Social Media Friendships Might Be More Special Than We Realize

At Grotto Network, Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

When distorted by hyper-individualism, being authentic can become associated with things that are superficial and ephemeral, behavior and preferences that are unrelated to who a person is at their core — their deepest values and the unique position that each occupies in the world of persons. A distorted sense of authenticity might inspire one to create a distinct social media identity that is closely linked to a particular lifestyle, mood, or look that the person values, but that only reflects a fraction of the person’s everyday life. Genuine authenticity is more likely to impede the construction of this separate identity and narrow picture of reality.

My friend’s feed was not filled with staged shots, skinny arm, and an endless parade of good news. It looked like real life. There were countless cute photos of her darling daughter, but these included ones where her daughter was sick or causing trouble, like little explorers so often do, or disrupting her work. She was very active on social media and her feed was fun, but we got to see a mom who got tired or had a new mess to clean up or could laugh at a slightly awkward moment. I saw a real person, a real family, and it created a sense of connection.

Bonds of solidarity often grow through shared experiences — and the joys, struggles, and sheer hilarity that often accompany parenthood are well-suited for creating such bonds. But in an increasingly atomized society, where intermediary institutions are crumbling and countless forces are fostering a (sometimes involuntary) lived individualism, strong bonds of friendships and solidarity are more difficult to realize and sustain…

as we consider the limits (and disastrous ills) of social media, we should not ignore the ways it can enrich our lives if used wisely…

Sometimes that means having the opportunity to follow the lives of our loved ones across the country more closely and to share more in their everyday experiences. But it can also mean developing a greater sense of connection and solidarity to more casual friends — the depths of which may not be known until an acute moment of joy or sorrow reveals how much we care.


Maintaining Friendship and Civility When Politics Gets Personal

Following the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, much ink has been spilt over his friendship with those who rarely agreed with him on matters of religion, politics, and jurisprudence. Scalia’s sharply worded opinions and staunchly held beliefs not only put him at odds with some of his fellow justices, but to many critics on the outside, made him entirely unpalatable. It took many by surprise when they learned that the conservative Scalia and the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg were, as she described, “best buddies.” Their odd couple friendship serves as a model for a nation that is too often divided by partisan politics and provides a much-needed witness, particularly during this election cycle.

Over the past two decades, there’s been an emerging consensus that something is seriously wrong with our political discourse. Disagreements over matters of politics have caused divisions among families, friends, and neighbors. A 2012 Knights of Columbus-Marist poll revealed that 8 in 10 participants surveyed agreed that they were “frustrated” with the tone of our politics. And this was four years before the current primary season, which has proven to be a spectacle like none other. A quick review of any of the recent primary debates reveals little discussion on policy specifics, but rather a staged affair of name-calling and personal mockery. It’s no wonder that many of us, particularly millennial Catholics, often feel politically homeless and want to distance ourselves from the whole process. Many of us find ourselves wondering if there’s a way out of this current gridlock.

Once, in an interview when asked how he maintained such amicable friendships with those with whom he disagreed on the Court, Scalia answered, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can’t separate the two, you’d better get another day job.” It seems to me what Scalia understood—and what we’re lacking an appreciation for today—is that not all politics is personal, or at least it shouldn’t control the way we shape our relationships with those around us.

The model Scalia sets for us is that we must first aim to seek an understanding of the individual person rather than dismissing them for their ideas. In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt recalls a conference he organized in 2007 trying to understand why Washington was so divided:

“The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described the changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republican congressmen to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouses and children to Washington. Before 1995, congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing.”

Such a predicament isn’t limited to Washington. It’s seeped into our everyday lives and we as a nation are poorer for it.

Moral disagreements are, of course, inevitable. And robust intellectual disagreement is healthy—in fact, it’s been essential since our nation’s founding (Skeptics should give a listen to the cast recording of the new hit musical Hamilton where the founding debates over the national debt, the location of the capital, and much more are played out in rap and hip-hop—but seem as timely as ever). But of course our founders hoped that disagreement would also be tempered by a spirit of civility and respect.

This is why Lincoln was optimistic that a divided nation could eventually be brought together by the “better angels of our nature.” It’s also why leading conservative Robert P. George of Princeton and leading progressive Cornel West can co-teach college courses together and George can describe his professional relationship and friendship with West as “the best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade… It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth” and why he says the best piece of advice he can give his students is “Cultivate friends you disagree with.” It’s also why recent popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all cultivated meaningful relationships with individuals of others faiths and no faith at all.

