Published February 14, 2019 in Warp & Woof


Is it What They Do for Us? Or, What We Do for Them?
William Sundwick
Aristotle defined three types of friends in the Nicomachean Ethics. Friendship could be for utility, pleasure, or goodness. Friends of utility are like business relationships; goods and services are exchanged by such friends. Friends of pleasure are those to whom we are attracted, either by physical appearance or for amusement. The third kind of friend, however, the friend of goodness, is the Justice friendship. It is based not on what they can do for us, but what we can do for them.
It is this third type of friendship that is the deepest, and longest lasting. It also may take the longest to develop. It is marked by intentionality, whereas the first two may be accidental. Aristotle’s “city” needs all three types to flourish. But it is the third type, the justice friendship, which maintains the city as an entity.
To be called a “friendship,” surely a relationship with another human being must have a component of mutuality. All friendships are two-way. But the motivator is not always so mutual. Children start with friends of pleasure only. As they become more autonomous, common interests emerge, thus friends of utility. These continue into adulthood, some early friendships fading, new ones developing, and slowly the justice, or goodness, friends begin to reveal themselves. With modern telecommunications, not even distance can interfere with goodness friendships. They may last a lifetime.
But no friends are made unless we take a chance, either with stimulus or response. When we do a good turn or start thinking about opportunities to give, we are on our way to developing “level 3” friends. Often, the principal barrier to such behavior is difficulty in trusting others. As adults, we are vulnerable to many hurts, and even financial loss, when we jump too quickly at overtures from strangers and acquaintances. We also erect cultural barriers against friendship with “certain kinds” of people, based on our understanding of personal or tribal history.
Loneliness at all ages comes from the sense that something is missing, something either not yet defined or lost in the past. That empty feeling is aggravated by fear of the unknown – of taking risks. It is mitigated by the goodness factor. Through dispassionate risk analysis, or faith, we endeavor to overcome the fear.
It’s worth some effort, since there is evidence that friends can make the difference between good mental healthand serious disability, even death. The deep friendships are the best, but the child (or adolescent) in us can also benefit from pleasure friendships, and the adult “operator” in us can benefit from friends of utility. Common interests, flattery, and physical attraction work at any age. Adults tend to dig deeper when they start asking questions like “where am I going?” In adulthood, we start playing chess in our relationships, thinking several moves ahead. And, we discover politics! “What can I get if I give this much? A little more?” The onset of old agebrings new questions, like “Does anybody notice me any more?” – and, possibly, more assertive reaching out. We may discover that new friendships based on nostalgia have limitations. Activities, social or otherwise, are far more interesting.

These days, many of us live in two social environments — traditional face-to-face friends sharing common interests, or mutual attraction, and  virtual friends on social media. The virtual world has friends of utility and friends of pleasure, but also friends of goodness. Your comfort level in either of these two environments may vary with practice. The virtual world contains all the same motivators for establishing and maintaining friendships as the “real world,” and all the same constraints.
One question I have about virtual friends is: do they see themselves as real people? Or, have they so given themselves over to the virtual world that they have now lost touch with their real flesh-and-blood selves? I have difficulty ascertaining this about some Facebook friends whom I’ve never met “IRL.”
There are some additional constraints in the online world — language vs. physical touch and emojis vs. body language. Words do have meaning, but touch is more intimate (even given the same level of privacy). And, those emojis were invented by an artist in a studio, whereas your body language (including tone of voice) is likely unconscious and spontaneous unless you’re a trained actor. Then, there is eye contact – not achievable any way I know in the virtual world. Evaluating the quality of online friendships over “real-life” can be challenging, even in the Aristotelian schema. Your friends in the ether should help, just like IRL!
In retirement, I have probably developed a richer world of virtual friendship than my IRL milieu. This may have come naturally for me, as my network of real-world friends, beyond my immediate family, was always slim. Indeed, a primary reason for my decision to “cut the cord” four years ago was that the quality of friendships at work was deteriorating – without much hope for improvement. I had questions about mutuality with my work friends: was I doing as much for them as they were for me? When the answer to that question became “no,” I decided to leave. It didn’t hurt that I retained a fair degree of confidence in my ability to make new friends in retirement, thinking my skill set was perfectly adequate to the task.
As a test of those skills, I now ask myself whether any work relationships have survived, four years on. Some have survived in the online realm but I’ve physically met up with work friends only occasionally in four years, and only at parties. A valid test?
Another question I’m asking myself lately – is there anybody I would ask to deliver a eulogy at my funeral? I am hard pressed to come up with any names aside from immediate family. Am I just too private? Have I not given enough to others? Surely, if there were somebody, I would know, right?
 “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” – Carl W. Buechner

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