Anyone who has taken a high school French class can recall the scene from the classic novella “Le Petit Prince” of the drunkard who drinks to forget he’s a drunkard. It’s a tragic paradox wherein the cause and effect continually interchange and the man with the problem is locked into a self-perpetuating cycle.
The problem is similar for the man who struggles making new friends: Without experiencing friendship, he can never experience friendship. This is because friendship would teach him what it is, how it happens, and why it matters. If he never had a real friend to begin with, he will never know why he needs to make one now.
This is what lies at the heart of a troubling new study revealing almost half of Americans admit they find it difficult to make friends and that the average American has not made a new friend in the last five years.
Even if respondents cite their introverted nature or lack of social opportunities as the main reasons for the difficulty, what really holds them back is their inexperience with friendship. Many people in the developed world cannot tell friends from acquaintances, convenience from sincere appreciation, or superficial familiarity from real understanding. As a result, the relationships they have are shallow and uninteresting.
What Is a Friend?
Taking his cue from Aristotle, C.S. Lewis, in his excellent book “The Four Loves,” defines friendship as two people who care about one another and seek the good in common. He describes friendship as two people standing side by side looking at the same goal on the horizon. They help each other become their best selves and are happy to invite others in this pursuit. Moreover, they are equal, each contributing what they can and neither depending on the other for personal fulfillment.
In less lofty terms, friends will spend time together and enjoy one another for their own sake. They will meet up outside of school, work, or home. There is no obligation or practical use in a friendship, at least not as its foundation. A friendship is simply two people who like one another, seek the good of one another, and support one another because this brings about mutual happiness.
What many people call “friends” are really mere acquaintances. They may call their co-workers friends, but never spend time with them outside the office, and never talk about anything beyond work-related matters. Young people will call their classmates friends for the same reasons. People who spend much of their time online will consider people in their social media circles as friends. In all such cases, the connection is superficial — ——if any of those people were to drop off the grid for some reason, no one would think twice about it.
The lack of actual effort and choice in what people consider friendship leads to a few serious problems: 1) One never learns how to make friends, 2) one never knows the value of friendship, and (3) one ends up having no actual friends.
Making Friends Requires Hard Work
The first problem, making friends, implies a very important and obvious truth that is too often neglected: Friendships are made, not assumed. In order to make something, one must learn skills and perform actions that go into making that particular thing. For example, making a chair requires carpentry skills and the act of assembly. Making a friend requires social skills — communication, planning, reflecting, judging, etc. — and the act of spending time with a person.
When a person’s friendships are assumed (by having the same class, or working in the same department, or sharing the same genes, etc.) and not truly made, he will never learn these skills or do these things. The apparent friends will be lost as easily as they were made. All it takes is a change in schedule, a change in position, or a change in interests.
For this reason, many people today are not fully socialized. They struggle with basic interaction and differentiating relationships. It would be a mistake to automatically call such people introverts when they avoid others out of a lack of social competence, not an innate personal inclination. And it would be wrong to say they lack opportunities when they encounter plenty of people and have numerous chances to connect with those people.
While modern life has made so many things easier, friendship seems much harder. So many end up experiencing something close to friendship when they go through school only to see this come apart as soon they are on their own. When they are not forced to interact with others every day, they retreat to customizable comfort zones online and keep to themselves. They want friends, but the awkwardness and time required overcome this desire. This has led to the rise of flakiness, where people agree to meet with others, only to cancel later and then oddly brag about their flakiness online.
Get Out of the Cycle of Friendlessness
In many ways, this sudden loneliness and subsequent lack of self-knowledge are what account for the quarter-life crisis among millennials. Without the reality check and emotional security of close friendships, many adults in their 20s and 30s feel aimless and scared. Nothing seems that meaningful or fulfilling to them, and all relationships seem transactional and shallow (because they usually are).
Hence, many people in this situation desperately seek a new scene, believing that changing circumstances somehow will solve the problem. Unfortunately, in most cases it does not; it only leaves them all the more isolated and unhappy.
Because friendship has become so rare, many now question its value. The Aristotelian ideal, of two people enjoying one another’s company for the sake of pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, seems naïve. Perhaps the ancients considered this the greatest kind of love; moderns consider it folly. If one is really that eager for company, he or she can just get a dog—and many do.
So, if so many people are caught in this cycle, what can they do to escape it? For most of them, it will mean addressing the thing that pushed them into it in the first place: their screens. Televisions, computers, and smartphones have distracted people from forming friendships. This is why people who give up their screens tend to become more social. They can give other people the time and attention they deserve and live in the present.
Friendship Is Worth the Effort
My wife and I found this out firsthand when we decided to give up television. We were not heavy television watchers, but it had become a habit to watch something, anything, after dinner. When we finally found ourselves watching reruns of “Frasier,” we decided to stop this habit altogether, give away the television, and open up our evenings.
The biggest change to cutting the cord was our social life. Without a show to watch each night, we started making plans with people. We invited them for dinner, board games, coffee, or working on projects. In the process, we made serious connections with people, and the meaning and value of friendship became clearer.
Unfortunately, it also became clear that making friends is hard work. Flakiness is common. We usually bear the burden of planning, hosting, and conversation — particularly with the younger set, who can make basic introductions feel like an interrogation. Longtime friends sometimes vanish into thin air for no reason and come back again for no reason. We’ve come to realize this is just the new social landscape, and it’s best not to take anti-social behavior too personally.
Despite these challenges, it is still worth the effort. When conversations are not contingent on anything, and they allow both people to voice their thoughts honestly, freely, and fully to a sympathetic listener, a special kind of satisfaction takes place — something almost sublime. One can feel in his heart that this is the thing in which human beings are meant to partake.
This makes it all the more important today to recover this experience. When friendship passes away, a bit of humanity disappears, leaving communities and individuals weaker. Those hoping to rebuild the culture, restore freedom, and overcome the atomization of modern life should start by making friends with one another. It’s a pursuit that will seem so terrifyingly alien, and yet so very wonderfully familiar.