Open minds demand open hearts. It requires befriending those with whom we are naturally inclined to disagree and with those whom we might be afraid to engage. It requires leading with a spirit of genuine charity that will ultimate produce a more civil engagement—that will likely require more listening than talking.

Such is a task for the entire nation, but especially Catholics who seek to be faithful citizens. It’s one that is all the more fitting during this Year of Mercy, but ultimately, one that is imperative at all times.

Christopher White is the associate director of Catholic Voices USA.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

The Risk of Friendship by Jeffrey Wallace: “That is the blessing, and the risk, of friendship. We give ourselves in vulnerability to one another without knowing whether or not we will be loved and accepted as who we are.”

If Nuns Ruled the World by Jo Piazza: “With seed money from her congregation, Sister Joan officially created LifeWay Network, a nonprofit that would provide housing for victims of trafficking and education about the reality of human trafficking, in 2007. LifeWay’s first challenge was finding an actual house for the survivors, one that they would be able to keep a secret.”

The Clergy Speaks – Father James Martin, SJ by Pete Socks: “What five books would you recommend as must-reads for Catholics today? I left the responses open to current or classic books with the only restriction being that the Bible and the Catechism could not be used as they are a given. This week we welcome Father James Martin, S.J. author and editor at large at America, the national Catholic magazine.”

I Don’t Want to Smell Your Pot Smoke and I Don’t Think it Should Be Legalized by Jennifer Garam: “One person’s ‘right’ to smoke pot shouldn’t trump other people’s right to breathe clean air, or comfortably inhabit the apartment they pay rent for. And I can only imagine that legalizing pot will make it that much more prevalent, and leave those who are affected by the secondhand smoke with that much less recourse to protect themselves.”

There’s Nothing Wrong with the Mommy Track by Rachel Simmons: “Our culture sings in only two keys about how successful women manage motherhood and work: either you’re driving a hard line to the C-suite, parking the crib in your corner office, or you’re shredding the Mommy track. But what about those of us who are still working hard, and who live and work somewhere between the two? I love being a mom, and I also love (and can’t afford not to) work.”

Past time to solve hunger in America by Bob Aiken, Ellie Hollander, Tom Nelson and Lisa Marsh Ryerson: “Hunger in America is a solvable problem through the collaboration of government, industry, nonprofits and generous individuals—but we must do more.”


Beyond Networking: Fostering Authentic Friendships

This is a revised draft of a talk given in DCCatholic’s Summer Theology on Tap series on July 15, 2014.

God is Friendship

Good evening to you all. I first want to thank you for coming to this event and thank you for coming together. Among my favorite scripture passages is Psalm 133, which opens with the acclamation, “How good and how pleasing it is, where people dwell as one” (Ps 133:1). And tonight we can affirm the truth of this statement. There is an intrinsic value and a beauty when people gather in hospitality and openness to friendship. Perhaps there may also be a bit of uncertainty and even awkwardness as we make introductions and small talk, but there is also a real joy. And if we are open to this, we can feel it.

We all have heard it said before, that God is love. But what if we were to look at it slightly differently? What if we were to say, “God is friendship”? If God is love, and friendship is a type of love, then we should also say God is friendship. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? For God is not some static and solitary figure, but rather God is Trinity, the communion of three persons in one, in which each person shares his life with one another and with all of us. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that when two or three are gathered, he is there in their midst (Mt 18:20). This was not some predication that the ghostly apparition of Jesus will magically appear, but rather that in the very act of communion, God is present. So let us affirm how good, how pleasing, it is when brothers and sisters dwell as one. How beautiful it is when we can come together in unity, because when we do, God is here.

Connecting with One Another

We live in Washington DC, which is one of the most connected cities in the country, if not the world. Wherever we go, when we meet people, we try to find mutual contacts. We exchange business cards, we attend meetings and conferences solely for the purpose of building our networks. Our city revolves around these connections; if you do not know someone, good luck trying to get a meeting with him or her.

