Forging Authentic Friendships in an Age of Loneliness
Man is a relational being. We cannot exist without others and we often understand who we are in relation to others: daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, friend. We all seek friendships. We all long for a connection with someone else that is profound and meaningful. There is a deep seated desire to share the occasions of life and to process the world around us with others.
There is a loneliness epidemic in our world today. In a time when we are more connected than ever, more and more people seem to be suffering from isolation. So many have lost the ability to form friendships that last. People may have friends at work or friends they go out with, but many don’t have a friend they can call in times of trouble or of joy. Not having friends around who can share a vulnerable conversation can make people feel even lonelier.
The antidote to this loneliness epidemic is virtuous Christian friendship. Sirach 6:14 beautifully states, “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter, he that has found one has found a treasure.” True friends are irreplaceable treasures. They are a place to seek shelter, consolation, accompaniment, and encouragement through the things in life. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish what is and is not a true, lasting friendship. Aristotle has three distinctions that are instructive.
The Three Friendships
Aristotle taught in his Nicomachean Ethics that there are three kinds of friendship: 1) friendship of utility; 2) friendship of pleasure; 3) friendship of virtue. A friendship of utility may include a workplace relationship. You have a good camaraderie and work well as a team with your co-workers, but you do not spend time together outside of work or you lose touch once you change jobs.
Similarly, a friendship of pleasure could be a friend you traveled with when studying abroad, but you didn’t have many common interests beyond sight-seeing and hitting the pubs. Both friendships of utility and pleasure have their place but are ultimately self-interested for you and the other in the friendship. You both get something out of the friendship and once the job or fun activity has concluded, there’s not much more to be gained from spending time together.
The highest deepest form of friendship is founded in virtue. It is the truest and most lasting kind of friendship because it is based on a common goal: living out a virtuous life. The common goals of a friendship of utility and a friendship of pleasure are finite and fleeting, but becoming a more virtuous person is a lifelong process. The virtuous friendship is not only mutually beneficial in the common pursuit of virtue, but it also draws each friend out of themselves for the sake of the other.
True Christian friendship should also be founded in the mutual pursuit of virtue, and above all, in the glorious love of Jesus Christ. Christ laid down his life for his friends – and this is the kind of friendship we are called to as well. We may not be asked to actually sacrifice our lives, but we are asked to sacrifice our time and make a true offering of self to our friends. The Christian is always called to conform himself to Christ, and the same remains true in Christian friendship. Below we will explore how we can imitate Christ to cultivate authentic friendships.
Select a Few to Accompany You on the Way
“It is necessary to find those who will support us and need our support in promoting the devout life,” St. Francis de Sales once said.
Christ chose only twelve apostles. These men accompanied Jesus day and night for three years. They traveled together, ate together, and listened to Christ’s teachings wherever they went. Sharing life in this intimate way usually happens only in college, or if we live with other young adults during the years immediately after college, but the principle remains the same: you only really share your life with a few people. Even among the twelve, Jesus had three who he took apart on several important occasions, and John is also singled out as the Beloved Disciple. It is good and healthy to have different levels of friendship even within our circle of friends who truly desire us to live a virtuous, Christ-like life. While vulnerability is important to true friendships, there is such a thing as being too vulnerable to too many people. We are not called to bear our hearts to everyone, nor to receive the hearts of everyone, but with only a trusted few.
If you do not have a few close friends, don’t be discouraged; it does take time for this to happen, and it can be hard to be vulnerable when you are not accustomed to it. Seek people in parish small-groups, diocesan groups, or even people you know from Mass on Sunday who are truly seeking to imitate Christ in their life and begin to build a friendship based in mutual love of him.
Humble, Truthful, Merciful
“True friendship ought never to conceal what it thinks,” St. Jerome said.
Though he was God, Jesus humbled himself and became man to proclaim the truth and reconcile man to the Father. It can be very difficult to grow in virtue because we have to face our weaknesses and imperfections. It takes humility to accept the truth about ourselves, especially when a charitable reproof comes from a dear friend. But true friends are honest and speak truth no matter the circumstance. Sometimes, we need a friend’s honesty to help us to grow, while other times we need a friend’s honesty to help us reject a lie we believe about ourselves.
Christian friends remind one another about God’s goodness and encourage one another when things are difficult. It is a great act of mercy and humility to speak the truth to a friend, especially when it might cause strife. Christ did not shy away from rebuking those who lived in sin, but he also recognized the faith of those who sought his healing forgiveness and encouraged them. Friends recognize when they have done wrong and forgive one another when the situation calls for it. In imitation of Christ, true friends are merciful and speak words of encouragement when one has fallen.
“True friendship consists in mutually perfecting one another and drawing closer to God,” St. Teresa of Jesus said.
By his life, Christ showed us what perfection looks like. It looks like giving of yourself in service to others and always seeking the face of God. In a friendship that is mutually perfecting, a lot of sacrifices are required. The process of perfection requires a sacrifice of time, energy, and a sacrifice of the will. It does not happen overnight, but during a faithful accompaniment through the valleys and mountains. But the point of this sacrifice is to become holier. Holiness is the call of every Christian, and the desire to grow in holiness should be at the heart of every Christian friendship. The holier we become, the closer we draw to God because holiness consists in being like God. The goal of every Christian friendship should be to help get your friend closer to the Lord.
“Love everyone with a deep love based on charity…but form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you. The higher the virtues you share and exchange with others, the more perfect your friendship will be,” St. Francis de Sales said. We are called to love one another with true charity, but we are not called to have deep, abiding friendships with everyone we encounter. The friendships that persevere and last are those founded in a mutual love of Christ and desire for holiness. The friends who call you higher, further, and deeper in your love of God are those to keep by your side.