December 27, 2015

The gift of friendship

By Alice von Hildebrand *

Which one of us would not agree with Schiller who, in his Ode to Joy, writes that he who leaves this earth without ever having had a real friend, should leave crying. One of the glorious lights in a universe often darkened by sin, treason, and lies is friendship. My husband referred to love as “a remnant of the earthly paradise”. He is right, but I suggest that this should be extended to include friendship.

Yet it is a sad fact that we all know people who never have had a friend. One possible explanation to this tragic deprivation is a cynical one: the world being evil, true friendship is impossible But the cynic should not forget to include himself in the long list of potential traitors. Moreover, one cannot but have the feeling that he savors an evil joy in his condemnation of true friendship.

Another possibility is to acknowledge that those who have never tasted the sweetness of real friendship are responsible for this severe lack because their approach to others is essentially “calculating:” “how can I make sure that I will get more out of this relationship than what I myself shall invest into it”? Pragmatism is poison to friendship and kills it in the bud. Tragically while always calculating, the pragmatist is caught in his own game and is the victim of his “mathematics”. His down to earth, crawling approach inevitably blinds him to the beauty of generosity. A clever approach to finances is poison in human relationships.

Any real friendship is an “uncalculating exchange of gifts”; each one of us has his own talents, and true as it is that in friendship there is an exchange of gifts, they cannot, no they should not be measured. The word “uncalculating” is crucial because what one friend gives to the other will inevitably be widely different from what he receives from his friend. My husband was one of the most generous of men in giving his time to others, never turning down a request for advice or intellectual help. But no one who had any knowledge of his personality would have dreamt to ask him to make a package and bring it to the post office. He would have accepted, but there is every chance that he would have forgotten it, or absolutely certain that the post office would have turned down the package because of its being sloppily packed. A friend might have a greater wisdom, another a sharper mind, another again, be keener in legal and financial matters. The list is long: one cannot compare the gift of a wise advice with a financial loan. One should not compare them: any type of calculation is to introduce a deadly germ in friendship. It is worth remarking that if we ask a carpenter to make a table, it is a matter of course that he expects remuneration the amount of which is set in advance. But how many friends, having given much of their time to listen to the human problems that a friend is facing, and giving him a sound advice, would send a bill: “I gave you two hours of my time”. This is the difference between a psychiatrist and a friend.

When a person praises himself because of his generosity toward a friend, we might fear that the friendship is sharply on the decline. This does not exclude the possibility that some, alas, are “business” friends and that one day we will inevitably become aware that they are about to drop up as soon as they found another “who performs better” and is therefore a “better deal”. Aristotle mentions “business friendships”. I personally would deny such relationships the noble name of friendship. Understandably one will shift from one dry cleaner to another if experience teaches that the latter is more efficient and cheaper.

Much has been written about friendship and understandably so: it should play a key role in human life ; if one were to make an anthology of the beautiful things that have devoted to this topic, we would have an impressive volume. This applies to all languages and all cultures.

The first thing that comes to mind is to distinguish between love and friendship. The first refers exclusively to the love that can exist between one man and one woman, and is by its very essence impossible between two persons of the same sex. It finds its fulfillment in marriage. This type of love is the most complete, the most “perfect” possible. This is why when a girl consecrates her virginity to Christ, we can speak of a spiritual “marriage”; that is, a total self donation, a total “revelation” expressed by the word : “I know her; I know him” Dietrich von Hildebrand has labeled this type of relationship: I -THOU; eye to eye; face to face. One could rightly object that God alone TRULY knows us in this total sense of the word – this explains why Augustine, shortly after his conversion, was asked the things that now truly concerned him: his answer was “NOVERIM ME NOVERIM TE” implying that to know God will shed light on the mystery that man is. Without God, and in spite of all the help of Freud, man will to a great extent, remains a mystery to himself and to others. This was a first stage in Augustine’s conversion. As his religious life matured, he made beautiful contributions to love and friendship having meditated on the sublime meaning of Christian love. To truly love God, gives us a golden key to human loves - they are loved in God.

