You are my friend,
I never knew it 'til then
My friend, my friend
– Patti Labelle
Frank Capra’s beloved classic It’s a Wonderful Life explores a number of themes, but perhaps the most important – or at least the final word – is given to the angel Clarence, who leaves his copy of Tom Sawyer to George Bailey with this line inscribed: “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.” That even the most mundane and provincial of lives can be considered a success if it includes the gift of friendship, is a profoundly Christian idea. Yet it also immediately begs a number of questions. What is true friendship? What differentiates friendship from other kinds of loving relationships? And is it the number or the quality of friendship that is the more important?
The nature of friendship has been a topic of study from time immemorial. Many of the Greek philosophers discuss it in their writings. For example, Aristotle wrote that “The excellent person is related to his friend in the same way as he is related to himself... and therefore, just as his own being is choice-worthy to him, the friend's being is choice-worthy for him in the same or a similar way.” The Greeks liked the idea that in friendship, two selves are like one person with two bodies, which is much closer to our image of marriage than friendship today.
Different cultures also approach the idea of friendship in different ways. In many Islamic cultures friendship requires a deep commitment and expectation of mutual sacrifice for the other. Therefore, people tend to enter into them carefully. Germans and northern Europeans are generally quite similar. In America, however, the term friend has a much looser connotation. Adults call almost every person they know, “a friend”. Exclusive friendships, even “best friends” may be culturally frowned upon as leading to cliquishness. The high rate of mobility in America has also led to a decline in lasting friendships. And as social networking becomes the new forum of exchange, with “friend requests” being their entry point, it may be that our notion of friendship is arriving at new levels of superficiality and transience.
A study reported in the June 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review argued that Americans are suffering a loss in both the quality and quantity of intimate friendships since at least 1985. The study reports that 25% of Americans have no close confidants and that the average number of confidants per person has dropped from four to two.
C.S. Lewis argued that in the West, modern friendships have lost their depth and importance. In The Four Loves he wrote: “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Lewis describes four major kinds of love: Storge or affection, Philia or Friendship, Eros or romance, and Agape or unconditional love. He calls Philia or friendship the most profound of our relationships precisely because it is most freely chosen, “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary of our Loves." Perhaps what our culture needs is the recovery of a healthy sense of Philia.
After screening Capra’s film to my cinema class, I found myself reading a book by the celebrated Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci called On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince. Ricci’s scholarly ability and winsome attitudes had led him to be accepted into Chinese kingdom, even as an advisor to the Emperor, the first westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. He mastered Mandarin, and wrote the first edition of On Friendship in 1595; it became best-seller in China, but was only translated into English in 2009!
To be clear, Ricci drew primarily from classical European sources when he composed his book, which is basically a collection of aphorisms, but they were a great bridge between the two cultures. There is insight in these sayings, but like all good aphorisms they are really spurs to further reflection. Ricci will say in one breath something like the following, which appears to endorse having a quantity of friendships:
“If you see someone’s friends are like a forest, then you know that this is a person of flourishing virtue; if you see that someone’s friends are as sparse as morning stars, then you know that this is a person of shallow virtue.” (#61)Then he will go on and say this, which appears to advocate a certain reluctance to embrace the bonds of friendship, and endorse the quality of friendships:
“The honourable man makes friends with difficulty; the petty man makes friends with ease. What comes together with difficulty comes apart with difficulty; what comes together with ease comes apart with ease. (#62)So which is it? The truth may lie somewhere in the centre. The number of people who turn out for a person’s funeral may indicate that person’s capacity for genuine Philia, but it may also be due to their exceptional agape. More than 100,000 people lined the streets in Darjeeling, India for the funeral of a Canadian Jesuit several years ago, a much beloved priest who had worked there for decades. But funeral fanfare may also mean nothing (one thinks of that scene in Citizen Kane, in which all the other influential people come out for Kane’s funeral, despite his being generally disliked by society). As Christians, we know that love is something that transcends such numerical quantifications.
There are souls who live and love and die in obscurity, the “hidden saints” in our midst, whose Philia may have been lived in a much more universal manner, encompassing the breath of the body of Christ on earth and the communion of saints in heaven. They are perhaps the only truly great lovers. These are people who you may only meet once, but who affect you in a profound way. Being recognized in this life or not is irrelevant to them. They love un-self-consciously. The number of friends they have is irrelevant to them. They do not calculate nor categorize their relationships. They simply have a capacity for love, which is both universal – offered to everyone they meet – but not any less personal. Perhaps we know someone like that.
George Bailey, while telling God that he was “not a praying man”, may have nonetheless been a great man. This is not because he knew everyone in his town and called them “friends”. The point of Capra’s film was to show that a man is a success as a human being not because he was the nicest guy, or threw the biggest parties, but because he had faithfully served the townspeople’s needs for many years, in both his weakness and strength, in good times and in bad. He probably wouldn’t have called it this, but in doing so he had loved the people of his town. They, in their turn, recognized this quality in him, and loved him back (rallying to his aid in time of financial crisis).
Mutual giving may be a sign of true friendship, but we also see that it must have an absolute lack of expectation of return as its condition. Only then will true friendship show itself as the liberating and ennobling experience it is meant to be.