We have become adept at building these networks in this new social age. When you meet someone in the professional setting, what is the first thing you do when you get back to your computer (or you look at your phone)? You add them to your LinkedIn account. Or if it is in a non-professional setting such as a happy hour like tonight, you Facebook them. There is a whole set of protocols and unwritten rules governing these interactions, but once you are connected, then you can access who they know, thus creating this incredible and intricate web of virtual relationships that potentially mirrors our actual lives. As we are becoming more interconnected, the world is becoming smaller. As the saying goes, we are all only about six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, right?

Yet despite this level of connectivity, many of us still have a desire for something more substantial, even if we cannot quite express what we mean by this. But we realize that there is a real danger in being caught in a plethora of superficial connections, both on social media and in real life, that can distract us from having authentic friendships.

Different Types of Friendship

In my Philosophy 101 class, I learned that according to Aristotle, there are three main types of friendships: friendships based upon utility, friendships based upon pleasure, and friendships based upon goodness and virtue (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII). In modern terms, we could think of these categories this way: friends of utility would be our coworkers and colleagues, people with whom we are in certain political parties or associations, with whom we share common professional goals, people who we are connected with on LinkedIn. Then, friendships of pleasure would be persons with whom we attend happy hours, play co-rec sports, go on hikes,persons with whom we simply relax–in other words, our Facebook friends. And then the final category of friends, according to Aristotle, are the best, but also a bit a difficult to describe: friends who are virtuous in themselves and recognize and appreciates the goodness of the others. They are friends simply because there is an intrinsic goodness in companionship and sharing their virtue with another. The key difference between the friendship of virtue and the other two types is that the former endures, while those latter ones are often dissolved once the object of pleasure or utility disappears.

Yet these categories are at once useful and deceptive, because there can be a temptation to demean the friendships of utility and pleasure and say that these are not real friends. But in reality, these are often the friendships which are the most present and meaningful in our lives. And in contrast, we have all had coworkers who have not been our friends and who have made our jobs and lives unbearable at times. So it is important that we not confuse friendships of utility with those people who simply use and manipulate.

Fostering a Beautiful Tapestry of Love

When I reflect on the experiences of my life, I realize that I disagree with Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship. If God is friendship, then any friendship has the potential to be what we may call authentic. There is a real beauty in the diversity of friendships; each can improve the quality of our life in real and different ways. Henri Nouwen has a beautiful passage on this, in which he writes,

“Each [friend] has his or her own gift for us.  When we expect one friend to have all we need, we will always be hypercritical, never completely happy with what he or she does have. One friend may offer us affection, another may stimulate our minds, another may strengthen our souls.  The more able we are to receive the different gifts our friends have to give us, the more able we will be to offer our own unique but limited gifts.   Thus, friendships create a beautiful tapestry of love” (Bread for the Journey, May 2).

While some may try to put limitations on the number of friends in their lives, it is important to realize that every friend can shape our lives for the better. By opening us to the joys and cares of others, they help us to realize that our lives are not meant solely for ourselves, but for others. They open us up to the presence of God, and to a new, blessed, and more fruitful life.

But friendship is not just something that happens passively; rather it is an act. It requires energy, time, effort, and our presence. And we all have the capability of fostering it. There are a few ways in which we can, if we are intentional: when we meet someone, we need to recognize that he or she is another self, totally independent of your own desires and wants. When we speak with them, we need to actually be interested and actively listen to them. But we also need to be honest, share our own stories, and at times, be vulnerable. And most importantly, we need to remember them. Nothing ends a friendship quite as quickly as forgetting a person’s name. This will require at times more energy on your part and may not offer an immediate return. Yet there is something intrinsic to ourselves that longs to be in communion with others, and we miss it when we it is not there. But we should never complain about a lack of authentic friendship, because we can all create the space to foster it. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no friendship, put friendship – and you will find friendship.”

Who are our friends?

But we also need to ask ourselves: who are our friends? So often we surround ourselves with people who are like ourselves. Just this morning in the Washington Post (July 15, 2014), there was an article that said that friends share a greater amount of similar genes than with strangers. We often separate ourselves from those who are different from us—just think about the different neighborhoods in Washington DC. I bet very few of us go across the Anacostia River to the Southwest neighborhood, where there is a much greater perceived threat and danger. Rather, we mostly stay in the neighborhoods that we are more comfortable with. But the danger is that we lose sight of the beautiful tapestry of love, which is created by diverse friendships. There is a true potency in friendship that can reach across different divides and bring people together in ways that even kinship does not.