Of course, our friends also “know” us: for friendship is based on the perception of the beautiful traits that one has discovered in an individual but, as mentioned, man is multi-faceted and it is quite possible that we know certain features of a friend, even though our knowledge is only very partial, and if the friendship growths and develop as a friendship should, the friend’s beauty will become more and more visible. If knowing is “unveiling” the latter is humanly fulfilled only in the privilege case of an ideal marriage, and up to a degree in every noble and sublime friendship.

Not only is spousal love possible except between a man and woman based on a complementariness but this completion is already powerfully expressed in the very structure of the male and the female body. Moreover, by its very nature this love is exclusive, that is to say it eliminates the very possibility that it is duplicated with another person of the other sex. Friendship on the contrary is possible with not only between persons of the same sex, but also with persons of the other sex: there are great and noble friendships between two men, and between two women, but they are possible between a man and a woman, even though it does not have the marks of spousal love. Moreover, we can have great friendships simultaneously: each one of them truly has the character of friend, but this does not prevent us from having a multiplicity of them, each has its own beauty, its own perfection. A botanical garden cultivates very many flowers which are very different: but all of them have their own beauty; all of them are a gift, even though there is a hierarchy of beauty among them: a lily is more beautiful than a daisy. There can be great friendships mostly based on a common love of God and his Church; there can be one based on a common love of philosophy, of music, of art. Friends share the same loves and as St. Augustine puts it, in their common love of God, they warm their soul at each other’ s flame. This is why any true friendship will inevitably bring us closer to God – the source of Love. The bond is a common interest is found in some value: the higher the latter, the more noble the friendship. The question can be raised: what about people who share the same love for sports, for legitimate “fun” - musicals, entertainments, amusing plays which trigger a legitimate laughter. I personally would prefer to use a word like comradeship than friendship, but if some insist that they relationships also deserve to be called friendship, let it be. But it should be obvious that the higher the sphere of values that unites friends, the nobler and deeper is the friendship. (It should be noted that anything bordering on immorality is a radical obstacle to friendship – two vicious men, two perverse, two haters of God cannot possibly be friends. They fight on the same front, but not only cannot love each other, but moreover, deep down they inevitably hate each other).

Many of us are blessed with several friendships which, far from being antagonistic, can even enrich one another. Conflicts can arise only if a friend always gives priority to the time spent with a friend who shares his passion for dramatic and exciting literature , over a friend who shares his spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Whereas it is inconceivable that a great love between man and woman aiming at marriage is coupled with several similar attachments. Even though it is possible when one of the conjoins has left this world, that his or her place has thereby been vacated even though we all know cases in which love has been so profound that it excludes the possibility of having a substitute.

Now that we have hopefully succeeded in showing the divide between friendship and spousal love, let us try to analyze its main features.

As a parenthesis, it is worth remarking that Aristotle dedicates two books of his Ethics to friendship. At first, it might be surprising, but we are indebted to him for having drawn our attention to the fact that any true friendship inevitably calls for key moral qualities. True friendship by its very essence excludes unfaithfulness, selfishness, treason, to mention some of the most obnoxious. This is clearly the reason why Aristotle gives friendship such a prominent place in his Ethics. It is also worth remarking as David Ross does in his book on Aristotle, that we find words in these two books that challenge Aristotle’s basic claim that the “good” being what we all desire, and that we all inevitably desire happiness, “eudemonia” should be declared to be the highest good; whatever we do if we are intelligently motivated, is to pursue our happiness. Quite apart from the fact that the word “happiness” like the word “good” is ambiguous (how many people would agree on what they consider to be a key to happiness?) But then Aristotle faces a difficulty: should not a friend be loved “for his own sake”, and not only because of the very many benefits that are essentially linked to friendship? How is one to explain the selflessness of Antonio toward his friend Bassanio? For obviously his decision to lend him a huge sum of money, and his accepting to lose a pound of flesh if he fails to repay it on time, is an act of generosity which will strike an outsider as sheer madness. Yet, it is not the only case found in life or in literature in which a man sacrifices himself for his friend, for “there is no greater love than to sacrifice oneself for one’s friend”. But if a person loses his life to save his friend, can’t it be said that he loves his friend more than himself?

