, IA, to see two of my dear friends from college. I spent a lot of time of with family. I joined a softball league that even extended into this fall (thank goodness they’re nice. I’m not that great.). I was able to start working on a project at work that I can use for my dissertation/capstone.
It was a busy summer (mostly because I could not stop working and still picked incentive pay shifts up a lot). But I am so thankful that I focused on my friendships instead of searching for a relationship. Yet, in seeking good, true, and beautiful friendships, I’ve discovered that authentic friendship is the foundation for a healthy romantic relationship. A lot of my mistakes and unhealthy attachments in prior romantic relationships have been revealed, and I’ve realized I have a lot to learn when it comes to friendship.
So, what is friendship?
The book of Sirach explains it well:
A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,
and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.
Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.
When you gain a friend, first test him,
and be not too ready to trust him.
For one sort is a friend when it suits him,
but he will not be with you in time of distress.
Another is a friend who becomes an enemy,
and tells of the quarrel to your shame.
Another is a friend, a boon companion,
who will not be with you when sorrow comes.
When things go well, he is your other self,
and lords it over your servants;
But if you are brought low, he turns against you
and avoids meeting you.
Keep away from your enemies;
be on your guard with your friends.
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.
Friends are not found in prosperity but in our poverty. Trial refines friendship and does not end it. Friendship is a gift, a treasure beyond price. Sirach describes a variety of friendships, and so does the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Aristotle divides friends into 3 categories:
Friends of utility are usually casual friends, people who we “use” them for something whether it be a connection for a job or whatever else. It isn’t an abusive relationship. Just one where we know someone on a superficial level. Meg Jay in her book The Defining Decade would call them weak ties.
Weak ties are “the people we have met, or are connected o somehow, but do not currently know well.” These weak ties good for us, however. Weak ties have connections that our close friends might not. Weak ties are different from us and challenge us to see the world in a different way. Jay noted how weak ties help twenty somethings get jobs, explore new careers, meet their spouse, etc. As she wrote,
“Weak ties…force us to communicate from a place of difference, to use what is called elaborated speech. Unlike restricted speech, which presupposes similarities between the speaker and the listener, elaborated speech does not presume that the listener thinks in the same way or knows the same information. We need to be more thorough when we talk to weak ties, and this requires more organization and reflection…In this way, weak ties promote, and sometimes even force, thoughtful growth and change.
– Meg Jay, The Defining Decade
Even if we are not best friends with our weak ties, they are still good for us and us for them. Even if our close friendships disintegrate to weak ties, we are still good from them and them for us. The strength of our weak ties (as discussed by Mark Granovetter) should not be underestimated.
By the same coin, the weakness of our strong ties (as coined by Rose Coser) should not be underestimated either. Strong ties are our “urban tribe” as Jay would say, the people we spend time with regularly. These fit into Aristotle’s friendships of pleasure.
Friendships of pleasure is what I would argue most of our society think friendship is. We enjoy going out together, watching or playing sports together, etc. But these friends are not present in difficulty and do not necessarily want our good.
Sometimes we are so close with these friends that we are in the same rut of thinking, and that thinking isn’t necessarily good. A story that always stood out to me in Jay’s book was the story of Talia, a twentysomething from Nashville, TN, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and had an “urban tribe” of friends. But all she wanted to do was go home. (Sounds familiar to me here and here!)
Talia’s SF Bay friends mocked her for wanting to return home. Yet, Talia deeply desired for her future children to know their grandparents and to spend time with her younger siblings. (I can relate to that desire a lot while travel nursing. People in California thought I was insane for wanting to move to Wisconsin in the dead of winter! But home was calling.) Yet her weak tie with Jay convinced her to do what was best for her, even when her neighbor and friend mocked her decision.
But friends of the Good or of Virtue desire what is best for us, even if it doesn’t serve them. What is the hallmark of a virtuous friendship? St. Augustine noted that these friendships had four qualities:
- Desiring good for the other
- Common purpose
Like friends of pleasure, we share a common purpose. We like going out together, watching or playing sports together, etc. But these friends are honest with us, calling us out on our bad thinking or bullshit. These friends want good for us, even if that means the current friendship might under a difficulty by one of them moving. These friends truly love us.
