Has there ever been a friendlier society than the 21st century’s global village, in which total strangers phone from the other side of the world and call us by our first name, and electronic messages constantly reassure us that our familiars are thinking of us? At the same time, busy as we are, have we ever been less likely to actually see our friends or do anything for them? To paraphrase James Taylor’s ever-popular song: “Just send me a text, and you know wherever I am / I’m checking my Nokia and I’ll text you again.” American research published early this year found that visiting friends has been declining for the past 30 years, thanks mainly to better education, longer working hours and urbanisation.
Even the concept of friendship is at risk. Modern sociologists and anthropologists have manipulated it, seeing it as a sort of imperfect state of love between people of the same sex. They have insisted on reading this reality from the perspective of gender studies, and it is difficult to speak about a deep friendship between two persons of the same sex without that friendship being interpreted as homosexual affection. It is a pity, and also a dangerous proposition.
Traditionally friendship has been understood as a different sort of love from the one between a husband and wife or a courting couple. That is the simple reason why a person who is married also likes, and needs, to develop friendships. Friends play a different role to that of the spouse. A couple has a level of acquaintance and understanding that could be similar to that between friends, but there is an essential difference. The bonds of friendship are mainly spiritual, it is a communion of souls; the bond of love between a man and a woman is spiritual but also bodily — a married couple is called to be “one flesh”.
Recently two authors have offered some useful reflections on this subject, although their views also tend to confirm the feeling that friendship in our day is being misunderstood. Friendship: An Exposé is a collection of essays by the literary critic Joseph Epstein. In Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without, Tom Rath fluctuates between business management advice and self-help writing.
Rath, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, writes from the perspective of his research in the field of human interaction. He claims to be especially worried about the approach of the most recent human sciences studies. As he sees it, they focus too much either on social groups or on individuals, forgetting the importance of one to one relationships, which is where friendship actually develops. He presents the cases of two homeless people and discusses how friendship, or the lack of it, influenced their lives. He also comments on some unique and famous friendships, such as the one between Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II.
In a way, the first part of this book can be seen as an extension of Rath’s previous work in How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life. In it, Rath analysed the way in which good deeds increase one’s own happiness and the other’s happiness at the same time. In Vital Friends he turns his attention to the benefits of developing friendships at workplaces.
“What is the real financial and emotional impact of friendship on the job?” he asks, in a tone that somehow diminishes the human scope of the concept of friendship. His answer is, basically, an analysis of quantitative research led by Rath with the support of Gallup Consulting, the firm for which he works. Five million people were interviewed and the author concludes that people who work with friends, or make friends in their workplace tend to be happier, more pro-active and more efficient — not only in the office, but also when they are not at work. This is a common observation in the field of business administration: group encouragement tends to generate “friendly” workplaces as a means of making business more effective.
Rath, to give him his due, goes further, presenting eight categories of friends: builder, champion, collaborator, companion, connector, energiser, mind opener and navigator. He shows that each of these roles has much to do with some of the essential virtues of a friendship: cheerfulness, encouragement, support, generosity… He suggests that the reader analyse who are the people who fill these roles in his or her life. Rath’s starting point is a very good one, but he has a weak anthropological background, and a direction that may be tricky. We choose our friends up to a point, but not with the intention of categorising them and calculating the benefits we can extract from them. In other words, a person does not run his life as just another business; friendship is not a profit-raising instrument.
Epstein’s book is different in style and in spirit, but not for the better. The essays in Friendship: an Exposé are more insightful, but more pessimistic. The author sets out his vision of friendship and dedicates much of his time narrating the pleasures and troubles of his friendships. It is full of stories from Epstein’s childhood to his adult years.
He respects Aristotle, but points out the scarcity of literature on this topic. Simultaneously he discredits the claims of the Freudian school: he does not agree that sexual inclinations lie behind all human relationships. In that he is wise.
Still, he fails to see the full breadth of friendship. He sees it as a troublesome reality — without which, however, one couldn’t afford to live. He regrets having so many friends and talks about them in an unfeeling manner: “One of the toughest rules of the art of friendship is to take friends as they are.” An Epicurean at heart, he wants the pleasure of good conversations without obligations.
No treatise on friendship today would be complete without examining the influence of new technologies. Rath finds that technology has helped to unburden him of some of the needs he considers to be excessive in friendship. Thanks to voicemail, he can feel he has contacted his friends, although he did not actually get the chance to speak with them. Epstein also offers the strange insight that friendship has changed because of the different role of women in today’s society. Friendship has become, he concludes, a leisure activity where generosity has to be measured.
Again, Epstein’s starting point is a good one. But then it is quite easy to agree with the idea that friends are enjoyable, important and worth taking time to think about. The concept that is missing is that friendship is not a good which one pursues for oneself, but for the sake of the other, as Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics. And it is essentially a free gift. So the person who looks for friendship in order to lead a pleasant life, forgets that a true friend is one who makes sacrifices and chooses the not-so-comfortable in order to make a friend feel comfortable.
A true friend has also to be willing to make the other a better person, to get involved in their future. This may involve sometimes telling a difficult truth, correcting faults and offering time and help as often as necessary. So, why “come running” to give that friend “a helping hand”? Not only to honour James Taylor, but because it is in giving ourselves that we see lasting friendships flourish.
Ana Ines Trapp graduated in Communication from the Universidad de Montevideo, Uruguay, where she worked as a book reviewer for El Observador. She currently lives in Maryland.