The great thing about a day off, beside the fact it is sunny and in the fifties, is I can take time to do some reading and I’ve used the opportunity today as I read Rollo May and Robin Dunbar. Getting to both on the same day may be a stretch. May was a Christian minister turned psychoanalyst and Dunbar is a thoroughly secular evolutionary biologist. They do have a commonality, however. They both have something to say of friendship.
I was introduced to May by a woman in college reading The Courage to Create. The title was a reference to Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be and as I was a big fan of Tillich, it was natural to take an interest in May. It was only much later in life I learned of his seminal work Love and Will, a book that influences this post. Dunbar is more known to us today if only because he put forth the idea that the brains of primates, including humans, can only have a social relationship with a finite number of others. That number is 150 give or take.
I am not nearly as versed on the human brain and our capacity to form social connections as I am on May’s psychology, but Dunbar does make sense to me. For the longest time I kept my Facebook friends list set to 150. That is before I realized a Facebook friend is a friend of social networking and not a real friend. I then established a list of friends on Facebook distinct from my “friends” and that list can grow by quite a wide margin before it gets to Dunbar’s 150. It is looking at that smaller number that has made me ask what makes for a friend. And that is where May comes in and where I want to go with this post.
For May and I think for most of us, the answer to the question “do you love your friends?” is an unabashed yes. To be fair to Dunbar I will say he is not speaking of love, but social cohesion, but in spite of what social media has sold us, most will still equate friendship with love. My own ideas on love, at least as it can be understood academically, come from May as well as Paul Tillich, CS Lewis, and Pope Benedict. Each of these thinkers have remarkably similar views of the matter. Anyone who has read my posts with enough frequency will see three of those names, but may not be familiar with Rollo May, so I will give the nutshell account here.
The Four Loves Plus One According to Rollo May:
- Sex: Just as it sounds, can be either selfish or giving but is centered on the pleasure of the body.
- Eros: Creative and procreating savoring love often centered on tenderness.
- Philia: Liking another. Reciprocal, but in a brotherly or sister, rather than sexual sense.
- Agape: Unselfish and altruistic with no need for reciprocity.
- (The Plus One) Authentic Love: Combining the other four.
In looking at these, we may be curious about number 5, but May was speaking from a perspective of psychology and a particular existential philosophy that aimed to take on the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s rather than developing a total system to explain love from a theological or even ontological perspective. May had become dismayed at the idea that sex was separated from caring for another and with this society was losing the drive toward tenderness and creating new life. His idea of “love” therefore is usually seen as one that is about what it is to love a particular person without negating those loves such as friendship or charity that do not involve libido and procreation.
What May Can Teach Us about the Parlance of the Day
We are still living with the influence of the sixties and though some of it is good, it has also given us plenty of dirty baggage. Rollo May makes apathy the biggest part of this. In relational terms what happened is we drove tenderness out of sexuality and made sexuality a selfish and cold rather than warm and giving thing. Though he could not see the full effect of it, that apathy went to the point that it infected every other relationship we developed. This is why we can now have more than 150 friends. When one’s feelings of friendship is reduced to merely doing something with someone else or working with them, or even in the good act of being altruistic, there is an apathy still present that keeps these from being like a bother or sister.
So now we have a new definition of friendship, but we cannot divorce the need to be as a brother or sister to the other. This is why a moniker like bff is so natural on the ears today when previous generations would call it silly. In the past, unless you were twelve it would be that such persons would only be called a friend because the word friend would be reserved for a small few and friendship not about having a “best friend forever,” unless you rolled the dice on marriage.
The full brunt of what May realized was not seen in his life, but we are beginning to see it today in western societies. Sex divorced from tenderness is a selfish act, tenderness is to be acquired from special friends which subjugates other friendship to the role of “friend” as it is understood in the age of Facebook and ironically having acquired so many of these types of friends, we no longer have the time to be charitable to the world as agape would have of us. This is all the more the case because having sacrificed tenderness we are becoming a selfish creature that needs to be seen. Even worse our selfishness is making us childlike and unable to have any sort of courage that would invest sex or eros with any sort of meaning that could positively impact a relationship with another person let alone let that relationship, which has been the building block for families and whole societies, to have an impact on the world.
