Friendship: Attention to the other

     On a basic level, friendship is a kind of love. To borrow from Josef Pieper, this means that love between friends is a way of turning to one another and saying, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world!” This means that friendship can never be based on utility. To desire another only for what they can give us–albeit material, social or emotional goods –is not friendship. This is not to say that friends do not meet one another’s needs; on the contrary, friends can and must carry one another’s burdens. Rather, it is to say that true friendship possesses an element that goes beyond what we may receive from a friend: an element which says, “I believe it is good that you exist, and I desire your good even if I receive nothing–even, in fact, if I must sacrifice other things that I desire.” This means that while we ought to value the many gifts and blessings our friends bring us, we ought not primarily value our friends because they bring us these things, but rather we must value them as persons who are made in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity, worth and goodness.

     All kinds of love, friendship included, inevitably require an attentiveness to the other–not just as something we ought to do but as a natural response to the goodness and dignity of the other. After all, to be attentive is essentially to say, “I deem you worthy of my attention.” I believe experience teaches us this. Think about the difference between being listened to with someone’s full attention and being listened to by someone who is multitasking as you attempt to say something important. If you’ve ever tried to say something important to someone who is continuously looking at their phone, you know what this feels like. On the other hand, when you are the object of someone’s full attention, it signals that they value you and value what you have to say. Love always requires knowledge of the beloved, which we gain through attentiveness. And this is where the power of friendship lies: friends know one another in a way and to a depth others do not.

     Of course, everything that has been said so far could be true of many kinds of loving relationships. For example, we ought to love our families in this way. But what sets friendship apart is that it is something chosen. We do not choose our parents, siblings or children, but we do choose our friends. Our duty to love our families is something given to us without our asking for it; friendship, on the other hand, is a duty to which we commit ourselves willingly and knowingly.

     C.S. Lewis suggests in “The Four Loves” that friendship is built upon a love of the same things. Friends bond over a shared love of certain activities, places, disciplines or ways of thinking–everything from Super Smash Bros to theology and philosophy. But at the same time, it is important to recognize that friendship can and, in fact, must span significant differences. In a recent New York Times piece, the Dalai Lama attributed the pervasive discontent and despair among people in prosperous nations to “a universal human hunger to be needed” and insisted, “The problems we face cut across conventional categories; so must our dialogue, and our friendships.” He also wrote, “We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness with others are not just abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice.” We do this by investing fully in the particular friendships we have: the healing of the world begins with kind words, patient listening and consistent attentiveness towards the people who are right in front of us. As individuals we ought not try to change the entire world; we cannot do this, and we are not called to do this. Rather, we are called to love the people with whom our particular path intersects, and love them well. This means putting time and energy into crafting real friendships. It is not easy; we are all broken and imperfect. But this only means that as we laugh, dance, eat, play, talk, cry, sing and live life with our friends, we must take to heart W.H. Auden’s well-worded advice to “love your crooked neighbors with your crooked heart.”

     Sources: C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”; Iris Murdoch, “The Idea of Perfection”; The New York Times; Josef Pieper, “An Anthology”

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