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Friendship: I Don't Know What It Is, But I Need It.6:00:00 AMEmma Lindle
A few months ago I was house sitting with a friend. In the beginning we hardly knew each other, but we moved in with a strong desires to share community. In the following months, I continued to be amazed by her generosity, flexibility, and was often uncomfortable by her openness and patience with me. At this point I was unaware of the impact the relationship was having on me. Little did I know that she was endowing our friendship with value. One day, as I spent the day home alone studying, I came downstairs to prepare a meal for myself and walked outside to eat on the back patio. I had been soaking in The Human Person by Fr. Brian Bransfield, and as I opened the screen door a verse from Genesis resounded in my heart: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). The experience of her friendship in the month leading up to this point had engaged my heart in a fundamental truth about who I am as a person: I am made for friendship.
But what value does friendship have? Is it merely something pleasant to distract me from the loneliness of life, or does it have a deeper value? Does it point to something greater? In Christian Ethics by Dietrich von Hildebrand, he explains three categories of importance that motivate us. First, there is the category of subjective importance, which is choosing a good because it is agreeable to me. In this category, the good conforms itself to me. I eat a Snickers, and it becomes part of me. The second category is value. This is choosing a good that has importance in and of itself. In this category, I transcend myself by conforming myself to the good. Hildebrand explains, “We are not only aware that this act occurs, but that it is better that is occurs, better that man acted in this way rather than in another” (51). I become more humble when I respond in humility. The third category is the objective good for the person. This is something that benefits me, and has an appeal beyond the pleasurable. Health has more benefits for me than the pleasure it brings.
Friendship As Merely Subjectively Satisfying
Let’s first say that friendship is in the first category of subjective importance. A person seems agreeable to me for some reason. For example, we both like soccer, she thinks of good ideas for class projects, or she is funny. If this relationship doesn’t seem agreeable to me, then the relationship becomes neutral: it’s not better that it exists, it’s not worse that it doesn’t exist. If there is nothing about the friendship that is subjectively satisfying, then it is no longer important to me. The other person only matters if she brings me pleasure.
I don’t think this can be the fullness of friendship.
Let’s look at a negative example of this: if there is jealousy between friends. If friendship was in the category of subjective importance, then a friend’s act of jealousy would be on the same level as burned popcorn. In other words, it’s displeasing and nothing else. The problem is, burned popcorn can fall into the category of neutral, but a person can’t. Friendship is more than pleasing or displeasing each other. This is difficult to remember when, in its affects, friendship can directly bring moments of pleasure or displeasure. There is pleasure and affection in friendship, but this is not merely from the subjectively satisfying. The affection we experience is connected to value. Many of us have never learned to connect our affections to value. Hildebrand can help us to move deeper.
Before delving into the inherent value found within friendship, let me first illustrate an example of friendship I witnessed recently that spoke volumes regarding its necessity for the human person:
There was a friend I hadn’t seen in three years, and upon finally seeing her again, I was struck by the new way she held herself and communicated with others. She had really grown in a beautiful way. Her language was filled with intention, and even her emails held genuine warmth. She was delighted to see me again, but this delight held emotional maturity and a transcendent joy. She was happy to be with me again. He affection for me was connected to my value, not merely to memories of pleasure I brought her three years ago. I complimented her on this and, to my surprise, she responded by saying that her personal growth was largely a result of meeting her (now) fiancé.
The relationship of an engaged couple is particularly intimate, but it is not excluded from the realm of friendship. This growth and transformation that I witnessed directly speaks to the value of friendship and its necessary existence in the life of the human person. It seems, even better put, that these two individuals, and now engaged couple, became friends, and somehow, this friendship brought her further into the discovery of herself.
Hildebrand explains that things we understand as having intrinsic importance are “endowed with value,” (36) and that we encounter this value through the delight it bestows. It seems that friendship can be considered a value by Hildebrand, “for [friendship] draws its importance not from its relation to us, but from its own rank; it stands before us, a message, as it were, from on high, elevating us beyond ourselves” (36). Not all relationships labeled as friendships provoke the bliss which arises from true value, but I believe true friendship has this power. When people are truly friends even an outsider would affirm that it is good that their friendship exists.
Why Friendship as Subjectively Satisfying Doesn’t Work
We all know the feeling of loneliness and the longing for friendship. In this situation there is a temptation to limit friendship to what is subjectively satisfying because it is the quickest way to find relief. Here the loneliness overtakes our knowledge of self-gift and capacity for reciprocity. This is who we are, self-gift, which speaks to the inherent value of man who is made for his own sake and fully discovers himself when he becomes a gift. It seems that there is a better way to seek out and invest in friendship rather than being whipped around on the level of the subjectively satisfying. Instead, keep in mind that friendship does have subjectively satisfying elements. A friend may compliment you, or take you on vacation with her family, but if this is all that friendship is then it is not a light which shines on others. No one else is affected by a friendship that is based merely on the subjectively satisfying. I would say that this is not friendship at all. Friendship, when it is approached as it is truly meant to be, with its inherent value, proves to be efficacious. For example, a friendship is endowed with generosity. The generosity they give to each other does not end in their own interactions, but because they taste the bliss of generosity so intimately in their relationship it bears fruit in all of their other relationships as well. Friendship bears fruit.
A Final Note
I will expand on this more in another post, but I cannot leave you without speaking a little of the beauty and potential of friendship that awaits each one of us. In the adventure and the risk of friendship, we can and should keep our hearts set on endowing it with the full value it possesses. It seems that reducing friendship to the category of subjective importance is more beneficial to me, because I can take pleasure in the other person without being inconvenienced. In reality, however, friendship is not that one or the other is glorified, but rather, that together they glorify values greater than themselves. As for the inconveniences that come along with true friendship, I think that they actually stir our hearts in order to fulfill a deeper union in the end, but more on this later.