The first time I was friended was Feb. 14, 1960.
Our second-grade class learned how to cut valentines out of red construction paper. We wrote notes on them, folded them, and gave our hearts to one another. Boy, girl, brainiac, cutie, cool kid, shy kid – everyone got one. And unless there was a budding Robert Browning in the class, the sentiments were as innocuous as the sayings on those sugary Sweetheart candies that magically appear this time of year: “Be my Valentine.” “Your secret pal.”
The next day, nothing had changed. Paper hearts have not been known to alter the clumsy dynamic of 7-year-olds trying to be friends. That takes a lifetime of laughter, embarrassment, and tears.
I’ve friended my share of people in the past half century. Often it was an old-school meet-and-greet in which business cards and empty pleasantries were exchanged. In recent years, I’ve signed up for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and assorted professional and old-pal groups that communicate via e-mail. I believe in social media and know that increasingly this is how we will form communities and stay in touch.
If nothing else, Facebook is an excellent address book. But, honestly, to friend someone digitally is the modern-day equivalent of the second-grade valentine. People whose lives intersect, if only briefly, send standardized invitations to one another. You accept. The next day, nothing has changed.
Power users are scrupulous about keeping friends and followers up to date via social media. This may include forwarding jokes, sharing political prejudices, and breathlessly commenting on sporting events or fabulous cannoli they just consumed. Good stuff.
Real news sometimes also gets transmitted – a change in employment, marital status, religious or political orientation. Digital efficiency undoubtedly fosters communication. But friendships are rarely built on broadside invitations or the sharing of insights that arise while brushing your teeth.
Don’t get me wrong. Contact is the first step to friendship. Then comes the hard part: paying attention, listening carefully, empathizing, and sometimes sacrificing. Friends invest in one another even when it is not Valentine’s Day. Friendships are more than Hallmark epigrams (although I can’t resist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s excellent one: “To have a friend, you have to be one”).
It is disappointing to see the word “friend” misappropriated for mere networking. Even more disappointing is the hollowness of a term like “best friends forever.” To claim a BFF before a life has been lived is like declaring yourself a Nobel laureate after passing high school physics.
Not that every friendship has to access the deepest realms of the heart. A light, no-baggage relationship can be gratifying. And politically motivated friendships are crucial: Parents often become friends with the friends and family of their children’s friends. It takes a village, after all.
Part of the paradoxical American attitude toward infidelity may stem from too much reliance on intimacy. Social scientists say Americans have forsaken traditional friendships over the past two decades and instead lean on spouses and family as virtually their sole support system.
That’s not good. Losing a spouse can be even more difficult without a network of friends to turn to. And too inward an orientation undermines civics, culture, church, and society.
Friendship helps get deals done and makes tough times easier. Friendly advice is better than getting chewed out. A friendly takeover is better than a hostile one. Being friended beats being unfriended. So three cheers for friends on Valentine’s Day. This paper heart is just a start.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.