7521223_s“You have 500 friends on Facebook. How many friends do you have?”

If it sounds like a trick question, the joke is on us. We live in an age where we talk a lot about friendship but experience little real friendship. As William Deresiewicz observes:

Already the characteristically modern relationship, (friendship) has in recent decades become the universal one: the form of connection in terms of which all others are understood . . . Romantic partners refer to each other as boyfriends and girlfriends. Spouses boast they are best friends. Parents urge their young children and beg their teenage ones to think of them as friends. Teachers, clergy, and even bosses seek to mitigate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends. (“Faux Friendship,” Utne Reader, May-June 2010, 38)

But as Deresiewicz goes on to point out:

. . . it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves today on our aptitude for friendship, but it is not clear that we still even know what it means. (“Faux Friendship,” 38.)

Surely we fool ourselves if we think that putting someone on a list of friends automatically makes that person one. In order to know people we have to listen to their stories, and we need to share ours. And this takes ” . . . patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill . . . (Deresiewicz, 41),” and time. It also takes trust. Therefore one test of a friendship is the level of communication that marks that relationship. Roberta Hestenes and others point out that there are five levels of communication:

Level 1: Cliche conversation. This is the superficial chit-chat level of talking which focuses on safe topics such as the weather, sporting events, local happenings, etc.

Level 2: Sharing of information and facts. At this level people talk about events, ideas and facts, but not yet really about themselves.

Level 3: Sharing of ideas and opinions. There is more willingness at this level to share one’s own personal ideas and opinions. This takes a bit more risk.

Level 4: Sharing of feelings. At this level people are wiling to risk telling other (people) . . . what they are feeling, not just what they are thinking. These feelings may be positive or negative.

Level 5: Peak communication. This is the deepest level of communication when (people) . . . experience strongly their sense of belonging and sharing . . . without defensiveness or barriers. Openness, transparency, and self-disclosure shapes the flow of the conversation (at this level).
(Roberta Hestenes, Using the Bible in Groups, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1983, 96-97)

Good friends should be able to communicate at levels three, four and five. Of course they can talk about sports too, but they can also communicate at much deeper levels when needed. Based on the communication level test, I suspect most of us have few intimate friends. We probably have friends running a continuum from casual to very close, but few really close friends. Some of us may have no close friends at all. And it is killing us.

Recently I emailed a friend, not very close, but one with whom I had grown to like and respect. He is a leader in his church. He usually responds to my weekly commentaries but I had not heard from him for a long time. I knew that his wife had cancer and had undergone treatment. I wondered how he was. His reply pained me.

First he said he was surprised and encouraged that a “busy minister” like me had time to remember him. This surprised me. I had not contacted him in a very long time. He reported that his wife was recovering well but that he was in the midst of his own serious health struggles. This was the line that floored me:

Not many people even bother to ask, including pastors and “friends” from my church!! Either they don’t know how to or don’t care, or both.

There is no need to guess who my friend is or the church he comes from. I am not trying to run down any church. What my friend went through could happen in any of our churches. I just use the above exchange to illustrate the point that in the church or in the world, we are increasingly friendless.

In his book Vital Friends, Tom Rath writes:

In summarizing the latest research from the Duke study and our own, it looks like we might not need an extraordinarily wide breadth of friends; it is likely to be the quality of our friendships that matters most. Each person needs a few very deep friendships to thrive. As you might suspect, lonely people suffer psychologically and physically. The absence of high-quality friendships is bad for our health, spirits, productivity, and longevity. (New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2006, 26.)

Hard scientific research tells us that we need friends. But it appears that we can get by with with a few friends if they are really close ones. Few of us will have the time to sustain many close friendships. But we do need that one or two. And how do we know that they are close? Try the levels of communication test.

Scripture has already told us:

Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm but how can one person keep warm by himself? Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NET)

I think it is great to have friends on Facebook. Latest count I have 755. But what we really need are that two or three intimate friends to journey with. I am grateful I have more than three.