We all know about friendship. We have lots of friends: friends at work, in the neighborhood, friends from school or church, friends at the club or the pub - or somewhere.
Our children “hang out” with friends, thumbs a’whirl texting one another, even as they stand but two feet away from each other. Even the internet lets us “friend” people we do not even know and will probably never meet.
We’re friends (or friendly) with lots of people. We wave in friendly fashion at neighbors; they wave back. A wealthy investment broker recently threw a birthday party for two hundred of his best friends. Two hundred.
We seek friends because we need friendship. Friends bring us out of ourselves into a community of humanizing mutuality in which we learn that life is not always just about us.
Beyond The Word
But what does it really mean to have a friend or, more importantly, to be a friend. Indeed, who are our real friends? What does true friendship really involve? Where do we learn friendship?
Aristotle – good old reliable, thoughtful Aristotle – says there are three types of “friendships.”
Aristotle’s first “friendship” occurs when people are useful to one another. He calls it “friendship” of utility, the connection we make in business or at the club or in political circles: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” We see this arrangement all the time. Utility and usefulness define the relationship, but the absence of utility sometimes reveals underlying cynicism.
Aristotle’s second “friendship” relates to shared pleasures we enjoy with others, to bonding through fun and games and leisure activities we mutually enjoy. The weekly bridge game or the golf foursome provide the stage for enjoying each other’s company. We delight in the same undertakings … but – we’re careful not to push differences of opinion or trigger discomforting confrontations. Fun is fun with friends; that’s what friends are for … but with discretion.
Friendship For The Sake Of The Other
Finally, Aristotle identifies the “friendship of virtue.” This is friendship based on our good will toward the other person without our seeking personal gain or pleasure in return.
This friendship is selfless. It does not rest on mutual utility nor shared enjoyment nor what we can get from one another. In fact, it harbors no expectations of personal gain or shared pleasures. It seeks no business advantage or market edge, no perks when a deal is done, no profitability, no freebies.
This friendship springs out of our sense of virtue, our altruism and goodness, our unselfish concern for the other. We choose generous giving over selfishness. And we seek no recognition because this “friendship of virtue” exercises goodness and virtue for their own sakes. We choose to do what is right for the other person, even at the cost of our time and energy, even at the risk of personal rejection or anonymity.
Thus, this friendship is indeed self-less. We act for the benefit of the other person. It’s not what we get but what we choose to give as a friend – even without acknowledgement.
Friendship As Love
Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue” has profound meaning and application in everyday living. In Judeo-Christian terms, this selfless love is called the “amor benevolentiae,” the love of benevolence. It’s the highest form of love and loving: virtuous, selfless, generous. It is willing to give everything, even life.
It’s the love which inspires 1) the loving parent or family member, 2) the committed, tenacious friend, and 3) even the stranger who acts only for the welfare of others.
Such virtuous generosity can be a costly way to live, because it is often a lonely, one-way street … and that’s the point. Our egos crave applause and recognition, so this benevolent love is an oddity, a contradiction in our conflicted, selfie-saturated world. And many modern folk find it impossible to believe that in giving, one does truly receive.
Only the heart’s embrace of goodness can reward - or even comprehend - such a selfless attitude, such a loving choice.
In The Real World . . . Family !
Idealism is fine, for a while – but let’s be practical … In real-life situations, is benevolent love possible?
Of course!! That’s what family life is for.
Benevolent, loving friendships are the natural purpose of family life … although this is hard to realize when feelings run high and voices are raised and tempers are tantruming and doors are slammed and harsh words flow like lava.
Nevertheless, family life is the natural, God-given training camp for goodness, benevolence and the development of virtue. And it all starts with parents as the family’s moral exemplars.
The first requirement for family benevolence is mutual commitment to the truth. Truth? Why truth? Because untruth and duplicity, dishonesty and lies are incompatible with loving friendships and family cohesion.
Next, two-way candor must be part of family relationships; no fudging or hedging. Family members must learn to be out-front about misunderstandings, conflicts and troubles, always ready to speak truth, candidly, humbly, without evasion or subterfuge, without arrogance or deception – but prudently and precisely, for clarity’s sake, with facts instead of accusations.
And (this is a tough one) we must be prepared to hear the truth about ourselves from other family members, with the humility to listen to -- and to hear with our hearts -- what our family says, even when it hurts! Certainly, truth and candor create painful moments. But it’s better to bear an occasional pain in the ego than to normalize avoidance, pretense and denial, which destroy family trust and corrode relationships. How can we love anyone we cannot trust. Trust is crucial.