But there can be a real danger in limiting ourselves to friends that mirror us in superficial ways. Any one of us can see this happening already in our Facebook newsfeeds. Whenever we click on or post something, it is recorded, and more similar articles will appear more often. If we are not careful, our newsfeed can become an echo chamber, repeating the things that we already have said. Our ideas are never challenged, only reaffirmed; we become entrenched in our ideologies, and become separated from those who think differently than us. We can already feel the effects of this. If Washington, DC is one of the most connected cities in the country, it is also one of the most divided by political partisanship and income inequality. But this disassociation with and demonization of others different from us undermines the very fabric of society. Even in ancient times, Aristotle recognized this, for he writes, “Society depends on friendship, after all, people will not even take a journey in common with their enemies” (Politics). We must realize, then, that friendship is not just personal, but is also necessary for the cohesion and the common good of our cities.

We also need to realize that friendship is necessary for the Church as well. Pope Francis has really challenged us not to be stuck looking inward upon ourselves. In the conclave prior to his election, he said that a Church which does not go out becomes sickly. It needs to reach out, become diverse, engage the world. We can say the same about us in terms of our friends. Again, friendships open us up to the cares and concerns of others. Engaging in one friendship actually makes us more capable to befriend others, including those who may be different than ourselves.

What can we do?

Now I am a member of a Catholic lay movement, called the Community of Sant’Egidio. This community began in Rome in 1968, composed of a few high school students who rediscovered the vitality of the Gospel and desired to live it in concrete ways. So they began praying with scripture and went to the slums on the periphery of the city to tutor poor immigrant children. Out of this movement from the Gospel to the margins of society arose this international community, whose members strive to live out the Gospel through prayer, service, dialogue, and friendship, especially with the poor. There was the discovery that the Gospel cannot be lived far from the poor. This friendship with the immigrant children opened up the Community to encounter the other types of poor, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, the homeless, the terminally ill, and prisoners. I have been a member for the past six years, with a special focus on encountering the elderly in nursing homes and the homeless on the streets. In Washington, DC, there is a small group of young adults from Sant’Egidio, who every Friday night go out to the streets to share food, share conversation, share our time, and share our presence with those that we encounter there. We are striving to create a culture of encounter.

Sant’Egidio has been encountering the homeless for over 30 years. We have realized that:

“loneliness and isolation are a condition common to all the homeless. Sometimes they are so oppressive as to leave a human being in a void, without any contact with his or her family, completely cut off from the world in general. Stopping, exchanging some words may seem little in a life full of relations. The homeless, however, speak only to ask for help, and at times to no avail. Nobody calls them by name. Name recognition, on the other hand, attests to the importance of a person as a human being. Greeting someone is a humane and decent thing to do, introducing oneself, asking for a person’s name. Breaking the prison of contempt in which these people are confined—and giving them the respect and recognition to which each and every human being is entitled—is as easy as that. This is the first thing we can do to alleviate the conditions of these unfortunate brothers and sisters of ours” (www.santegidio.org, “Friendship on the Streets”).

Fostering friendship can be the foundation for the careful search for solutions towards a better future, even in situations that appear impossible to change at first. A kind approach, constant dedication, and patience are signs of God’s love for His “little ones” (Matthew 25). At first appearance, it may not seem that we do much. By offering a simple meal, something to drink, and perhaps a blanket or jacket in the winter, we are not mending all the challenges of their lives. But these gestures are concrete signs to show that we are people who care. And they can serve as the starting point to significant relationships with persons who at the beginning, because of long isolation periods, do not always seem inclined to make a contact or accept help. And slowly, through these friendships, we can bring the transformative presence of God to our city and help make it a more human and hospitable place for us all, especially the poor and marginalized.

One issue that is often expressed is the real concern for our safety, especially when we go out to the neighborhoods where the poor live. This concern can stifle our generosity and goodness. It would be naïve to simply gloss over real dangers, but we must also realize that these concerns can serve as excuses to remain in our comfortable lives. There is a real need in the city for our presence, and God is constantly inviting us to serve, to reach out to the marginalized. And this is why it is important to have friends who can join us on our mission. We are better together. Again, we are better together. The disciples did not go out alone, but in pairs. None of us can engage in this work alone, so we must therefore foster friends who can accompany us in serving the marginalized. Eventually, once we faithfully encounter the poor and marginalized, their friendship becomes a call for us, and we realize that the beauty of being with them far surpasses the fear that formerly held us back.

