Those in friendship must have the capacity to listen to one another. Second, there must be reciprocity in friendship.
Can something so widespread and diverse be articulated and contained in two words? Friendship can be pleasurable, utilitarian, or virtuous (taken from Edward Sri). If it is pleasurable, the friendship has its foundation on some common interest or hobby or indulgence. The friendship ends when that hobby or indulgence is no longer available.
In a utilitarian friendship, there is some mutual benefit. A good example of a utilitarian friendship can be a business partnership. One may get along well with a neighboring company or product manufacturer, but the connection between one another ends when one receives a promotion or changes careers.
Finally, the virtuous friendship. This friendship is founded on something that does not stay between the two members. This friendship looks at the other as well as beyond the other. This friendship involves virtue and the pursuit of something Good. Am I, are you, the ultimate Good? We know the answer is no, but in the pleasurable and utilitarian friendship we convince ourselves otherwise, “yes.”
In each friendship listening is necessary, how else would you know what I want from you? In each friendship, their should be reciprocity, how else could it survive? If one gives while the other only takes, the giver is drained of his or her resources, energy, or life. So, why then are these two attributes necessary? It seems that either of these attributes can be abused or twisted for the private and isolated benefit of one and not the other.
Though this one may “speak” for itself, it is good to understand what importance this deserves. Like Cris said in a recent post, friendships require openness. I must be able and willing to listen to what you have to share of and about yourself. I must give you the opportunity to listen to me and what I have to say. As funny as that may read, soak it in. Can I listen to you? Or, do I prefer to call you only to ‘unload’ on you my day? Talking out a problem or a situation is fine, but is that the only reason I call you? Am I using your time only for my anxiety and distress?
Have you ever anticipated the next breath of the other person just so you could say something, just so you could speak for once? That, my friend, is an example of the other not being able to listen. Yes, we may share our lives or particular circumstances to talk it out, but, if all I do is listen to you, you become ‘that guy’ or ‘that girl’ whose phone call I dread, whose voice becomes a thorn in my flesh.
Ask yourself one more thing regarding listening, “am I deceiving myself when I let you rant (or vice versa)?” If I am the listener, maybe I am hoping in vain that you will ‘get the message’ that I want to share some of my own life. If I am the talker, maybe I don’t have the courage to ask “what do you think?” Can you see that in each person there is a fault? Maybe I’m nervous to ask you to stop talking because I really want to be friends with you. On the other hand, maybe I don’t want you to ask me to stop talking because I’m afraid you’ll call me out in my sin or the exaggeration of my anxiety.
Can you see there is an underlying fear present in each person? Where listening is lacking, there is (likely) present a disordered affection for the person or attachment to a sin or object. Is this present in your friendship? Am I asking you to be 100% intentional with each and every friendship? Well, I think the better question is, “is he asking me to be 100% intentional with those who are closer to me?”
Look at Jesus. He had Peter, James and John as his closest-closest. He had the twelve as his closest. Ask yourself the question of intentionality in the context of proximity.
To what degree am I open or vulnerable? This question is answered by proximity. What does one offer the other in friendship and conversation? What is appropriate, when, in what context? These are good mental notes when engaging in a friendship, but they can cause one to stumble and offer something less than authentic. Who wants fake friends?
Before answering the question of to what degree or when, reciprocity must be understood in its context, in the crucible of the virtuous friendship. I use the word crucible because it hints at two particular bible verses: Sirach 2:5 and Proverbs 27:17. Sirach uses the word furnace in the RSV and crucible in the NAB. In the virtuous friendship, the purpose of reciprocity is the edification and building up of one another, for the sake and glory of God and my-your-our salvation.
Reciprocity is not meant to justify mutual word vomiting. That’s like saying the sacrament of marriage justifies contraceptive sex, because “it’s exclusive, mutual, and consensual… so it’s okay.” Word vomiting is not virtuous, it is idolatrous pleasure and false relief from personal anxiety.
Does my offering of life stories point to Christ? Or, am I only trying to convince the other that I’m so good at dealing with problems? Can you see the subtlety? Reciprocity should point us back to Jesus Christ, not me, not you. Yes, we are involved because it is we who are friends. This friendship, though, should be joyful and more than an exclusively sorrowful recitation of my failings to the other.
This is the hard one. Have we made it beyond the first threshold, the ability to listen? The several (not few – I’m hopeful) of us that have, it is reciprocity that continues to be a faithful refiner of the friendship. In reciprocity, I am tempted to give my friend the answer to his or her problem. “Bro, clearly you’re failing in area A, here is my remedy: action B.” In that moment, will I choose to be quiet and hear out the other? Or will I deny the opportunity to walk with a friend? Even if for a short while, walking with someone is better than writing a to-do list of how to be perfect. Yes there are legitimate practicals of “how to,” but they are never separate from the raw experience of daily life.
Do I fear being as honest? Do I fear I will lose the other because I am too messed up or because I don’t really believe or feel or think the exact same as him or her? Maybe I have learned in past friendships that reciprocity was only used to tell shallow stories to one another and to avoid the encounter of the person himself or herself.
All these tensions, what do you do about them? Look at Jesus and pray. If that’s all the answer you need, you’re set. For the other 98% of us who aren’t so perfect, the positive side of these two characteristics of friendship is addressed in the following post. It doesn’t give a clear answer, but I think it does give something to chew on and apply to our particular lives.