October 22, 2019

Facebooking Friendship

“Don’t stand on ceremony.” It was one of my mother’s favorite expressions. And a few of her friends gave her plenty of reasons to use it. Like when they didn’t visit her in the hospital after major surgery, or when they didn’t check in with her after my grandmother died. 

It would drive my dad insane. “How can you call her after she did this to you?” He must have said that about a thousand times. But it would never change my mother’s position. These were her close friends whom she loved and did everything for; if they didn’t reciprocate, she thought, there must be a good reason.

Over the years, I’ve toggled back and forth between my parents’ positions. But for the most part, I’ve been blessed with such caring, giving friends that it really hasn’t been an issue. 

All of this changed with the advent of social media, most especially the intertwining of politics and friendship. Politics used to be a backdrop to relationships; it was there but no one except extremists would allow it to affect a friendship. Today, politics is one of the first things people ask about when meeting new people. 

But there’s another element at play — you can call it the Facebooking of friendships. We are liking, disliking, unfriending and blocking friends in real life with a touchscreen ease and frequency. One friend told me that an old friend recently unfriended her — in real life — because she didn’t like how she makes decisions. Another friend was booted from her social circle for not dealing with her son in the manner they deemed appropriate.

Here in New York City, superficial friendships well predate social media, but the level has definitely been cranked up a few notches in recent years. One father told me that when he goes to his kids’ events, he does a quick social status scan and if there’s no one there “worth his time,” he leaves. A few women at my son’s school only talk to me when they like what I’m wearing. A couple I know only socializes with other couples who own second homes in the Hamptons.

Is it any wonder that studies show we are getting lonelier and lonelier?

I had my first encounter with the new face of friendship when I began to defend Israel publicly in the summer of 2014. Half of my friends — friends of 20-plus years — stopped talking to me. In the past six months, I’ve been dealing with one of those major, life-changing events. Many of those same friends were too busy to check in with a quick, “How’s it going?”

I can hear my mom sweetly rationalizing and my dad yelling back at her. But I find myself moving to my dad’s position more and more. Why? Because those friends — those friends who I thought were friends for life — have been almost weirdly replaced by some of the most beautiful souls I have ever encountered. Friends who happen to be largely politically aligned, but on the areas that we’re not, we shrug. Who cares? Why does that matter?

What matters is how we treat one another. And these new friends have been there for me every painful step of an exquisitely painful process. 

We are liking, disliking, unfriending and blocking friends in real life with a touchscreen ease and frequency.

The truth is, the new face of friendship needs a spiritual facelift. My mother’s desire to forgive the unforgivable, to try to find the light in people who hurt her immeasurably, was kindhearted but ultimately misguided. Because if we are to truly value friendship, how can it be valued when it is not true? 

Unlike familial relationships, friendship is indeed conditional. But only fools make it conditional on politics or designer clothing. Friendship should be conditional on shared values. And when it is, friends can inspire us to be the best we can possibly be. 

In Judaism, not only are friends sometimes valued even more than relatives, it is what friends offer each other — loyalty, support, love, guidance — that is of most importance. “Judaism is not about the lonely soul,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes. “It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.” 

Like a soul needs beauty, of course, friendships need tending, nourishing. Every moment of which is well worth the work.

“A faithful friend is the elixir of life,” wrote Ben Sira in his apocryphal book, “Ecclesiasticus.” That holds true today, with or without Facebook.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York..