Bernardo M. Villegas
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Crisis of Friendship (Part 1)

             In my travels to countries where there are a large number of Overseas Filipino Workers (such as Spain, Italy, the United States, Hong Kong and others), one of the virtues of our fellow citizens often cited by the foreigners is that of friendliness, i.e. it is easy to make friends with Filipinos.  This may be a trait that will ensure a constant demand for OFWs in many countries suffering from the demographic and ageing crisis that has inflicted the entire European continent and Northeast Asia. But more importantly, this sociability of Filipinos—in keeping with their human nature—will ensure that what is called the index of human happiness can always remain high for the Philippines.  Having friends is always cited as a major factor in surveys about happiness all over the world.  It has always been held that human beings are social animals and having friends is part of being human. As C.S.Lewis, in his book “The Four Loves” wrote, “Friendship is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”

            From the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle always maintained that human beings are by nature political animals.  Sociability is part of human nature and friendship is one of the important ways of being human.  Any human action or tendency that goes against nature usually leads to tragedy.  For example, in many societies where the nature of marriage, sexuality and family is violated through practices like divorce, abortion, same-sex unions, and polygamy, sooner or later society falls apart.  In the U.S., for example, drug addiction, violent actions and other anti-social behavior can be traced to the breakdown of family ties, with -numerous individuals having grown up without the care of a mother or a father, a good number not even knowing who their fathers are.  Another society that has been harboring individuals who act against human nature by cutting themselves off from contact with other human beings is Japan.  There is the phenomenon of young people closeting themselves inside their rooms, avoiding any contact with other human beings.  The result is a very high rate of suicide among these unfortunate anti-social youth.  The principle is clear:  go against nature and nature will have its revenge.  This is also very much the case in the way we treat the physical environment.  Damaging the ecology has its own built-in punishment.

            Unfortunately for some Americans, another crisis is brewing in their society in addition to the drug, marriage and gun violence crises.  It is what can be called the crisis in friendship.  In an Opinion column that appeared in The New YorkTimes (September 24, 2023), David French reports about a “male loneliness epidemic” that is affecting American fathers:  “In one sense, these were men who were surrounded by love.  They were typically married.  They had children. Yet they still felt alone.  They struggled to make friends…The longer we march through these anxious, sad and divided times, the more I’m convinced that the bigger story, the story behind the story of our bitter divisions and furious conflicts, is our loss of belonging, our escalating loneliness.  And one of the markers is the extraordinary decline of friendship.”

            This worrisome phenomenon is backed up by statistics.  According to an American Perspectives Survey, between 1990 and 2021, the percentage of Americas reporting that they had no close friends at all quadrupled. For men, the number had risen to 15 percent.  Almost half of all Americans surveyed reported having three close friends or fewer.  It would be interesting for any Filipino reader of this column to ask himself how many friends does he or she have outside of his closest relatives.  In an informal survey I made among people I know, the average figure is anywhere from 15 to 20 real friends, people outside of the close relatives with whom there is regular contact (at least once a month).  Asking these people what virtue they value most in a friend, I get the same answer that David French got from the people he interviewed.   The answer is that a friend is “always there”, “present when you need them most.”  As French wrote: “Time and again, I hear versions of this answer, one that grows more salient the longer you live and the greater the headwinds you face: “A friend is there when you need him.”  “A friend picks up the phone when you call at 2 a.m.”  “A friend stands with you.”

            Since presence is essential to preserving friendship, it is important to know how to  keep in touch with one’s friends, despite the time demands of raising a family or advancing in one’s professional work.  There are ways of making the challenging tasks of the upbringing of children compatible with keeping in touch with one’s friends.  There are associations of parents that organize courses on how to educate their children in the different stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and all the way to maturity.  One example is the Educational Foundation for the Upbringing of Children (EDUCHILD), which started in Metro Manila in the late 1970s and has spread to many other cities, including outside the Philippines.  Parents who belong to this foundation have been literally friends for life.  An offshoot of this initiative was another foundation for parents established by the late Dr. Placido Mapa Jr. and his wife also in the 1970s.  The foundation is called Parents for Education Foundation (PAREF) whose mission was to put into practice the dictum that parents are the first educators of their children.  Inspired by the teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, PAREF has established schools for their children in which the first decision makers are the parents themselves working very closely with the teachers.  Through these two foundations, friendship among the parents can endure.  They solve the problem that David French raised in his column in the New York Times when he wrote: “I’ve never met a person who wants to lose friends.  But I’ve met many, many people who suffer from loneliness and say that they just ‘lost touch.’  What happened I ask? ‘Life happened,’ they say.  At each stage of life it was easier to say no to a friend then to say no to work, to a spouse, to one’s kids.  And while each individual ‘No” can be understandable and even justifiable, the accumulation of “No’s” suffocates friendships, even without an argument, a breach or a betrayal

            Another very common way of rediscovering friends after the children have grown up and couples have become empty nests is to renew friendship with former classmates from one’s youth, whether in grade school, high school or college.  These are the persons with whom we share some of the most intimate moments in our lives.  I know of former classmates who meet monthly face to face for some meal or another, although a good number get together even virtually when they find themselves scattered all over the world.  Again quoting C.S.Lewis: “Friendship is unnecessary, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create).  It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”  To be continued.