And we must not forget the importance of prayer. Prayer opens us up more fully to the presence of God, assuages our fears, heals our hearts to be generous, and calls down God’s graces upon difficult situations. We all need a community that prays and serves together, a community that will constantly challenge us to go beyond our comforts and complacencies, a community that will form us in love. And by doing this, we can all become artisans of peace, artisans of encounter, artisans of friendship, who can weave this tapestry of love, and who can help others realize how truly beautiful and pleasing it is when brothers and sister can come together and dwell as one.

Charlie Gardner is the Washington Officer for the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is a Catholic lay community dedicated to putting the Gospel into practice through prayer, service, and friendship with the poor. He grew up in St. Louis Missouri, and attended the University of Notre Dame where he received an undergraduate degree in Great Books and Catholic Social Thought and a graduate degree in Theology through the Echo Program.


If you are interested in learning more about the Community of Sant’Egidio and joining us for either evening prayer or service, please email the author, Charlie Gardner, at charlesrgardner@gmail.com; you can also visit www.santegidiousa.org to see in which cities of the US the Community is already present.

Bibliographic note: A.C. Grayling’s philosophical book, Friendship (Yale University Press, 2013), was extremely helpful in helping me clarify my thoughts and in constructing the narrative of this speech.


Around the Web (Part 2)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Friends of Merton by Dan Horan: “Thomas Merton continues to exercise an ‘apostolate of friendship,’ bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.”

The Five Lessons of Good Friday by Fr. James Martin, SJ: “If we do something sinful or make immoral decisions that lead to our suffering, we could say that this suffering comes as the result of sin. But most of the time, particularly when it comes to illness and other tragedies, it is assuredly not. If you still harbor any doubts about that, think about this: Jesus, the sinless one, suffered a great deal.”

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus by Timothy Shriver: “In this man’s moments of his most extreme vulnerability, he was supported, sustained, and accompanied by one consistent friend: a woman, Mary Magdalene.”

Two Homeless People Freeze To Death Just Miles From The White House by Scott Keyes: “Though just an inconvenience for many, cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous for those with no shelter. Indeed, life-threatening hypothermia can set in even at temperatures well above freezing. Dozens of homeless people have died this winter from exposure to the elements, from New York to Chicago to California.”

A gesture of defiance by The Economist: “But in this election ordinary Afghans have sent a message: to their own politicians that stability is more important than sectional interest; to the rest of the world that their country is worthy of continued support; and to the Taliban that its claims to represent Afghanistan are hollow.”

Grisly torture photos from Syria stun U.N. officials by AP: “The U.N. Security Council fell silent Tuesday after ambassadors viewed a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrian civil war victims, France’s ambassador said. The pictures showed people who were emaciated, with their bones protruding, and some bearing the marks of strangulation and repeated beatings, and eyes having been gouged out.”

The economic culture war over the minimum wage by Paul Waldman: “With the national debate over the minimum wage likely to intensify into 2014, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin has signed a law passed by the Oklahoma legislature that would forbid any municipality in the state from passing its own law setting the minimum wage higher than $7.25. Not only that, it forbids cities and counties from requiring employers to provide paid sick days or vacation days. Above all, this is a reminder that in many ways, the minimum wage fight is taking on the feel of a culture war. Call it an economic culture war.”

Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion by Damon Linker: “The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.”

Republicans and Democrats Both Claim to Be Pro-Family. Here’s How They Can Prove It by Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker: “We calculate that a child allowance of $300 per month per child would have cut child poverty by 42 percent in 2012. Such a reduction would have lifted 6.8 million children out of poverty, plus another 4.7 million parents.”

Just Friends by John Conley, S.J.: “In discovering other human beings as mature friends, we give the lie to our society’s myth that other people exist only to fulfill our economic or sexual ambition. The path to a truly humane life, one built on virtue, disinterested service and an ungrasping praise of God, is suddenly open.”

Victims of bullying live with the consequences for decades by LA Times: “Victims of bullies suffer the psychological consequences all the way until middle age, with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide, new research shows.”