It Is Not All Bad, But There Are Points To Be Made
In spite of my harsh tone, it is not all bad. Having a larger number of “friends” has made it possible for us to see many outside of our immediate family and small circles as beautiful and unique individuals. We are discovering how interconnected we can be with one another and when we refuse the tribalization that can accompany the likes of social media, we even have avenues to understanding viewpoints and opinions we did not have in the past.
Still the detriments are apparent. We are replacing companions with friends thus reducing authentic love to philia and friends to acquaintances making philia into a scaled back version of agape. As a byproduct families are shrinking and not being truly known to others we spend more time crafting our image for the sake of the crowd rather than building relationships with those we are called to be with.
It may too late to change the course of things and despite my tone, that is not even called for, but if you want to provide at least some correction to the new understanding of friendship and love here are some starting points….
- Use the word friend with less casualness: Everyone on Facebook is not your friend, neither are your coworkers, roommate, acquaintances, or who you hooked up with.
- Know who your friends are: Make a list of friends and ask yourself if everyone on it is a friend. If it helps make a list for each person and write down why you like them. Even better write down the times you were in their company and reflect on it. You will learn a lot from those. If that is too much work then look at the friend list and ask “Do I know your middle name?” or “Can I count on you to get me to the airport?”
- Realize who you are there for: Know who the people you would drop everything for are and be there. This is good advice in life in general and changes from moment to moment as in when you are at work this may include a client or what have you, but you know what I mean. In essence, prioritize. If one is not a priority to you, it does not mean you are not called to be loving in a charitable sense, it is only that there are very few of which your protectiveness and tenderness is a calling. The upside to this is that the number being rather small does free you to have a wider agape for others and the world.
- Know who is unique in all the world: Everyone has a primary relationship. Those change. If you find it is not changing and if the dynamic is reaching across the different types of love, it is fair to ask if in the course of human relating you may be in the realm of companionship (authentic love) and possibly family. The whole thing is a topic for another time, but it is the one thing which we can readily note May’s despair of its loss.
- Grow Up: A myriad of friends in the Facebook sense is popularity; it is not love. Years ago this would be considered a high school notion of friendship, but today it is the norm for all generations. For some reason we no longer grow up. Social media is not to blame for this, despite what many say. It is our lack of tenderness that made social media look like what it does. If we had not succumbed to apathy and the need to be seen social media would still be here, but it would look far different. Dunbar’s number would also be more widely observed.
- Have Courage: Friendship and love require courage. It is the lack of courage and letting another be to you who they are meant to be that makes you apathetic toward them. This apathy can be a sickness that grows to infect other relationships. If you find yourself lacking the courage to admit meaning to another person, you need to change. If you’ve managed to tank that, change in time that it does not happen again. The courage to love and be loved is of the greatest importance, not only because love is important, but because that is what preserves us. Love is an ontological reality. It will have the day. The beauty of this is that it allows the good to be born in our creativity with another. The counterbalance and great justice of love however is it has the destructive power of eliminating anything that does not serve it as it seeks to move all of us to be united to whom we belong. If we don’t have the courage to serve love; the ontological reality of it is that love will be preserved but our own perception of ontological reality will be destroyed.
Let me conclude by saying all of what I have written here is an observation and not an indictment. I wrote this post today because I was reading up on friendship. I know the moral arc is long and I have seen hopeful signs on the nature of love and friendship. Much of it has come from social media and those who realized they are overfriended as well as sick of oversharing and seek to change that. I have also seen much debate on the nature of relationships that agree with the likes of Dunbar and May. And people everywhere are still falling in love and becoming the best of friends. But we would do well to look at our social history and where it has changed. We should be quick to affirm it in that it has given us cause to look at our prejudices and where we have failed the cause of love as well as justice, but we also need to look at where we have gotten it right (the creation of beauty and new life, the strength of families, the alliance of friendship, and the courage to fall in love) and let that inform us as well. If we allow ourselves to be changed by what is new while keeping what has always been best about ourselves then we will have served the cause of love and friendship well and such a hopeful creature as the human will have reason to be more hopeful still.