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Earl R Smith II, PhD
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The other day I was leading a discussion focused on the ways that the digital revolution was impacting relationships. The group of eighteen were evenly divided between those under thirty and those over – with two in the latter group over sixty. About a half hour into the discussion, the question of the nature and meaning of the word friendship came to center stage. The discussion that followed was so defining that I want to summarize it.

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The meaning of the word: One thing became clear early on. The definition of friendship was significantly different for the two groups. For the older group, friendship had a more nuanced meaning which involved not only a deep personal relationship but a commitment to the welfare of the ‘friend’. One guy described a gathering that took place twice a month. He and his friends would get together with the sole purpose of just being together. Business talk and cell phones were verboten. They gathered because they ‘liked each other’ and referred to it as their ‘meaningful time’.

I could tell that members of the younger group were intrigued by the description of this gathering. Some of them asked questions while others referenced their own experience as different from the ‘older generation’. Here are a few samples:

“I never do that kind of thing. My life is so busy that I can’t waste time just hanging out.”

“I have lots of Friends on Facebook most of whom I have never met.”

“You guys grew up coming from a particular place. I’ve grown up as a gypsy – not from any place in particular.”

“I wish that I had that kind of gathering.”

 “What do you guys talk about if you can’t talk about business?”

The last comment shifted the conversation in a new direction. “We talk about each other’s lives. We look out for each other. Maybe one of us needs help with something. Maybe there is a cause that needs supporting. But mostly I was brought up to think that life without this kind of relationship was meaningless.”

The two groups reacted differently. There were nods of understanding from the ‘older’ ones. A couple of ‘damn rights’ and ‘sure things’ got muttered. The ‘younger’ ones were less sure what to make of it.

The Source: Then one of the ‘old’ guys put in in perspective. “My idea of friendship came from my parents, family and experience growing up. But it was forged during my time in the military and in battle. (He had been in Vietnam during the war). You came to know what friendship really was when you have people who would give everything they have in order to help you. You video game guys have no idea what that is like.”

One of the younger old guys chimed in. “When I grew up we were mostly all in one boat. One America. One Americans. We felt a camaraderie – a connection. Maybe it wasn’t what we thought but we believed in it and that pulled us closer together. It was us against all comers. There were unions that protected workers rights, military service that bound us to a common cause, women got the vote, the civil right acts and much more. Now everybody is in it for themselves and the politics of division for personal gain is dominate. For Christ's sake, kids are getting slaughtered, 90% of the people are for sensible gun control and those dickheads in Washington are to busy sucking the contribution wrapped phalluses of the god damn NRA.” There was a silence that followed before the conversation started back up.

The F-Word: What then followed was a discussion that began as fairly adversarial but drifted towards an unexpected destination. One of the younger guys asked the question that set it off.

“What is the difference between how you see friendship and how we see it?”

The response was, “Friendship for me is a personal commitment that is not faded by events or circumstances. It’s a commitment to be faithful to a commitment. It doesn’t turn away because of an opportunity for personal gain or advantage. It is not disposable.”

For the second time it became clear that something meant one thing to the younger group and another to the older one. One the one side, the question of friendship was mostly linguistic. You have a friend because you say they are your friend. On the other side, it was a question of action. You have a friend because you were there when they needed you – because you sacrificed for that friendship – because there was real evidence of what that friendship meant – tracks in the snow. On the one side it was more kumbaya - on the other more of the grit of humanity.

Again and again the conversation came back to the difference in experience growing up. The one group had come of age during a time when Americans saw themselves as Americans first and Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals, etc. secondarily. They had come of age during a time when the country was tested by wars and deep divisions politically and had lived through the coming back together. They had participated in all the travails and joys of the decades – from the first landing on the moon to the slaughter of three of the most inspirational leaders in American history.

The other group seemed to feel deprived. They had no such binding feeling towards their country or countrymen. They are Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals, etc. first and Americans secondarily. They had observed rather than participated in wars. Increasingly their lives were apart from nature. Most of them felt that the world was against them and that the system was rigged. But the one thing that became clearest was that they felt isolated and unable to connect with others of their generation. One comment stands out.

“I have never made the kind of commitment that you guys have. If I am in a situation where my interests are in conflict with a friends, my interests rule. As Tolkien had the Ent say, “I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.”

That comment was the door through which the group journeyed to a different place. The older guys began to realize the unfulfilled needs of the younger ones. The younger ones realized that these ‘gray hairs’ not only knew something that they needed to learn but had something that they very much wanted to get.

The discussion went on for hours. We closed the bar we had meet in. As we were breaking up, one of the youngest asked, “Can we do this again?”

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

I look back on the first three months of my work with Dr. Smith with wonder. My journal reflects a journey of self-discovery so vast that I hardly recognize the person who wrote the first entries. It's been a year now and I am happier now than I have ever been.

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