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The article accompanying the poll suggests that social media usage has been a major driver of this phenomenon. Online "friends" may be myriad, but they are also distant and illusory—not really friends at all in the traditional sense. Most young people seem to understand that implicitly.
As families shrink, and young people grow up without knowing the joys of a multitude of siblings and cousins, this lack of friends means that more and more people are feeling isolated, lonely and are lacking any sort of social safety net to help them when they encounter financial, health, or emotional problems.
But this sad dilemma should not be left at the doorstep of social media alone. Rather, I posit that the problem is at least partially due to a general loss of the traditional Christian virtues as a given among most people, and the tendency to fill that void by congregating together based on vain and trivial interests or worse, outright sinful desires and activities. As St. Francis de Sales taught in his excellent work, Philothea: Introduction to the Devout Life, such trivialities can never form the basis of a true friendships. Instead, true friendship requires that we bear with the trivial, actively discourage the sinful, and encourage virtue in our friends. It should go without saying that the same should be true of married couples and family members.
In Philothea, Saint Francis explains the difference between true and false friendship in great detail:
“Friendship demands very close correspondence between those who love one another, otherwise it can never take root or continue. And together with the interchange of friendship, other things imperceptibly glide in, and a mutual giving and receiving of emotions and inclinations takes place; especially when we esteem the object of our love very highly, because then we so entirely open our heart to him, that his influence rules us altogether, whether for good or evil.”The distorted modern concept of “love” is often rendered as being unconditional and all-accepting. That is, we are enjoined to demonstrate our love for each other by accepting, celebrating, or even adopting the faults and sins of our friends and family members. Saint Francis continues, saying, to the contrary:
“Of course we should love him notwithstanding his faults, but without loving those faults. True friendship implies an interchange of what is good, not what is evil….Saint Gregory Nazianzen tells us how certain persons who loved and admired Saint Basil were led to imitate even his external blemishes, his slow, abstracted manner of speaking, the cut of his beard, and his peculiar gait. And so we see husbands and wives, children, friends, who, by reason of their great affection for one another, acquire—either accidentally or designedly—many foolish little ways and tricks peculiar to each. This ought not to be, for everyone has enough imperfections of their own without adding those of anybody else, and friendship requires no such thing. On the contrary, it rather constrains us to help one another in getting rid of all sorts of imperfections. Of course we should bear with our friend's infirmities, but we should not encourage them, much less copy them.”It should be pointed out that St. Francis is only talking about small flaws here—personal idiosyncrasies and imperfections. As to actual sinful behaviors and desires, he speaks without any equivocation: these should never be encouraged or tolerated in our friends. To do so renders the friendship a perverse fiction that can not be maintained without considerable self-deception:
“Of course, I am speaking of imperfections only, for, as to sins, we must neither imitate nor tolerate these in our friends. That is but a sorry friendship which would see a friend perish, and not try to save him, would watch him dying of an abscess without daring to handle the knife of correction which would save him. True and living friendship cannot thrive amid sin....Friendship will banish a casual sin by brotherly correction, but if the sin be persistent, friendship dies out—it can only live in a pure atmosphere.”
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“Much less can true friendship ever lead any one into sin. Our friend becomes an enemy if he seeks to do so, and deserves to lose our friendship, and there is no surer proof of the hollowness of friendship than its profession between evil-doers. If we love a vicious person, our friendship will be vicious too. It will be like those to whom it is given. Those who draw together for mere temporal profit, have no right to call their union friendship. It is not for love of one another that they unite, but for love of gain.” [de Sales: Philothea, Part III, Chapter 22]In a previous chapter, St. Francis describes what a true friendship should look like:
“Love every one with the pure love of charity, but have friendship only with those whose interactions are good and true, and the purer the bond which unites you so much higher will your friendship be. If your relationship is based on science it is praiseworthy, still more if it arises from a participation in goodness, prudence, justice and the like. But if the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last forever in Him. Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them. Such as these may well cry out, ‘Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity!’” [de Sales: Philothea, Part III, Chapter 22]Today, January 29, is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales on the traditional calendar. This great saint and Doctor of the Church had many profound things to say about friendship, love, and other aspects of life that are sadly forgotten today. Click here to read more from his Philothea: Introduction to the Devout Life.
Of course, this is a book that every Catholic should have on their bookshelves, so go ye and order a copy here.