Friday night. The night to live it up. The night when you don’t want to be that guy who has no plans to hang out with anyone and ends up sitting in his bed eating cookies and reading Nietzsche. So as it gets closer and closer to the early evening hours, you send out the same text to about 4 different people, in a desperate attempt to not be “that guy” and to find someone to hang out with. “Sorry man, I’m out of town for the weekend.” “I’m hanging out with my girlfriend tonight, maybe next weekend?” Two more hours pass, and he thinks he hears the little chime noise. Could it be…a text?! His heart jumps, maybe this is it! No, it was a guy getting a text in the apartment across the hall. “Some friends I have!” he cries out in exasperation, as he cracks open his copy of Beyond Good and Evil.
That guy was actually me a couple of weeks ago. The next day when I woke up, I had this overwhelming sense of frustration because I felt like I wasted my Friday night. It was an epic case of what us millennials call FOMO. I sat there in bed, pondering why my friends had abandoned me. “Why are they even my friends?” One question led to another, until I spiraled all the way to what I call the “base question”: “what is the purpose of friendship in the first place?”
May sound like something only philosophy nerds have time to think about, but I’ve found that that more I go to the base, foundational level of the problems in my life, the better able I am to make sense of the drama and to move through it freely. The more I thought about this question, I realized that I was treating my friends as if they were a quick fix for my momentary sensation of loneliness. I was using them to fill me up, as if they were an object for sale or food to consume.
This is what speaker and author Sarah Swafford calls the “cycle of use.” We are often tempted to look at the people we love as “things” we can use to gratify our emotional needs. But as Swafford notes: “Emotions and passions can be fleeting; they come and go. But if we buy into the lie that love is just a feeling, then our friendships, dating relationships, and marriages will only be as secure as the feelings upon which they are built; and when those ‘feelings’ are gone, those relationships often dissolve.”
If you really love someone, why would you treat them as if they’re an object up for grabs, a product to possess, or a food to consume? This “paradigm of possession” flows out of a logic that our society teaches us to apply to our relationship with reality as well as with our fellow human beings.
Popes John Paul II and Francis have identified the deeper existential roots of this crisis in human relationships. In his seminal work Love and Responsibility, JP2 writes about the influence of utilitarian philosophy in shaping postmodern culture: “‘Utilitarianism’ puts the emphasis on the usefulness of any and every human activity. Pleasure [then becomes] the essential ingredient of human happiness. Utilitarianism [fosters] a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”
Pope Francis writes in his encyclical letter Laudato Si about how advancements in technology have furthered the consumerist worldview and has lead to the emergence of a “throwaway culture.” This new cultural ethos educates us to dispose of products, food, and natural resources as soon as they stop being convenient for us to use, and to look down upon anything that doesn’t gratify us immediately. “Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.” This disregard for the value of these goods and natural resources independent of their capacity to gratify us is extended to the way we approach our relationships. Echoing the words of Sarah Swafford, the Pope goes on to lament how common it is for us to walk away from relationships the moment the other person ceases to satisfy our needs.
John Paul II reminds us that love is fulfilled not in a paradigm of possession or use, but one of service and self-sacrifice: “It is not enough to long for a person as a good for oneself, one must also, and above all, long for that person’s good. Man’s capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good.” When human relationships mature past the dynamic of mutual use, they reach true freedom and unity: “Thanks to this they are united by a true, objective bond of love which enables them to liberate themselves from subjectivism and from the egoism which it inevitably conceals. Love is the unification of persons.”
The business of “acquiring” other human beings is hardly liberating. If relationships are about using each other to gratify our need for pleasure and to stave off the feeling of loneliness, the phenomenon of free will is enough to ruin one’s life forever (or at least one’s Friday night). Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same way about them knows what I mean. What happens when the object of my desire refuses to fulfill my need for affection? Either I’ll have to find a way to stuff down my feelings, or I’m condemned to unhappiness until I find someone else to use.
When I think back to that lonely Friday night, I realize how far off my conception of love and friendship was. As I reflected more deeply on the my experience of desire, loneliness, and love, I began to see how my desire to love my friends went beyond just wanting to hanging out with them and use them to fill up my time. I ended up getting a text the next morning from one of those friends who “abandoned” me, saying, “sorry I didn’t respond last night. I ended up seeing my parents, who I haven’t spoken with in a while because of family drama. We aired out a lot of things that we’ve been covering up for too long. I’m really grateful…pray for us.”
That’s when I realized what I really want from…or rather for, my friends. I want their lives to be full of meaning and beauty, and that they grow in deeper intimacy with God with each coming day. Above all, I want them to be infinitely happy, even if that means that I’m not part of every single moment of beauty and happiness that they experience. The more I started to view loving my friends as a matter of desiring their good rather than using them as goods, I decided that I wanted to offer my moments of solitude as a prayer for them. The more I look for opportunities to serve my friends and offer my time for them, be it through concrete gestures or through prayer, I feel free to love them in a way that is more empowering than the kind of love that just waits around on them to “fill me up” with warm-fuzzies and YOLO-moments of fun.