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June 04, 2019 Tuesday 01:25:53 PM IST


3rd Eye

Friendships play, said Socrates once, a great role in enhancing or degrading life. Yet, very few people pay, he added, attention to it. Socrates used to exhort his fellow citizens on the importance of choosing their friends aright and of doing justice to the friendships formed.

This is all the more important today, in the wake of the emergence of the nuclear family. Until this became the urban -now also small town- norm, children were influenced by family traditions. Basic notions about ‘who to be with’ and for what purposes used to be stated. This served generally, if not invariably, as a ‘control box’ for choosing friends. In the absence of this guiding influence, parental responsibility has increased in making up for its extinction. Now parents have to double up as the voices of tradition as well; arguably not an easy thing to do. More so, because they themselves are debilitated by the atrophy of traditions. 

Let me illustrate. The Samurais, the Japanese warrior class, had an established reputation for bravery. Surely, not every Samurai was born brave. The awareness of belonging to a heroic tradition challenged and empowered individual Samurais to be brave in the face of danger. Historians tell us that Napoleon Buonaparte was able to achieve incredible military feats not only because he was a brilliant strategist, but also because he kindled in his compatriots a sense of honour as integral to being French. Unfortunately, this had very tragic results too, but the point holds good that the awareness of having to measure oneself up to an exalted norm serves as a guiding and empowering force. The nuclear family is bereft of this inherited, trans-generational continuity. So, the lacuna needs to be compensated by contextually wise and informed parenting. The good thing is that it can be.

At this point, a word of caution. Parents should not become, in the process of being watchful over the friendships their children form, paranoid about the company that the children keep. Some parents are apt to think that the world is not good enough for their children. But our children have to live in this world! By incubating or over-protecting our children, we hinder the development of their social skills and personality.  This problem is more acute in the case of single-child parents. They tend to be over-protective.

Element of caution

The foundation for training children in the art of choosing and making friends is for parents to be friends with their children. But this has to be done without renouncing parental authority. Friendship should not be mistaken for familiarity. A key discipline in friendship is valuing the other for what he or she is. A parent-as-friend is still a parent. If this distinction is erased, it could well happen that in place of such a parent, a friend-as-parent could emerge, which doesn’t help.

The key determinant in the art of winning friends is, according to Jesus Christ, developing the capacity to be friends with others. There is a necessary synergy between who one is, and the sort of friends one gets or makes. It is also true that the friends we choose influence us in their own ways. As a parent I would counsel my children to be wary of forming friendships with the following types of individuals:

-Those who have no sense of reverence or sanctity of life and relationships. This includes vulgar pleasure seekers.  (To that end, I would maintain a simple, near-austere lifestyle.)

-The hot-tempered, the quarrelsome and those who have no qualms about lying and breaking promises. Such individuals lack a caring spirit, which is necessary for building healthy friendships.

-Those who do not grant you the freedom to be true to yourself or to express the goodness and scruples native to you, but dictate types of conduct unbecoming of a young person. I would do so, especially in view of the role that ‘company’ plays in making young people ‘experiment with’ risky behaviourssuch as drug abuse, alcohol consumption and premature sexual activity. A survey conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (New Delhi) in the ‘90s of the last century revealed that over 50% of students of standards 10-12 in Delhi become sexually active. Peer-pressure played a big role in this.

-Those who are habitual cynics and scoffers, and cannot see and appreciate any good in others.  In particular, those who deride and denigrate teachers. Negativity towards teachers is a huge hindrance to learning.

I would urge my children to prefer those who are:

-Temperate in manners and courteous in behaviour.

- Positive in outlook, especially in respect of studies and opportunities for growth. The purpose of friendship is to bring out the best in each other and to serve as a catalyst in the pursuit of all-round excellence. No one who distracts the academic pursuit of a young person can be a true friend to him or her. I would explain to my children that reciprocity in relationship becomes healthy and beautiful only when both are developing and doing justice to themselves. One who cannot do justice to himself cannot do justice to anyone else. 

-Those who care to tell the truth, even if it is unpleasant, about their friends. The alternative is to surround oneself with flatterers and sycophants. No friendship is healthy, if it doesn’t have space for the truth about each other. Telling the truth, and nothing but the truth, is a function of love. Friendship without genuine love is anything but friendship. Truth separates sincere friends from fair-weather-friends.

Choosing life-partners

I would make bold to discuss matters pertaining to the most important version of friendships -choosing life-partners. Man and wife are meant to be friends with each other. All that I mentioned above apply, with added force, to this life-long friendship. Marital relationships without the sunshine of friendship endure resentfully. Perhaps the most important quality that a young person needs to look for in his or her would-be life-partner is the caring spirit, which is the invisible foundation on which life is established. The opposite of caring is callous selfishness, which is hurtful.

From what I have said so far, it should not be inferred that I am advocating friendships of the fairyland type. Where two individuals come together, there are bound to be tensions, frictions, differences and misunderstandings. All of these have their roles to play in making relationships dynamic and wholesome. Frictions and tensions serve, provided the bed-rock of love exists, as spurs to personal growth, self-correction and improvement. A person who wants life wholly free from tensions and traumas is sure to choose the line of least resistance, which leads to stagnation. Iron-sharpening-iron is a process not alien to healthy friendships. 

Changing standards

In our times, the value of friendship has been overridden by obsession with material amenities and sensual delights. A smart phone, to many, is already the most indispensable friend. Yet, no material object -not even of the most advanced and sophisticated kind- can take the place of a human being. (Imagine having an artificial-intelligence-enabled robot for a friend! You may have a conversation; but you wouldn’t call it a ‘heart to heart’, will you?) The ubiquitous domination of technology and its ever-multiplying array of gadgets was described aptly by the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1954) as the grand betrayal of the west. The situation has aggravated several folds since his days.

Scriptures and religious literatures abound in emphases on the importance of friendships. Jesus said that he came to be friends with human beings. God begins with us as a Neighbour and enables us to be friends with him. Socrates, with whom I began this piece, endeavoured to be friends with the youth of Athens. It used to be said of Socrates that everyone improved in virtue and goodness in his company. Parents would do our world much good by training their children to be such friends. Jesus said,

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”. (St. John 15:13)

Here is an episode involving two ardent friends from the bloody pages of World War II. Their platoon was overwhelmed by the enemy. The soldiers got scattered. Late night those who survived regrouped in the camp. One of the two friends was found missing. The surviving friend sought permission from the commander to go looking for his friend. He was aghast. It seemed a suicidal thing to do. The soldier persisted and the officer yielded.

Far into the night, the man, after hours of search, reached where his friend lay mortally wounded and dying. As the solider bent down to kiss his dying friend good bye, the dying man said in a feeble voice-

“I knew you would come”.

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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