Lesson 1: Changes in Friendship

FriendsWhen I was growing up in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, people spoke of “family and friends.” I had all sorts of “family” throughout the small city. When we would gather for annual reunions, we would be joined by some of the few who had moved away to seek their fortunes. I could also point to many “friends” who were not biologically related to me, but who shared my life. We found these friends in various communities, such as Church, service and fraternal clubs, neighborhoods, bars, and athletic teams. Usually they became life long friends who lived close by.

Today most people have moved away from their extended families. When they speak of family, they think of a husband, a wife, and 2 ½ children. There has also been a great change in friendships. Communities such as social and fraternal clubs are closing their doors, people no longer know people who live in their neighborhoods, and fewer and fewer people are going to Church.

A 2006 report in the American Sociology Review indicated people in our society experienced a significant loss in the quantity and quality of friends since 1985. One fourth indicated they had no close confidants, a description often used for friends. In addition, the number of friends reported by the average American dropped from four to two in those 20 years.

This is a great concern to Christians as friendship is one of our primary values. Today, we too easily associate our faith with something we have come to call “family values,” but in truth, Jesus sometimes spoke of leaving family and joining his band of friends. The Gospel of John especially makes clear that Jesus pointed to friendship as the highest social value.

In the next few weeks, I would like to examine first what friendship has become in our day; second, the characteristics of traditional friendship; and finally, steps we might take to sustain and revive the most important of these characteristics.

The sociologists I read prefer to speak of “personal relationships” rather than “family and friends.” They all agree that present day Americans have far fewer of these, and that those they do have are much more volatile. Some refer to them as “pure relationships,” meaning they are negotiated arrangements between two people. Because the terms are primarily emotional, they are very fragile. Everything depends on satisfying one another emotionally. So friends come and go.

These intimate relationships now fill the role once played by religion, kin, culture, and tradition in providing a haven from our dangerous, risk-filled world. Although most of my examples and figures will pertain to the USA, the same change is experienced by all societies as they move into the global economic system. Risk management replaces trust as more and more needs are supplied by technology rather than personal relationships. People rely on a very few intimate friends to provide their social needs.

Perhaps a good way to begin is to examine our own friendships. In my face-to-face classes, we tried to number our closest friends, defined roughly as those people with whom we might share our secret thoughts. Although we did not share our numbers, the discussion revealed most included family members. I would not have considered that 50 years ago. We next tried to estimate other friends, defined as those with whom we share quality time. We then moved on to acquaintances, people with whom we spend a lot of time but would not consider friends. And finally, we tried to number all those people with whom we come in contact once a week, such as store clerks, mailmen, and people at church.

This was an exercise used by a social worker to contrast the difference between most of us and the aged she served. Most of them, she observed, could count on one hand the total number of people in the four categories. Many had no one with whom they could share their sufferings or celebrate their joys, except her; and she was paid to be their friend. This would not have happened in a traditional society where the elderly would be respected and cared for by their families.

Most of us do not find ourselves so isolated as the aged the social worker described. I imagine most of our participants still go to Church and engage in other communities that many others in the society have left behind them. However, chances are our friendships have changed over the years. So give some thought to how you would define friendship and ask what role it plays in your life.

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