Bernardo M. Villegas
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Nurturing Friendship After the Pandemic

           As more strict lockdowns hang over the Philippines like a sword of Damocles because of the appearance of more deadly variants of COVID-19, It is not only the economy that is in danger of tanking.  There is also a serious danger that one of the human virtues of Filipinos appreciated by people from other nations-- friendliness and affability-- may suffer some deterioration.  Face to face contact is a must in developing the ability to relate well with others.  Viber or Zoom contacts, no matter how frequent, will always be a poor substitute for actual physical interaction.  Pupils will have to go back to the classroom, not only because of the majority of them cannot afford the resources needed for blended learning but also because they need to cultivate close friendships if they are to preserve what Filipinos and Filipinas are appreciated for both in their own country and outside as overseas workers.

           During the ongoing pandemic, many prominent leaders all over the world, including Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, have heaped the highest praises on our health workers and care givers   for their soft skills, the tender and loving care that they usually shower on their patients.  We should never lose this cultural advantage we have as a nation which I attribute to our Malay heritage and reinforced strongly by our predominantly Christian faith.  I would like to reflect here on what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI mentioned in his World Youth Day speech in July 2008.  He referred to the need for the youth to build up, with their strongly Christian lives, a society and a world that would be more human.

           In whatever way we will define the so-called New Reality after the pandemic is put under reasonable control, let us make sure that we do not get used to each family limiting their close contacts to only the immediate members and avoiding physical interaction with those outside the household.  In an article in the website of Opus Dei entitled “Living for Others” we obtain some very important guidelines for pursuing and rebuilding if necessary close friendships with as many people as possible once the health crisis is over.  Quoting from St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, we are reminded that “In a Christian, in a child of God, friendship and charity are one and the same thing.  They are a divine light that spreads warmth.  The virtue of charity enables us to gasp the deepest reality about our neighbor.  With the help of God’s grace, we Christians discover in reach person a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ; we discover God himself there, who gives us his image in the human person, so that we may treat it with respect and honor it as we should.  Apostolate, which aims to be one and the same thing as friendship, is simply ‘venerating’—I insist—the image of God that is found in each and every human being and doing all we can to get them in turn to contemplate that image, so that they may learn to turn to Christ.”

           We can count on our cultural heritage which gives the highest importance to inter-personal relationships, which is also found in countries of Southeast Asia with predominantly Malay ancestors.  Our advantage is that we can super-impose on this strong culture of human virtues related to affability and friendliness the supernatural virtue of charity which the Christians among us received in the Sacrament of Baptism.  As we read in “Living for Others,” “True charity is not the same thing as natural affability; it goes much farther than family relationships or friendships based on common interests or entertainment; nor is it simply the compassion we feel for those who are lonely or suffering in some way.  Its measure is the love that Christ expressed in the ‘new commandment,’ God’s own love, ‘the love I have had and will always have for you,’ because its source is the inner life of the Blessed Trinity.  It is a love that is not put off by physical or personal shortcomings; it is a desire ‘to be with the children of men’ that neither sin nor rejection nor the Cross can restrain.  The virtue of charity is the love that God himself infuses into the hearts of Christians, in order to take and raise up to a supernatural level all human loves, all our yearnings and aspirations.”

           We should not have any illusion that the advanced stage of digital technology can enable us to foster true and deep friendships through merely virtual communication.  We should all try to return as quickly as possible to person to person contacts, at least with those outside our immediate family circles whom we can consider friends and not mere acquaintances.  I personally have heard from St. Josemaria, whom I had the great fortune to meet personally many times, about how to be friends to our friends.  He always emphasized that a friend, as classical writers put it, is another self—someone who helps make our lives more tolerable, who is there for us in our troubles, and shares our joys and sorrows.  A friend is someone we can confide in, because we can trust him or her.  We all need to be able to rely on each other, so as to travel the road of life in this way, to make our aspirations bear fruit, to overcome difficulties, to benefit from the results or our efforts.  Hence the enormous importance of friendship, not only on the human but also on the divine plane.

           Obviously, we cannot be personal friends of all the people who work with us in a large corporate organization as distinguished from an MSME in which we can be in intimate personal relationships with the relatively few employees.  In determining how to divide our time in a blended work scheme after the pandemic, we may actually reserve those days during which we work at home in interacting with people within and outside our organization with whom it is not possible to strike personal relationships.  Those days which we spend in the office or work place can then be devoted mostly with interacting with our fellow workers with whom we have a possibility of developing close friendships. 

           However our work schedule may be modified in the New Reality after the pandemic, we must give the highest value to fostering friendship with as many people as possible in our workplace as well as outside it.  Because every baptized person is automatically also an apostle (Woe unto me if I do not preach the Gospel, as St. Paul said), we all need to grow in our appreciation for the value of friendship.  There is no way we can cultivate true friendship without cultivating face to face contacts with those around us, going beyond virtual meetings.  For the Christians among us, we must always keep in mind that friendship is raised up to a new level by grace and becomes a way to communicate Christ’s life to others.  Thus, true friendship is transformed into a real gift from God, inseparable from the supernatural virtue of charity. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.