#93: What Is a Friend?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #93, on the subject of What Is a Friend?

A few years back, someone who for the sake of avoiding argument I will identify as a friend of the family posted one of those captioned pictures to his Facebook page which I will admit stung me.  I was reminded of it recently when I saw the same sentiment on a T-shirt for sale on the Internet.  The gist of it is that your real friends are not the people who get you out of trouble but the people who get in trouble with you, not the people who bail you out of jail when you’ve been arrested but the people who sit in the cell alongside you and laugh about how much fun you had getting arrested together.

It stung because we are the people who have bailed him out, more than once literally and quite a few times metaphorically.  I don’t know, though, whether he would number me among his friends.  I don’t do wild parties; I don’t enjoy them.  Our ideas of “having a good time” don’t intersect at many points.  What, though, makes someone a friend?


As I ponder the question, I realize that the Facebook post and the T-shirt place in stark contrast two attitudes about what it is to be a friend or to have a friend.  Either could be summarized in the statement, a friend is someone who helps make your life better–and then the discussion becomes a matter of what constitutes a “better” life.  That in turn reflects a fundamental attitude regarding what you think life is about.

In the one view, a friend is someone who is always there to support you, always there to help, someone on whom you can lean when you are struggling to stand–and the relationship is reciprocal, that you are always there to support and help him, ready to carry him when he can’t walk on his own.  This is the person who bails you out of jail, who gives you a bed and a meal when you find yourself homeless and hungry, who lends you a bit of money when there’s no guarantee you can repay it.  This is the friend who tells you when what you are doing is dangerous, foolish, or simply wrong.  In a sense, he is like family–that friend that the Bible mentions as being closer than a brother.  There is a degree to which you live for him, and he lives for you.  You share yourself with this person, and get to know this person.  Of course, you can’t have too many of these–or can you?

The alternative view considers friends to be anyone who makes your life more enjoyable, which usually means more fun.  The people who invite you to parties are your friends; the people with whom you play games and go on outings and watch sports or movies are all friends in this sense.  Of course, you rarely know anything about how they really think or feel–but why would you want to?  Life is short, and the point is to enjoy it and to help other people enjoy it.  These are your drinking buddies, your coffee klatsch gossip group, your golfing or quilting companions.  They matter in so far as they make you happy, and you matter to them to the same degree.  If they don’t make you happy, if they are no longer fun, they drop from the list; they are equally ready to drop you.  That is of no consequence; you can have scores of such friends, and replace them with new ones, because these people are your friends because they enjoy you and you enjoy them.

I probably have betrayed my preference in describing the two views.  Indeed, when Jesus said nobody has greater love than one who lays down his life for his friends, I think He was describing real friendship, the commitment to sacrifice for another–and I think that friendship often involves sacrificing, laying down our lives, usually in little bits, giving up a movie or a dinner out to visit the hospital, spending the spare change on gasoline to drive someone to work or rescue him from the side of the road, losing an hour in the evening to be a shoulder for a few tears.

Yet this assumes that life is about becoming a more loving person, in a sense maturing.  Not everyone believes that or wants that.  My aforementioned friend is not interested in making himself better; he is interested in having fun.  People only matter to him to the degree that he needs them.  That’s not to say he never helps his friends or recognizes what they have done for him; it is rather to say that the kind of commitment I view as essential to friendship he views as inimical to it–and ultimately, any authority I might cite in support of my view he would discount because it is not consistent with his view.

I think those friendships shallow.  Don’t get me wrong–I would be there for him if he needed me.  I just don’t think he counts me one of his real friends, and I’m not sure that I could count on him to be there for me.  We just don’t see friendship the same way.

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One thought on “#93: What Is a Friend?”

  1. How I like that and good reasoning! I’ll share it :)
    My 2 cents :
    – friends who go into trouble for you are (much) rarer than acquaintances. But you need both – especially if you don’t have the first kind ;)
    – an acquaintance can become a Friend. I played with a fellow gamer and he extended his hands to me. I must concede that he’s a devout christian (a catholic), and Christ ORDERS you to love thy neighbor, so I guess it motivates you to extend you hand, do the first step towards somebody ;)
    – There’s no fun in jail, so prison is the last place where you would find solidarity. The “friend” who sits in the cell alongside you will probably accuse you of having brought him there – if he didn’t testify against you in exchange for a jail time reduction. You probably know the Prisoner’s dilemma

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