We have forgotten the meaning of many words, or, more dangerously, we have redefined the words. One of these words is the simple, ancient word: “friend.” While I’m not going to accuse anyone of strategically conspiring to intentionally change the meaning, there has been a hijacking of the word to simply mean “someone who can look at your pictures and random thoughts online.”
Eight long years ago, in his address on the 43rd World Communications Day, Pope Benedict turned to the theme of friendship in relation to new technology. In the timeline of technology, 2009 was eons ago, back when people still used MySpace, Twitter was a baby, and Snapchat wasn’t even a gleam in its creator’s eye. In this address, he noted that the desire for communication and relation, as seen in the widespread popularity of new forms of communication, is natural and inherent in the human person. This desire for communication, the Pope told us, is not anything new, nor a response to these new technologies. Rather, the new technologies fill the void present in young people’s lives.
Although I’m not as young as I was in 2009, his words resonate with me now as they did then. It’s clear that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever comes next are the response of a generation starved for community. A majority of my generation has been deprived of a family, whether by divorce or by our activity-crazed culture. The son or daughter who only sees the back of Mom’s head as she takes them to the next practice or club meeting looks to feed the relational needs of their human person outside the family—these days, in social networking sites.
Pope Benedict continued, drawing upon a theme close to his successor’s heart, that man’s desire for communication causes him to reach beyond himself and, Benedict said, “In reality, when we open ourselves to others, we are fulfilling our deepest need and becoming more fully human.” John Paul II reminded us of this with his famous phrase, “life has meaning to the extent that it becomes a free gift for others.”
This is where social media “friendships” fall short. In speaking on friendship, John Paul II said, “I desire a good for you just as I desire it for myself, for my own ‘I’.” Aristotle defined three types of friendship, but said the perfect form was the friendship of the good, “those who resemble each other in virtue. For these friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness, and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense, since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally.”
Friendship is self-gift. It is living for another in a relationship of sacrifice. Most anyone would agree that a relationship in which one party never gives or sacrifices for the other lacks love. A self-obsessed person cannot be a friend. A friendship is not a friendship if it is not rooted in self-gift.
There is little self-gift involved in uploading some pictures for your friends to look through (by themselves) or changing your profile from “single” to “dating” to announce an update in your social life. That is not to say that friends can’t keep in touch with social media, but ultimately, their relationship has to exist outside of digital communication.
Pope Benedict warned, “The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years. The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.”
We have all seen this trend, and it has certainly grown since 2009! The person walking next to you on the sidewalk is too busy texting to smile at you and say good morning. Your son or daughter prefers Snapchat as a dinner companion instead of you. Your colleague spends lunch scrolling through Facebook instead of eating lunch with real human beings.
While the Facebook world did not create the world’s inability to create true relationships, it surely is not helping things. People who have difficulties forming true friendships are turning to the internet, where they can collect friends and feel accepted. Sadly, that practice often backfires, when the anonymity of sites such as Twitter or even comment sections after articles can quickly turn to insults, abuse, and slander that people wouldn’t dare utter face-to-face. Too often these sites become divisive and alienating instead of being places of communion and unity.
I know I have been truly blessed with true friends. I had to say goodbye to one such friend this week, a recent tragedy in Nashville causing her to have to relocate to the East Coast, and I realized that one or two true friends long-distance are worth dozens and dozens of acquaintances closer to home. I should never take those true friendships for granted.
Aristotle cautioned that the perfect form of friendship was rare. “Such friendships are of course rare, because such men are few. Moreover they require time and intimacy… people who enter into friendly relations quickly have the wish to be friends, but cannot really be friends without being worthy of friendship, and also knowing each other to be so; the wish to be friends is a quick growth, but friendship is not.”
True friendships are rare because they take time. But they are also rare because we cannot be a friend “without being worthy of friendship.” We should take Aristotle’s words to heart. What can I do today to become more worthy of the priceless gift of friendship? Am I striving for virtue? Am I seeking to deepen my prayer life, to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession frequently? Am I making the little choices for God every day, which will help me to say no to sin and selfishness and yes to self-gift?
This is not a call to abandon social media. We need to take the Gospel to this new “digital continent,” and that is only possible if we understand the culture present on this new continent. Pope Benedict likened it to the early disciples who had to understand the Greek and Roman world in order to evangelize the people there. He reminded us that “the proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately. It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent.’”
But it’s also a reminder that true friendship is worth the effort and the time. Benedict ended his address with this encouragement: “Human hearts are yearning for a world where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. Our faith can respond to these expectations: may you become its heralds!”
Make your life one that is worthy of friendship. Aristotle said that true friendship is rare because good people are few. It’s time to change that. Become worthy of the friends you want. Even one true friend, who desires your good, who walks with you in virtue, who struggles with you on the path to heaven, is a grace worth the effort.