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Taking Back Friendship

There’s a problem with our online friendships, writes Kyle Chayka in a Pacific Standard article. In the midst of our “hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’,” we have lost true intimacy. Reclaiming this intimacy necessitates that we “[treat] our virtual selves more like our physical ones rather than less.”

But how do we do this? It is obviously important: the cultivation of intimacy is what makes human connection so important and individual. The ability to cultivate and form friendships—closeness of intellect, emotion, and spirit—is fundamental to who we are as human beings.

We’ve lost this closeness in modern society—due, perhaps in part, to the overly-sexualized pop art, film, literature, and music we indulge in, a sexualization that denigrates phileos in favor of eros (or even tells us that the former is but a watered down or disguised version of the latter). It’s also possible, as C.S. Lewis put it so adroitly in The Four Loves, that “few value [friendship] because few experience it.”

There are three levels, it seems, to human connection. The first is that of acquaintanceship: we know each other slightly, but with little to no depth. Acquaintanceship can deepen into companionship: a condition in which we’ve spent enough time together to have a healthy knowledge and understanding of each other’s lives and characters. This “level” would apply well to many in our workplaces, churches, or schools. The final level, “friendship,” gets constantly confused with the other two categories—especially since social media increasingly labels weak bonds as “friendship.” But friendship was always meant to be something more, something deeper.

Lewis’s classic definition of friendship is this:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision—it is then that Friendship is born.”

A couple notes must be added here. Friendship, according to what Lewis writes after, needn’t be contingent on two, or even three, people. True friends are always glad to add to their “little platoon,” to expand the spheres of their company to include other kindred spirits. But friends must share this fundamental kinship of spirit and interest. And here, many modern friendships seem to fail the test straight away—I’ve often gotten together with friends for coffee, and we’ve spent the entire time talking about our lives, “catching up,” but doing nothing. And while talking about life and work is a good thing, it can’t provide a solid or lasting basis for real friendship.

This then, should make clear the other conditions necessary for friendship: physical proximity, or, if that is impossible, consistent communication. If we don’t have these, then we will never have the common ground necessary to cultivate true friendship: we’ll constantly be sent back to square one, to the basics of acquaintanceship or companionship.

Constant communication can perhaps be cultivated on social media, but the public nature of posting makes it difficult, because it goes against the intimacy principle that is so important to true friendship. Facebook private messages and secret groups are better tools for keeping the communicative fires alive; but are they better than email or telephone calls? It probably depends on one’s friends, and which tools they’re more likely to use.

I don’t think social media is completely antagonistic to true intimacy. But, as Wendell Berry told me in a recent interview (one that will be published online soon), “The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. … Community is not made just be communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common.” Moreover, he says, “It is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another,” and by a “recognition of their need for one another.”

These components of friendship and community (service, proximity, and need) cannot really be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits: limits of time and place, of closeness and interest. As Lewis writes, “Friendship must exclude.” Chayka puts it thus: “In searching out ways to better manage our online intimacy, what we really need are spaces that are relatively independent from the pressures of being public on the Internet and the endless need for exposure … Companies may not be able to provide that, but we can give it to ourselves.” This may mean narrowing down your 2,000+ Facebook friends, emailing close friends more often, calling your mother instead of dropping her a note on her “wall.” It may mean limiting the amount of statuses you post, replacing them instead with private, personal messages to close friends.

As we struggle to cultivate intimacy, we should not be utterly dismissive of social media. As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” We must use social media carefully: not as a perfectly sweet and delightful thing to be consumed without thought—but rather as an ingredient, with both sweet and sour components, that we ought to integrate into the larger whole of our interactions. To take back friendship and cultivate intimacy requires a change in scope, a return to limits—but not necessarily a complete abandonment of platform.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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