The Future of Friendship
By David Brown, 2006
“Having friends, people outside our family to talk with and confide in, is important to the well being of society.”
As I write this article, Carol King’s song, You’ve Got a Friend is playing in the jukebox of my mind. The reality is that fewer people can sing that song. A recent, study by the University of Arizona and Duke University indicates that Americans have fewer friends outside the family. (1) The study also found a significant rise in the number of people who have no close friends, no one with whom to discuss important personal matters. 25% of those polled have no one to confide in, family or friend.
If the trend indicated by this study is true, and I have no reason to believe it is not, its findings are, I believe, important for us to consider as we think about the future. In many ways, our decreasing number of close friends makes sense.
- Modern lives are busy; time for relationships seems to have decreased.
- Technology allows for more information to be shared without face to face, person to person inter-action.
- Leisure time that could be used to nourish relationships, promised by the folks who sixty years ago invented and marketed washing machines, microwaves and dishwashers, has not materialized. We have filled that time with longer days at the office and longer drives in traffic choked roads between work and home.
The Duke survey tells us what some of us know is true. (2) People seem to have fewer close friends. The study indicated that when we need to talk about important matters more and more of us are turning exclusively to our family members. I am glad for the deepening roll of family but find the trend troubling. I am troubled by what this trend says about our future as human beings and as a society.
Having friends, people outside our family to talk with and confide in, is important to the well being of society. Friendship provides a context where people can think about and reflect on what is happening in the world. My sense is that this type of reflection happens more in friendship than within families where there are so many other concerns to address. Within close friendships people are able to look at the world and wrestle with questions, wrestle with the things that do not make sense or are disturbing. To borrow a line from the song, For What its Worth, friendship gives us a needed place to say, “Something’s happening here, what it is isn’t exactly clear.”
Social transformation and change often emerge from conversations among friends who perceive that “Something’s happening”, things are not as they could be, and begin to ponder how to do something about it. I believe the case could be made that modern movements for social change such as the Civil Rights movement, Feminist movement and anti-war movement of the 1960’s grew from and gained strength through circles of friends. If we are kept so busy that we have no time to reflect on the world with others we will indeed be too busy to advocate or create social change. Social isolation allows the status quo to flourish.
One author of the study, Duke Sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin, suggests as well that “ties with a close network of people create a safety net”. (3) Friends provide support, material and otherwise, during times of crisis. The value of this safety net was evident in New Orleans after Katrina. Without friends, if all one has as a “safety net” are family members, in a time of crisis the strain on those family members may cause the net to break.
Friendship is important to the well being of the nation and the democracy. I believe we also need friends for our emotional, physical and spiritual health. Studies indicate that people with a social network live longer and are emotionally healthier. When I speak of friendship I mean something that goes beyond being golf buddies or hearing music together or talking about wine. True friendship is a place where things that matter are discussed or shared. Friends engage our hearts, minds and imaginations. Friends listen as well as speak; know how to encourage and how to tell it like it is. Without close personal relationships something basic and important to being human is lost. I believe we need relationships outside of our intimate relationships where we can confide our deepest dreams, hopes and fears. It is in these relationships where we nurture faith, wonder about politics, and maybe even organize for social change. I have also discovered that the more I let others know me in close relationships they in turn help me to know myself in a new way.
If our preferred future is one where friendship is valued and affirmed how do we begin moving toward that future in a world where we perceive ourselves to be, like most everyone else, too busy. It takes discipline and intention. Maintaining Friendships is not just a matter of the heart or desire but it is an act of will, a decision we make.
A world without friends, a world where people have fewer folks apart from family to turn to is not my preferred future. I believe:
- We need the civic involvement that can come from looking with friends at the world outside our homes.
- We need the safety net when the road is not smooth.
- And in order to be fully human we need the insights, affection, laughter, play, vision and encouragement that friendship, true friendship offers.