“What are you working on?” One of the staff in the office of the Pauw Wow, the Saint Peter’s College student paper, was fixed intently on his computer screen. A big story?
“I’m talking to one of my friends,” he replied.
“Great,” I said. “How many friends do you have?”
Clearly we were in two different worlds. His was the world of Facebook. He “knew” 300 people, most of whom he had never met, called “friends.” There is even now a verb — to “friend” someone. (There’s already a verb for giving one the gift of friendship — to befriend — but the online universe demands its own vocabulary.)
By coincidence, I too have about 300 friends in different age groups; some I know from the first grade, others from high school and college, my army service, joining the Jesuits, and teaching at eight universities. And, thanks to the internet, people I have not seen in 50 years have read something I’ve written and popped back into my life as friends again.
But college friendships are unique — often especially deep and long-lasting — because they form when we are just gaining the emotional maturity that allows us to deal with complex relationships. The transition from adolescence to adulthood begins to give us the courage to take some risks and the judgment to make commitments. By risks I don’t mean rushing a red light or coming unprepared to a test; I mean befriending the “wrong” person, someone in class or at a party who looks interesting to us, but who might not be that interested in us or who is interested in us for the wrong reasons.
The right college friendships grow on at least two levels: emotional and intellectual. Reading this short essay is not a substitute for a philosophy course, so either take a course that will include Aristotle, Cicero, and Saint Augustine on friendship or just Google “Cicero on friendship” and search for yourself. But the central idea is that true friendship can exist only between two good people. Purely utilitarian relationships — this guy will get me an internship in his father’s law firm — will never be friendships because they are fundamentally selfish. One uses the other, exploits him or her for that job, party invitation, link to another person, term paper help, loan, letter or recommendation, or sexual experience, and then doesn’t return phone calls or messages. Some of these are good deeds and we should do them, but they don’t make us friends.
So reading Aristotle’s Ethics, Cicero’s “On Friendship,” or Augustine’s Confessions during the semester can add a little depth to one’s social life; and I can imagine either a sitcom or real life experience where the bright young man at a party full of strangers on his second beer turns to the stranger next to him and says, “I’ll bet you don’t know what Cicero would say about all this if he were here.”
That’s as good a line as “Do you come here often?” But it’s better to master the basics. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to say “Hello,” to look the other in the eye as if he or she is the only other person in the room. The next line depends where you are. If you are in New York, you ask “What do you do?” New Yorkers identify themselves by their talent. If you are in New Orleans you ask, “Where are you from?” In the South it’s your family, your roots. That’s a start.
TO BE CONTINUED