It should also be obvious that friendship implies” sharing” this embraces a very wide field: not only as Antonio to share his wealth, but to share whatever matters to one’s friends: this implies his joys and his sorrows. A French cynic has remarked that whereas friends easily share the other’s griefs, they can, at time, fail to share his joys as warmly: for alas, if a friend received a benefit denied me, to rejoice for him might be accompanied with; “I never have such blessings; he is the one always getting them”. Concerning sorrow, griefs and trials, the friend finds himself wounded and in a weak position: and then it is “easy” to be compassionate. It is however worth while to quote the Frenchman Jean de Rotrou who wrote: L’ami qui souffre seul fait une injure a l’autre”. (The friend who suffers alone is in fact insulting his friend). There are some friends who believe - to my mind erroneously - that to share their sorrows is to put an unfair burden on their friends. True as it is that some sufferings are very intimate, very personal (usually spiritual - the dark night of the soul - of sufferings caused by betrayals and relating them would seriously implicate others) it belongs to the very nature of love and friendship that one wishes to share. “What burdens you, grieves me”. Even if one cannot help, one can show one’s sympathy and pray.

Aristotle’s treatise on friendship is an interesting case in which a great thinker corrects his “philosophy” thanks to the wealth and beauty of personal experiences. The basic direction of Aristotle’s philosophy is clearly intellectual; let us recall that he declares the intellect to be the supreme human faculty; even though he pays some attention to the will, but he leaves little room for the heart, and affective responses. In this he widely differs from Plato who calls love “the greatest of heaven’s blessings”. (Phaedrus) Can’t we infer that Aristotle having tasted the sweetness of a great friendship, and because friendship implies selflessness, realized that there was a serious discrepancy between his philosophy and deep human experiences and tried in some indirect fashion to correct it? He must have realized to a certain extent that his eudemonism was not doing justice to some very crucial facets of human experiences. If happiness is indeed the greatest good, it inevitably means that whatever relates to my personal advantage should be given top priority. He who truly loves knows that it is not the case. Love is sharing: he who refuses to share disqualifies himself as a friend. This is expressed in Spanish proverbs: “esta es tu casa” are the words uttered when a friend pays one a visit. And another, is equally expressive: “El amigo que no presta y el cuchillo que no corta, que se pierdan, poco importa”. He who lends lovingly rejoices in doing so conscious that it is a privilege to be given a chance of proving that one truly loves one’s friend. That some abuse of other’s people kindness is to their own loss. Assuming that they have “made a deal” they are actually depriving themselves of the sweet debt of gratitude. Blessed are the grateful should be added to the list of the beatitudes.

This leads me to a key perfection that characterizes both love and friendship: trust. This word is a gem and sheds light on the deepest human experiences. “ I believe” is an act of trust. No human relationship, be it love or friendship, can survive if the “trust” that one had given to another person, is sapped and ultimately destroyed. Great literature give us rich examples of both “treason” and admirable acts of the victory of trust over the “temptation” to mistrust another person.

