The National Catholic Review

“What are you working on?” One of the staff in the office of the Pauw Wow, the Saint Peter’s College student paper, was fixed intently on his computer screen. A big story?

“I’m talking to one of my friends,” he replied.

“Great,” I said. “How many friends do you have?”

“300.”

Clearly we were in two different worlds. His was the world of Facebook. He “knew” 300 people, most of whom he had never met, called “friends.” There is even now a verb — to “friend” someone. (There’s already a verb for giving one the gift of friendship — to befriend — but the online universe demands its own vocabulary.)

By coincidence, I too have about 300 friends in different age groups; some I know from the first grade, others from high school and college, my army service, joining the Jesuits, and teaching at eight universities. And, thanks to the internet, people I have not seen in 50 years have read something I’ve written and popped back into my life as friends again.

But college friendships are unique — often especially deep and long-lasting — because they form when we are just gaining the emotional maturity that allows us to deal with complex relationships. The transition from adolescence to adulthood begins to give us the courage to take some risks and the judgment to make commitments. By risks I don’t mean rushing a red light or coming unprepared to a test; I mean befriending the “wrong” person, someone in class or at a party who looks interesting to us, but who might not be that interested in us or who is interested in us for the wrong reasons.

The right college friendships grow on at least two levels: emotional and intellectual. Reading this short essay is not a substitute for a philosophy course, so either take a course that will include Aristotle, Cicero, and Saint Augustine on friendship or just Google “Cicero on friendship” and search for yourself. But the central idea is that true friendship can exist only between two good people. Purely utilitarian relationships — this guy will get me an internship in his father’s law firm — will never be friendships because they are fundamentally selfish. One uses the other, exploits him or her for that job, party invitation, link to another person, term paper help, loan, letter or recommendation, or sexual experience, and then doesn’t return phone calls or messages. Some of these are good deeds  and we should do them,  but they don’t make us friends.

So reading Aristotle’s Ethics, Cicero’s “On Friendship,” or Augustine’s Confessions during the semester can add a little depth to one’s social life; and I can imagine either a sitcom or real life experience where the bright young man at a party full of strangers on his second beer turns to the stranger next to him and says, “I’ll bet you don’t know what Cicero would say about all this if he were here.”

That’s as good a line as  “Do you come here often?” But it’s better to master the basics. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to say “Hello,”  to look the other in the eye as if he or she is the only other person in the room. The next line depends where you are. If you are in New York, you ask “What do you do?” New Yorkers identify themselves by their talent. If you are in New Orleans you ask, “Where are you from?” In the South it’s your family, your roots. That’s a start. 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Comments

David Baugnon | 9/28/2010 - 1:27pm
Let's not be so cynical, Ray. I have close to 400 friends on facebook, all of whom I have met. Granted, 50 of them are family members, but your piece raise some interesting points: What constitutes a ''good'' friend? And what is the nature of friendship in this cyber age? If you had asked me this question 17 years ago, when I was fresh out of college and teaching English in Japan, I would have said ''communication'' is what make a good friend ''good''. Japan can be a lonely, isolating place and for every 50 letters I would write, I'd be lucky to get four responses. It was depressing to say the least. Flash Forward to 2010, it would take me most of the day to follow the exploits of my friends, they are communicating so much. So, how do I choose which friends to “follow” or “ignore”? It’s an interesting question because it’s relevant with or without a computer. Who we are friends with SAYS a lot about who we are. It’s also has a dramatic impact on WHO we are. In his book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan states that if your friend's friend smokes, you are 40% more likely to smoke yourself. In the same book, he describes some tribal memes that I think can be applied to tribes of two as well. Simply and briefly: 1. Life is hell. 2. My life is hell (but other possibilities exist). 3. I’m great. 4. We’re great. 5. Life is Great. Think about a friend right now, think about that relationship and I’m sure it could be put into one of these 5 categories. But if you have friend in category 2, or especially 1, you should be guarded. One litmus test to apply to friendship is a simple question: Does this person inspire me to be better or does this person make me feel like crap? You should base your answer on the entire relationship, but that said, if you feel a friend is dragging you down and you cannot help them or help them change their behavior, you owe to yourself to “de-friend” them.
David Baugnon | 9/28/2010 - 1:31pm
That said, perhaps you should consider joining facebook, Ray. You might realize you have hundreds more friends than you thought.
Beth Cioffoletti | 8/30/2010 - 7:35pm
I have an older sister who was very popular and outgoing.  Her idea of success was how many friends she had.  We were both expected to go to a certain Jesuit college (St. Louis University).  She was a year ahead of me, and I knew that if I went to that college, I would forever be identified as her sister.  I chose to go to another Jesuit college (Spring Hill College).  When I left for college, her advice to me was: make sure that people know who you are.  That was it.

Being introverted, I did not take her advice.  I kept to myself, and made a few friends but not a lot.  Some, but not all, of these friendships have lasted through the years.  I have come to see friendship as a uniquely complex commitment, which many times through the changes of my life, have been broken.  Some are renewed at a later time.  Some have simply been lost.

I am looking forward to finding out what Cicero says about friendship.