What is love? Love is selfless. With more casual friends, we tend to want something out of the other. As some of my friends and I have grown up, our purposes have changed. Sometimes I feel some of my friends don’t want good for me. And something that has been missing in a variety of my friendships is a certain level of honesty. If I feel like I cannot reveal my true self, that’s a problem.
So, revisiting my idea of friendship has been painful because that means I’ve needed to back off from friends I truly love and want the best for because I’ve realized I want to receive in friendship what I give. I want friends who are good to me, love me, desire good for me, are honest with me, and share a common purpose with.
Granted, not all of my closest friends share my common purpose of religion. One of my best friends is my college roommate. Even though we’re at very different spots in our conceptions of God, her respect and curious inquisition of my faith actually challenges me to become a better Catholic. She is so supportive of me, I cannot speak highly enough of her. And she calls me out on my massive amounts of bullshit. She is a authentic friend of virtue, and I am very blessed to have her.
My sister and her husband are Catholic and Lutheran, respectively. My dad and mom were not both Catholic when they got married. (The priest that married them almost had a heart attack when they disagreed how many kids they wanted. My dad wanted 6. My mom wanted 0. They compromised and had 3. :D) I’m not convinced that our closest relationships have to believe the exact same thing we do, and I’m not convinced someone’s religiosity or lack thereof needs to be a criterium for our relationships, romantic or otherwise.
Too, we cannot expect to be a St. Augustine level of friend with everyone. (This is the false expectation I fall under a lot!)
It’s impossible, first of all. Anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar said that the human person is capable of 100 to 200 casual relationships, 50 close friends, 15 confidants, and 5 close support people. This is called the “Dunbar number” and has been demonstrated throughout history from the average hunter-gatherer group being 148.4 to modern-day companies preferring to be in sections of 50 divided into tight-knit groups of 10-15.
Second of all, friendship is a two way street. I can desire good for my friends, be honest with them, love them as selflessly as I am able, and try to have a common purpose with them. If they don’t reciprocate, there’s nothing I can do to control that. Right now, my life is a lot of laptop and coffee shop time. I forget to schedule phone calls and text people. For friends that have things to work on or call/text me when they have a free minute, it’s great because we “study” together (but unlike college, actually work on things) or spend a hot second catching up. For friends that don’t, I seem really antisocial.
But the beauty of the Dunbar number is that relationships are fluid and move between different layers. Friends I once considered casual are now some of my closest ones and visa versa. It’s the nature of life. Too, our “Dunbar number” is very dependent on us. Some people can handle 15 close friends. Some can only handle 5.
Travel nursing was a very informative time where I really learned who cared about me as much as I cared about them. Some of my casual friends became very close friends in that time. But now that I’ve been in the same city for almost 3 years, it’s been awhile since I thought critically about my friends. It seems like graduate school is also becoming quite an eye-opening experience about friendship, and my time being MIA has given me perspective on who is seeking the same common purposes I am.
I don’t know everything there is to know about friendship. If you can’t tell, I’m at a bit of a crossroads with the whole idea. But I do know as I’m getting older, I appreciate those friends who exhibit St. Augustine’s characteristic of honesty.
I’ve been reflecting on the passage from Mark 10 about Jesus and the young rich man. It goes like this:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’”
He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus, before saying anything, looked at him and loved him. Mark is not known for writing a word more than he needed. I think it’s profound that he included the words ἐμβλέπω (emblepó) which means to discern clearly, to behold, to gaze, to concentrate upon in with special love, interest, or concern and ἀγαπάω (agapaó) which means to love, to long for, to wish well.
Mark is teaching us in this small passage the characteristics of true friendship that Augustine would write hundreds of years later. Jesus is a friend of virtue, a friend who desires our good, loves us selflessly, is honest with us, and has a common purpose in finding peace and joy in the world.
And truly, Jesus has been an authentic friend to me in all of this. He looks at me in love and tells me what I need but not necessarily want to hear. He has shown me that sometimes friends walk away from us, and we cannot compromise on who we are. He showed me in His life that true friends lay down their lives for one another. I both need to be willing to do that for my friends and have friends be willing to do that for me.
I’ve heard it said that when looking for a spouse, you need to run the race and look who is around you. I think the same is true of authentic friends. Right now, all I’m concentrating on is running, and I have ideas on who is running by my side. As long as I’m looking at Christ, I know I’ll be OK.