How could one of the greatest literary genius of all times, Shakespeare, omit to dedicate some of his great tragedies to this crucial question in human relationships. In the narrow frame of this article, I shall only briefly refer to two of his tragedies: Othello and Cymbeline. In both of them, a husband is sorely tried, because he is the victim of vicious intrigues aiming that destroying him by making him doubt of the faithfulness of wife. The better known is Othello which begins by giving us insights into his deep and reciprocated love to Desdemona. But alas, his genuine love for this lovely female creature is not safely doubled by trust: that is to say, for whatever reason, he is accessible to calumnies. It is difficult for us to “forgive” him because the intimations that the vicious Iago brings against her (her pleading for Cassio’s forgiveness) and the handkerchief is found in his quarters, taken in and by themselves are not “proofs” of her unfaithfulness. She on her side is naïve: it does not occur to her wildest imagination that her pleading might be interpreted as motivated to her love for Cassio, and that the fact that a shawl is found is, once again in no way a “proof”. The faults is to be found in Othello; he is the guilty one because of his lack of trust. How many of us, alas, lose faith in God because of some trial that he sends us. On the supernatural plane, we hear some people say: “How can one believe in the goodness of someone who permits that we have to carry a cross?” Once his trust in her truthfulness and purity is cracked, inevitably one thought will lead to another, until he reaches a stage of rage that leads him to accuse the innocent and lovely Desdemona to be a slut and worse. We know the tragic end.

It is difficult for the reader to “forgive” him. A similar situation arises in Cymbeline: once again the we have a similar scenario; a great love. A tragic situations separates husband and wife, who, heartbroken, promise one another faithfulness unto death. Once again, we have the scenario of a vicious and despicable character aiming that breaking the heart of the husband, by giving him “proofs” of the treason of his wife. But in this case, Iacomo – a match for Iago in viciousness – sets a more refined trap: not only does he manage to steal Imogen’s bracelet – a gage of his love for her from which she has solemnly promised never to part, and moreover, having managed to hide in her bedroom, he is given a chance, when she slightly uncovers herself in her sleep, that she has a small mark on her breast. Iacomo’s proofs are truly “convincing” : what else is needed to prove that he has slept with her? How many husbands under such circumstances would still refuse to mistrust the faithfulness of their wife? Alas, Posthumus is human and believes that his sweet Imogen has betrayed him. We are relieved that the end does not duplicate the one just alluded to in Othello. But these two tragedies challenge us to try to shed more light on the crucial element of trust in love and in friendship.

If a friend starts doubting a friendship without the slightest proof, but does so on mere appearances that the friend has not even been informed of, this is a sad indication that the doubting friend is sinning against the genius of friendship. In other words, if one suspects a friend, and someone with whom the bonds of friendship has deep roots in the past, who have acted or made decisions that are not understood, surprising or wounding to his friend, the first step that friendship dictates him to give him a face to face explanation: He should be told lovingly: “You have done so and so, you have said so and so, you have failed to do so and so, this has upset me deeply, because it seems to be an offense against the precious gift of our friendship. Do me the favor to explain a conduct which, to me, is incomprehensible, and strikes me as incompatible with our friendship. I give you the credit that there is a misunderstanding, and beg me to enlighten me.”

This being done, the friend is given an opportunity of shedding light on a particular decision that he has made, and grant him a chance to prove that neither is this decision an offense against this precious friendship, nor even a reason to doubt it.

Not to give the friend this chance, will, I fear, strike us as a serious offense against friendship: it is shutting a door, without even listening to the plea of the one who is knocking. There are cases in which friends disagree when facing a sensitive and delicate human situation; but we should always keep in mind that in human life is complex. It is conceivable that two very wise spiritual directors give different advice to someone going to them for help and advice. When a pope makes a prudential judgment, history tells us that sometimes it is wise, sometimes it is unfortunate. In such cases the future will enlighten us, but unless we have reasons to believe that this particularly successor of Peter is, alas, someone betraying his mission, we should give him credit that his intentions were well meant even if unfortunate or imprudent.

In his great book on love which my husband considered to be his opus magnum together with Transformation in Christ, one of his most beautiful contributions is to my mind what he calls repeatedly “credit of love”, that is a lover or a true friend will give the other credit, even though his acts or decisions clash with our own. Alas, there are cases in human life when one can duplicate the words of the Gospel; “You of little faith”.

Aristotle was right; friendship should be included in an ethics, for it implies TRUST, forgiving, repentance, and humility. Friendship is a precious gift that should be kept in a jewelry box.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.