Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America was facing a crisis of friendship. Millennials were reported to be the loneliest generation; nearly a third said they were lonely most of the time or all the time. Older generations were no better. Since the 1990s, people had stopped reporting that a close, personal friend lived in their neighborhood, though that was common before.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis deepened. The CDC reported that less than half of teens felt like they had a close friend, and among all teens more than 2 out of 5 felt “sad or hopeless” and 1 in 5 (19.9%) seriously considered suicide.
What can be done? For a start, we can sweep away some of the myths about friendship.
Myth One: You can have a lot of true friends.
“The Bible says to have one or two friends,” Pope Francis told a radio station in Argentina. He said that, since becoming Pope, everyone wants to be his friend.
“I have felt used by people who presented themselves as my friends and whom I hadn’t seen more than once or twice in my life,” Pope Francis said. “They have used that to their own benefit. It’s an experience we all go through.”
Alasdair MacIntyre in fact said that is what most friendships are today — we call it “networking.” That is fine as far as it goes, but we also need real friends.
Myth Two: Checking in with friends occasionally is enough.
In fact, for friends (and parents, too, by the way) love is spelled T.I.M.E. “Patience and time are needed to forge a good friendship between two people,” Pope Francis told young people.
Pope Benedict XVI was another apostle of friendship. He said, “True friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize” it.
Think of friendship as a journey, rather than a destination. Or better yet, a search. “Life is not just a succession of events or experiences: it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful,” Benedict said.
Myth Three: Online friendships can never be real friendships.
There is nothing wrong with finding friends online.
“Social media can edify us, lead us to virtuous people and virtuous friendships, which ultimately lead us to God,” said Daughter of St. Paul Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble. She even said, “Media friendship is not necessarily less ideal than real-life friendship,” citing friendships that existed through letter-writing.
In fact, this may be exactly what people are looking for when they “Friend” and “Follow” online. I once posted on Facebook, “Social Media can be a godsend, helping us connect and deepen friendships that have been fractured by technology in the first place,” I wrote. “Or it can be a tool of the devil turning us all into narcissistic self-promoters shouting out several times a day that we are the center of the universe.”
My friend Ellen Rossini answered: “Not narcissistic and ‘center of the universe’ so much as human and in need of others. It’s the cry of the lonely heart (and we’re all lonely): ‘I am here, I need to give and receive love, to touch others to be real.’”
She did point out the shortcoming of online friends, however. “The odd thing about technology is that it seems to deliver social connection exponentially. But people aren’t made that way. One conversation with another person, in their presence, is worth a thousand tweets or posts, or more.” (See Myth One, above).
Myth Four: Friendship with Jesus is sweet and all, but it’s not real friendship either.
In fact, friendship with Jesus is absolutely real.
First of all, says Pope Francis, Jesus is a model of friendship. “Jesus maintained friendship with his disciples, and even in moments of crisis he remained faithful to them,” he wrote.
But he is also a real friend. “His outstretched arms on the cross are the most telling sign that he is a friend who is willing to stop at nothing,” he said. “If you are willing to encounter the Lord, if you are willing to let him love you and save you, if you can make friends with him and start to talk to him, the living Christ, about the realities of your life, then you will have a profound experience capable of sustaining your entire Christian life.”