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On Friendship

By Published On: June 3, 20180 Comments on On Friendship

The most common complaint of the 44,000 students the University of Southern California: They’re lonely.
A greater irony is hard to imagine, as they swirl around each other on skateboards, mix among each other in classes, and gather together on game days and other campus events. 
Yet there’s no deeper loneliness than feeling isolated in a crowd of people, especially in a crowd of one’s peers. This isolation is strongly correlated with the epidemic of mental and physical health problems afflicting USC and all other universities.
Loneliness on campus is no news.  Not long ago I re-read a copy of a letter I sent to my dear friend, Bruce Urbschat, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Urb and I have been chums since we were 6 years old, growing up in a small town in Ohio.  In 1966, my family moved to California, and Urb and I began to write letters.  About 15 years ago, we exchanged xeroxed copies of our mostly hand-written missives, and Urb typed them up on his computer – all 960 single-spaced, priceless pages of them.  In my 1972 letter, I reported to Urb that the UC system had done a study of the problems faced by its students, and loneliness was at the top of the list.  <br clear="none"  
One would expect a certain amount of loneliness among new students at a university.  They leave home and family and friends and start over, seeking social connections in a new and strange environment.  But it is harder and takes longer to forge real bonds than students expect.
Students meet each other in the dorms, in classes, in clubs – but do they really get to know each other in these contexts?  They make contacts.  They grow their "networks".  They make social media "friends".  But are these encounters likely to result in close, mutually-supportive personal relationships that sustain their souls?  Friends = network contacts.  But network contacts =/= friends.   Very often, they amount to little more than fleeting, situation-specific acquaintances.  
How much of the loneliness that afflicts our students could be abated if our campus institutions and organizations were intentional about facilitating the formation of real friendships and of communities of friends?
This is the question to which I have devoted my summer.  I'm scheming up a campus-wide friendship initiative.  And in my research for it, I'm learning a lot.  There are tricks to the trade. 
Friendship grows out of acquaintance in moments of emotional or spiritual vulnerability, when hard truths are shared.  It blossoms when people invite each other into their circles of intimacy.  It bursts forth when people go beyond social expectations.  One young friend of mine tells of his experience as a lonely college freshman, when a very popular senior student took him under his wing, and without being asked, showed up for my friend's music performance on campus.  My friend's sense of loneliness evaporated. 
Friendship blooms in groups that overtly value and actively encourage deep relationships among their members.  Our USC Secular Student Fellowship is a remarkable example.  Bart Campolo, our former humanist chaplain, worked with students to jump-start its friendship-inducing culture.  They are serious about being a true community of students who support each other in living lives of creativity, curiosity, and service.  Their purpose is to be deeply convivial: to get to know each other seriously, to connect outside of conventional categories of who is cool and who is not, to practice listening and show deep respect for each other.  I have spent a lot of time with them, and their club fascinates me.  They are my inspiration for this friendship initiative.  They have discovered a secret friendship sauce that ought to be available all over campus.  
A lot of student clubs on campus meet “face forward”, just like a traditional classroom.  This is not a recipe for conviviality.  The groups that generate and sustain real friendships are the ones that are structured so that students often meet face to face.  A lot of clubs do one-time “ice-breakers” toward that end, but plenty of ice remains.  So this effort must be continued, meeting after meeting.
My favorite resource for thinking about friendship is a website from Australia called – a group that is dedicated to solving the loneliness crisis that has spread across the planet as a result of economic, cultural, and technological change.  Kitestring breaks down what makes friendship tick.  It says that friendship happens in webs of relationships: it is not a function of isolated dyads.  Friendship is made and sustained through multiple connections and contexts.  You might meet somebody and have a nice chat due to your common interest in artistic tinwork. But not until you discover that you are both serious about meditation do you become real friends.  Friendships form through a back-and-forth of increasingly risky acts of shared vulnerability.  They build with “bids” of intimacy, starting small and becoming more significant.  Friendships form and maintain in containers:  groups, clubs, organizations, classes, temples, churches.  They may need to be “re-potted” into new ones when the initial container becomes too small.  Friendships need the right balance and rhythm between intensity and “air” — between emotional expressiveness and light-hearted looseness, between time together and time apart, between a serious conversation and a game of cards. 
Mario Luis Small, a sociologist, did a study of child care centers, which he found to be powerful engines for the creation of positive social capital.  He discovered that all child care centers are not equal in this regard.  His research showed that child care centers that forced parents to work together to put on fundraising events are far more effective in generating friendships.  One minute, the parents are baking cookies together.  The next, they are babysitting each others’ kids, getting groceries for each other, and socializing with each other regularly.  The child care center has no intention of generating this kind of social capital.  Its fundraising policy has the inadvertent but overwhelmingly positive effect of fostering friendships among parents.  How much loneliness could be eliminated if organizations purposefully created the conditions for friendships to form and continue?  It is a question for all of us, who work in institutions of all kinds, to consider carefully.  (It’s a question my friend and colleague Cat Moore is answering in her work as a MotherClucker – read more about her here.)
What are your thoughts on this subject?  What have you found to be effective in fostering the formation and growth of friendships?  Let me know!  and I’ll keep you posted on my discoveries!
Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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