Friendship. (or, Thomas Aquinas vs. Facebook)

It was a fairly recent and surprising revelation that I am not very good at having friends.

It was surprising because I try to be polite, kind, and deferential to my friends. Then again, I guess I attempt to be polite, kind, and deferential to a lot of people. I’m an open enough person as to not try to manage my image too tightly these days, friend or no. Sometimes people will tell their preachers that they would like to know what they are “really like” outside of preaching. And I always tell them I’m more myself when I’m preaching than I am in any other time, so you are more likely to really know me through the sermons than you would from coffee (not that I wouldn’t like that).

But as I get older, open as I am about 90% of my life as much to enemies as to friends, I am aware of how guarded I am about the remaining 10%. I am a promiscuous lover of people—that is to say, I don’t just act attentive to whoever I’m talking with, I’m really with them. And I’ve learned the art of being with and being attentive to a lot of people in a very broad rotation. It is the life of the ministry in short, with the ever moving boundaries of work and play and life. I did not know how much I was cheating to live this way. That being available to everybody, sincerely motivated as that might be, gets me out of being available to particular somebodies. Relationships with everybody are easier than with somebody, but makes for a decidedly more lonely existence.

That is especially true within the peculiar confines of pastoral work. I’m not complaining at all, grateful as I am for the life I’ve been given. But I am used to being needed. I am used to people not caring so much about me so much as the gift in me—and I do not begrudge it. One of the delightful things about audaciously claiming to speak for God is that people connect to God in you—they are drawn to you because they are in fact drawn to Him. That’s not sad, that’s beautiful. It’s the privilege of what I get to do.

But knowing another person is also a privilege—being known is another category of privilege. My life is wrapped up in my calling in ways that I cannot and should not entirely mitigate—I am called to use my gifts to serve. But finally I had to decide I would not sacrifice somebody on the altar of everybody.

Compared to ancient cultures, we don’t understand friendship at all. Facebook has single-handedly watered down the word to where it almost seems better to come up with another word to represent the reality the phrase signifies. Friendship means everything and nothing in a digital word. I get it—Google+ gives you circles by which you can quantify and categorize your friends more precisely, and I hear Facebook is providing comparable opportunities. Gotcha.

But into what circle does one place the kind of friendship St Thomas Aquinas described when he said true friendship is based on unselfish love, “the constant, effective desire to do good to one another.” How many relationships like that are sustainable? Or for that matter—desirable? The constant, effective desire to do good to one another is hardly a passive task. Being available to particular persons is demanding and risky, which is why I have generally preferred making myself available to everybody. Everybody will not and flatly cannot demand the kind of affection from me that requires my life to be wrapped up in that of another person. Emotional investment is minimal, and that arrangement is generally permissible in our culture by all sides. And quite frankly, the amount of hurt that goes around from ministry relationships (and maybe all relationships) where we’ve put ourselves out there and got our heart broken doesn’t really seem worth the effort.

But what about friendship that captures you in the real-time drama of someone else’s weeping and rejoicing? What about a friend for whom you would take a bullet, not out of some general Christian ethic or some sense of nobility, but because you genuinely cherish their life more than your own?

A friend for whom, if they were in an accident, you would run all the red lights until you got to them?

It is far easier to insulate myself with many superficial relationships than to embrace the vulnerability required to have that kind of friendship. There is something so terrifying about putting yourself in a position where you are subject to be laughed at or pitied or condescended to or God knows what else, since so few people are allowed access to what’s in your heart. I can’t recall if in the Summa or elsewhere Aquinas ever spoke about the risk of such friendship, but it is considerable.

But in that unselfish love, in that constant effective desire to do good to one another—risk melts away. And in place of all that guardedness and political image management, the only question that remains is: what will do you the most good in this particular moment? For you to be well, for you to be safe from harm as far as I can keep it from you, for you to thrive and be everything you are meant to become—in what way can I support you? In what way can I carry you? In what way can I lay my life down for you? It’s a love without contingencies, a love without constraints, it’s love without a back up plan. Not a crass “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”, not I’ll serve your best interests if you serve mine. But I’ll do good by you and for you—always. Whatever that means and whatever that requires.

We have many mediums now where we can quantify and categorize our friends. And of course relationships from within each of our circles can have appropriate value and meaning.

But it would seem that to have even one friendship like that would be enough to make a man unspeakably rich.

I hope to be a great preacher, a great leader, a great writer. But to be a really good friend? That would really be something.

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