What Friendship is Not
In this article, I want the explore the difference between real and apparent friendship. I shall briefly explain what friendship is not; then I shall explain what friendship is or what it involves. First, friendship is different from affability or friendliness. A friendly person is usually sociable and pleasant or agreeable (relatively easy to get along with). He or she laughs with others and, typically, expresses good-will toward them.
Second, companionship, such as two or more persons being together, laughing, eating and drinking together, in itself is not proof of true friendship. For example, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, traveled with him for three years. Judas ate and drank with Jesus. However, Judas will forever be remembered as the one who “betrayed” Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:4, NIV).
3. An Acquaintance
Third, friendship is not merely an acquaintance. Sirach, the Jewish sage, advises his students and readers, “Let your acquaintances be many, but one in a thousand your confidant” (Ecclesiasticus 6:6, NAB). One may have many acquaintances but few friends, because friendship is a rare gift, a special kind of social union.
Friendship as a Gift from God
A true friend is “a precious treasure,” of inestimable value, a gift from God. For example, Sirach says,
“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them” (Ecclesiasticus 6:14-16, NRSV).
The Greek verb phileo and the noun philia refer to “love.” Friendship is a form of love. To allow another person into one’s life, to admit that person into the inner regions of one’s soul, is to be a friend. As Aristotle teaches, “The good person is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self).”1 In short, in friendship, one person recognizes in the other a second self.
The Test of True Friendship: Adversity
At times, it is often difficult to tell the difference between false and true friends. For example, when a person is always buying the drinks, treating others to lunch and dinner, he or she has many “friends.” But such “friendships” have not been tested by adversity and, therefore, are not yet true friendships.
How, then, does one distinguish between what is genuine and counterfeit, say, a dollar bill? It is not by the similarities between dollar bills but by their differences, such as their subtle shades of color; texture; and, especially, the serial numbers on the money. Similarly, Sirach observes,
“And there are friends who sit at your table, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. When you are prosperous, they become your second self, and lord it over your servants; but if you are brought low, they turn against you, and hide themselves from you” (Ecclesiasticus 6:10-12, NRSV).
What Friendship Involves
There are certain characteristics of friendship. First, it involves exclusive choices. Because a human being’s existence is finite, limited; because there is only so much time allotted to a person’s life, he or she must choose his or her friends. It is simply not possible to form in-depth friendships with everyone a person meets. By choosing some individuals as friends, one also, by that choice, excludes other persons as friends.2 In short, every choice for is, in some sense, a choice against, limiting the range of possible friendships.3
The second characteristic of friendship is trust. The Jewish sage says, “When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily” (Ecclesiasticus 6:7, NRSV). A person must proceed cautiously in establishing a friendship. That is to say, trust must be earned.4 There should be good reasons to trust another person as a friend. In other words, a person must provide evidence that he or she is worthy of trust. Until then, that other person is not a friend but an acquaintance, an associate.
The third characteristic is loyalty. Not only during the good times but especially the bad ones, friends are “there” for each other. In sorrow or grief (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:10), misfortune (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:12) and even in a disagreement, resulting in a quarrel (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:9), friends do not give up on each other.5 True friends will not betray each other, seeking personal advantage at the other’s expense.
4. Caring and Confronting
Fourth, true friends really care about each other, so that one person, when necessary, is willingness to confront the other, even report the other to the appropriate authorities, when he or she is out of control. For example, an individual, when morally necessary, will not remain passive, neither say nor do anything, when he sees his friend destroy his life or the lives of others by driving drunk or drug addiction. A good friend will hold the other responsible for his or her actions. To overlook evil, to turn “a blind eye” when a friend is destroying his or her life, is not true friendship.
How Friendship is Violated and Ruined: A Betrayal of Trust
A true friend is a confidant (male) or confidante (female), one who can be trusted with another person’s private information, secrets or those things which no one else knows. In short, friends confide (from the Latin fidere, meaning “to trust”) or have faith in each other. About confidentiality, Sacred Scripture says, “He … who is trustworthy conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13, NASB).
However, a friendship can be “wounded,” if not completely ruined, by a betrayal of trust, such as “leaking” confidential information, spreading it abroad. Sirach writes,
“Whoever betrays secrets destroys confidence, and will never find a congenial friend. Love your friend and keep faith with him; but if you betray his secrets, do not follow after him. For as a person destroys his enemy, so you have destroyed the friendship of your neighbour” (Ecclesiasticus 27:16-18, NRSV).
In general, confidential information about a friend should not be made known to others, because in “leaking” it, his or her reputation and profession may be ruined. However, under certain circumstances, it may be divulged, if, for example, the friend is going to do serious harm to himself or herself (e.g., threatens to commit suicide), someone else or any group of people.6
The Risk of Friendship
Friends take a risk in “opening up” their lives to each other. As C. S. Lewis observes,
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies …; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in … your selfishness.”7
Friendship, which is a special form of love, involves vulnerability, the risk of being misunderstood, even rejected, and, thus, wounded emotionally or psychologically. But the alternative to friendship is even worse: It is to love no one, to let no one into his or her life. However, such a person cannot be happy, because, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “[H]e who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man [person] of all.”8
Summary and Conclusion
Think about the article for a moment. How many friends can a person really have in a lifetime? For example, I have over 6,000 connections on LinkedIn. But, certainly, all of them cannot be my friends! The reason is that life is simply too short and a human being is too finite to enter into friendships with 6,000 people. It is simply neither possible nor desirable to be friends with everyone a person meets. To say, then, “I have lots of friends” usually means many “acquaintances” or “friendly associations,” but not deep, meaningful friendships. Friendship, indeed, is a rare, precious gift! And a person is most fortunate or blessed to have maybe 10, perhaps 20, friends in a lifetime.
- Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 1166a, in A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, eds. A. J. Ayer and Jane O’ Grady (Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), p. 17.
- John Macquarrie, Existentialism (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1972, reprinted 1982), pp. 182-183.
- Ibid., p. 183.
- Thomas H. Weber, “Sirach,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one-book-in-two volumes, Vol. I, p. 544.
- The New American Bible: Saint Joseph Edition (New York, N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1970). The edition from which I am quoting is the one-book-in-two volumes, Vol. I, p. 776.
- Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO.: Liguori Publications, 1994), no. 2491: “Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth.”
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York, N.Y.: A Harvest Book/ Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), p. 121.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Vol. II, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 164.