The End Point of Loving
Eventually, we must ask: What is the goal in the family, the end point of truth and candor and trust in family life. How do they relate to stable, enduring, loving family friendships?
The ultimate point of benevolent friendships in family life is intimacy. Intimacy means knowledge of one another coupled with unflagging loyalty, even when the other person is wrong. Loving does not demand constant agreement, but it does ask loyalty. And loyalty cycles back to candor and truth, for if I am wrong and you do not help me see the truth, that’s a breach of your loyalty to me. Hurt my feelings, yes --- but do not avoid telling me the truth. Do not care so little about me that you stay silent in the face of my error!!
Help me find the right path. That’s what family loyalty demands. That’s the role of family and the obligation of friendship.
Being Our Better Selves
Family intimacy rests on mutual knowledge of one another and uniquely shared vulnerabilities. In family living, our defenses are minimal because we tend to take one another for granted. This is good news – but it is also bad news.
Family provides shelter for our foolish selves and an unwritten bond of mutual allowances for being ourselves. Family provides intimacy in which our foibles are shared, our souls are bared and our hearts become one – but not without struggle and error, hurt and reconciliation, conflict and forgiveness, confrontation and penance – and periods of sheer delight.
Throughout trying moments of abrasion and soothing instances of embrace, a benevolent, forgiving, loyal friendship is the family goal. For our own spiritual and psychological health, we all seek an intimate and abiding friendship, and family is the measure of benevolence and the standard for true love which Nature’s wisdom provides and demands.
That’s why Christian marriage and family are forever: learning to trust and to be trusted, to listen and to be listened to, to reveal our mutual needs for intimacy and understanding – in other words, to love and to be loved – these needs and ideals take a lifetime to become our own reality.
Over many years, family life teaches us to pursue this benevolent, sometimes painful, reality together. We learn not go to bed if disagreements o’ershadow us, or if hurt feelings hover or if unsaid issues need to be clarified. And when we listen to each other, we embrace one another and hold one another -- and we become better friends, as we become even closer as family.
By knowing one another in these ways, with our mutual intimacies and vulnerabilities exposed, our weaknesses become our shared binding force … for when we are weak, then we are strong. In sharing our weaknesses, we find our strength. We face hard facts together, with candor and trust – and we are better human beings for it.
And we unite as family. We become as one person, with one heart and one goal: to love one another and not to be afraid of one another. We learn to shut up, to stifle our egos, to listen to one another without defending ourselves or attacking others. And we pay the price of loving by learning from one another and learning about one another -- and, hopefully, we see ways to love and to be loved, ways to share the painful moments and pay the price of our friendship of virtue in our God-given home with these blessed others, our family.
In time -- with effort and a quietly patient attitude, with humility of heart and the gift of “sucking it up” – we will see that only a loving spirit and tenacious affection for others, and gratitude for life itself -- only these insights make any sense in this still-beautiful world, a world made so much better by family.
Finally … And So Much More
Forty years ago, I counseled recovering heroin users in a drug recovery clinic. One recovering gentleman told me he could not remember his mother nor his father. He had no sisters or brothers whom he knew of --- but he had a family.
His family was here, all around him, recovering with him, supporting him every day, confronting him, telling him the harsh truths about the deceptive ploys he used to alibi his behavior and avoid his responsibilities.
His family was all around him, bringing him to his senses by truth and candor and overwhelming love, a love shared in a community of honest people with hearts of pure gold and wills of steel and clarity of purpose seldom seen. They understood him, and loved him simply because he was one of them.
One day as we parted, he said to me, “These people are my family. These people love me … this I know … and it is here that I am saved……. Here I am saved……”
Are we not fortunate - we happy few - we who strive to love with benevolent, forgiving eyes. Are we not fortunate that life still provides us with these sacred years, with this time to learn some little bits of wisdom from our own mistakes?
Are we not fortunate that we still have time to become more worthy of the love which our family has for us - and needs from us ….. that we still have time to be a more benevolent and kinder friend to them and, God willing, to this world of needy others.
This is -- in my view -- a worthy, if costly, goal which is well worth striving for. Happily, it is a goal which is open to us all because it is only a choice away. To love and to be loved is always within our reach, if we choose.
Even if no one else tries or knows; even if cynics scoff and broken souls object and no one - even family - seems to care … and only we know what it costs us to become a tenaciously loving person, it is, nonetheless, a worthy way to live our lives.
Don’t you agree?
Spero News columnist Daniel Boland PhD is an author and psychologist.