I very much enjoy it when I read someone I respect who is dealing with an issue or theme that I think is important. More often than not, these experiences are both confirming what I think and also tend to take my own thought further or deeper. Just such an experience happened recently as I turned to the daily newspaper. I still buy a hard copy of my local paper. I also read two or three online papers or news sources, too. I hit this article by David Brooks in my local newspaper. But since he is syndicated, it also appeared in the other online newspapers.
I was immediately drawn to the article by Brooks’ title. It read: “Startling Adult Friendships.” It also had an interesting subtitle: “There are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends.” I have had a long interest in the topic of friendship. In fact, I teach a class called “Spiritual Friendship.” When I do that class, we begin with some Old Testament friendships, like David and Jonathan. We look at what Aristotle has to say about friendship and, then, we tramp through the Christian centuries. The idea of friendship has a rich history. I wanted to see what Brooks brought to it.
Brooks begins by talking about the role of friendship in making significant differences in people’s lives. He contrasts it with the huge charitable gifts of people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and others. Interestingly, Brooks cites people like Aristotle and Cicero, whom we read in my class. He acknowledges the necessity of friendship. Using these figures, Brooks says, “You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life. Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects.” I could not agree more.
Brooks proceeds to argue that friendship offers three benefits. I want to cite each of these three, since I agree with his thought process. “In the first place,” Brooks claims, “friendship helps people make better judgments.” This is a good point. Friends help me make these better judgments because, he tells us, your friend is like a “second sympathetic self” working alongside you. What a gift!
This leads to the second benefit. Brooks says, “…friends usually bring out better versions of each other.” Then Brooks concludes, noting, “Finally, people behave better if they know their friends are observing.” Clearly, this points to the moral argument for friendship. We do not want to let down our friends. We tend to feel more responsible because of our friendships.
In true Brooks’ fashion, he then proceeds to use this idea to offer a critique of our world. He simply acknowledges, “friendship is not in great shape in America today.”
Brooks cites some figures to underscore his contention that friendship is not in great shape. He would like to change this landscape and so would I. I also think any spiritual person would feel the same way. Perhaps, friendships can be a crucial building block of making peace and bringing justice in a world too prone to being unfair and fighting.
Brooks envisions a few ways to help people in making and building friendships. I like some of his ideas, although he mostly has work and politics in mind. I would add the spiritual dimension and expect he would not disagree. Let’s look first at one of his ideas.
He says, “you have to get people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up. You also probably want to give them challenging activities to do together. Nothing inspires friendship like selflessness and cooperation in moments of difficulty.” This idea would work if we also think about spiritual friendships.
Because the Spirit is a radical democratizer and equalizer, spiritual friendships also cross boundaries of race, gender, class, etc. Friendships of the Spirit call for us to be other-centered. Just as the Christian is encouraged to pray, “not my will, but thy will,” so do friends hold the other person at center-stage. After all, friendship is a form of love. I learned this years ago in a Greek class, when I learned one of the Greek words for love is translated “friend.” I have never looked at friendship the same way again.
I also think spiritual friends should be even more capable of compassion than merely “secular friends.” A life in the Spirit should prepare our hearts and souls to reach out to our friends and be willing to be self-sacrificing. This is a different, higher order of love. My experience in my spiritual journey should be, at the same time, an experience in having my heart prepared for sacrificial loving, if necessary.
I feel like I still am in preparatory school on this kind of love, but I am committed and have aspirations to grow and develop. If I cannot develop this kind of heart, then I am afraid I will be stuck in a “tit for tat” kind of mentality. I might treat my secular friends in an ok fashion, but I am not sure I would be prepared for the peace making that God hopes and expects from me.
I thank David Brooks for drawing me back again into this topic. I love having a chance to revisit friendship.