Many a false move in history has been blamed on a person’s inability to know who his or her friends really were. Most of us can point to times in our personal history when a person whom we thought to be a friend stabbed us in the back, and a person whom we may have thought only an acquaintance or whom we hesitated to let get to close to us for some reason, really came through for us in the way a friend should (and maybe in a way other “friends” failed to). Knowing who is and who isn’t really your friend has always been tricky business. Especially because we often deceive ourselves in this regard. Some people might be quite surprised that you consider them a friend!
These days, with the advent of social networking, knowing who your friends are hasn’t gotten any easier. Indeed, thanks to Facebook, the whole meaning of “friend” has been called into question. Honestly, how many of your Facebook friends are really your friends in the more proper, intimate sense of the word? Because of the public nature of the work that I do, for example, many of those who ask to be my Facebook friends are people whom I do not know, but are rather people who are interested in knowing more about me because of the work that I do in ministry, or because they have read my writing. So many of my Facebook “friends” are not so much friends as “contacts.”
Yet, “contacts” is the designation of those whom I have especially identified on my cell phone as people whom I frequently call or text, or people who frequently call or text me. And, ironically, I realize that those who make up my much smaller “contact” list are actually more likely to be intimate friends than most of the people who inhabit my “friends” list on Facebook. Technology has managed to blur the line between those who are our friends, and those who are merely “contacts.” Then, of course, there are those who are our Twitter “followers.” But I’ll hold off on my reflection about that for another time.
This has got me thinking that, as strange as it might sound, that a good way to reflect on the presence of friends in our lives and, by extension, the presence of God in our lives, is by mining our cell phone “contact” list. There’s a story, indeed a history, of interaction with those people on your contact list that is not necessarily found with people on your friends list. So, if we want to take some time to reflect on the gift of friendship (and family, of course) in our lives, we might well do so by scrolling through our phone’s contact list, and asking questions such as: Why is that person on my contact list? What is the story of my interaction with this person? In my case, those on my list are family, close friends, work colleagues and fellow Jesuits, among others. They are people who I’ve had more extended and meaningful contact with than simply accepting their friend request (another act the profundity of which has become distorted, unfortunately). They are people I spend time with, they are people with whom I’ve worked in ministry to others, they are people I’ve known for much of my life, or are people whom I’ve known only a short time but whom I feel like I’ve known all my life because of the depth of what we have shared with each other during that time. My history with them, for the most part, is more intimate than the description “contacts” suggests.
If I delve deeper into my phone I find an even smaller list, which tells a more detailed story. It is the list of those in my text message history. I don’t text just anyone. Indeed, being a relative late-comer to the texting game, the effort it takes for me to text (I don’t have the agility of my younger counterparts) someone isn’t expended on just anybody. It’s reserved for friends, family and colleagues with whom I have a close relationship. These are the people with whom I’m more likely to share the unexpected joys and tragedies of my life, and with whom I’m more likely to trade requests for prayers with. In my text-messaging companions, I find another level of intimacy. I can get a lot of consolation, and be reminded of my need to pray for the needs of my family and friends by reviewing my history of text messages with the people who inhabit this more exclusive portion of my cell phone, and my life.
The phone of course, is only a place to start. It is a spark to memory of what that person means to you, the experiences you have shared together, and what you hope lies in your future with them. It is also an invitation to move beyond the technological and virtual world, to call them and make plans to be together, to continue your life with them in person as more than just contacts, but as friends. Our computers and phones might serve to help us to discover who our intimates are, but deep friendships are built in the moments we spend in each others’ presence, even if sometimes spent more in silliness than seriousness. Friendships are built on both. Indeed, our willingness to be silly and even stupid with someone else is a sign of intimacy, it means that I’m comfortable being myself with that person, because our history together, both “virtual” and personal, has shown me my friend.