Bill Russell has few friends. By design. Oh, the retired Boston Celtics star is friendly, very friendly. In fact, he’s one of the friendliest people on the planet. You’d never know he hardly has any friends—unless you try to “friend” him. That’s what Frank Deford tried to do in 1969, and he never forgot how Russell reframed his definition of friends.
Frank Deford is a terrific writer with Sports Illustrated, the magazine that selected Bill Russell as “The Greatest Team Player on the Greatest Team Ever” in 1999. Deford asked to write the tribute. He begins by recalling a ride with Russell to the Los Angeles airport in 1969 and telling him how much he appreciated their friendship. Russell stopped at a traffic light and turned to Deford, “I’m sorry, I’d like to be your friend.”
The young writer said, “But I thought we were friends.”
“No, I’d like to be your friend, and we can be friendly, but friendship takes a lot of effort if it’s going to work, and we’re going off in different directions in our lives, so, no, we really can’t be friends.” Deford said that was as close as he ever got to being on Bill Russell’s team. And that was fine. “In the years after that exchange, I often reflected on what Russell had said to me, and I marveled that he would have thought so deeply about what constituted friendship.”
How many Americans think deeply about what constitutes a friendship? The Christian tradition has. For “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality,” University of Southern California professor Dallas Willard writes.1 The Western church taught what was considered real and right as a “public resource for living.” This knowledge “was made available to people in general through institutions of one kind or another.”2 These days however, our most influential institutions define friends differently. Facebook is one.
Defining reality matters. One could easily argue that words are merely words and can change their meaning with impunity. So argued the nominalists in the Middle Ages. But if words define reality, create reality, and shape reality, then how we use them is central to the task of culture-making or culture-destroying.
In the Christian tradition, friend is defined by relationship, revelation, and responsibility. God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Friends are physically near—recognizing geographical and numerical limits. Friends know intimate things. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). But friends don’t simply know; they do something for their friends. “You are my friends, if you do what I command” (Jn. 15:14).
Friends are in partnership in a shared endeavor. There is a doing together that is essential for friendship. C.S. Lewis writes, “Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendships spring up—painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction…. We picture lovers face to face but friends side by side; their eyes look ahead. That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the question ‘Do you see the same truth?’ would be ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,’ no friendship can arise—though affection of course may. There would be nothing for the friendship to be about; and friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.”3
Bill Russell knows friendship takes a lot of effort if it’s going to work. He essentially agrees with the Christian tradition. Friend is defined by relationship, revelation, and responsibility—love that recognizes human limits yet assumes liabilities or responsibilities for what you know a friend needs. This definition is now under stress.
First, the modern America church is no longer viewed as communicating the truth about reality or the way the world works. Nature abhors a vacuum, so other institutions now define reality. Preachers are low on the “go to” list for essential information about life.
In the case of defining what constitutes a friend, pragmatism and narcissism are carrying the day. Pragmatism says if a technology can be used to “friend” people, don’t worry about moral definitions and what constitutes a friend. Today’s technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter operate “without a transcendent narrative to provide moral underpinnings,” media theorist Neil Postman writes.4 Thus, if Facebook works, it’s good. What utterly pragmatic people forget is that “good” is a moral term. It may “work” but is it good for you? Is it a true expression of human flourishing or shalom?
Narcissism is an even bigger problem. Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism describes Americans as operating by self-love, essentially assuming their life is most important. As I tweet away, I assume that you want to know what I am doing every moment of my day. Sarah Palin, it is reported, is said to have 1.1 million “friends” on Facebook. Is the number of friends someone has on their Facebook account an expression of their self-giving commitment to others or simply a quantifiable measure of superficial status that has gained traction in a celebrity culture?
I don’t have a Facebook account, but I hear stories of people who update their Facebook page hourly or daily. That’s not healthy. They’re narcissists. At the University of South Alabama, psychology professor Joshua Foster has assessed this disconnect from reality by using findings from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The NPI asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Check out the scores of the average American youth: they’re higher than any other group in the world on the narcissism scale. Facebook is redefining friends for millions of Americans.
It’s not that Facebook is all bad. Technology is always double-edged. The danger is that its benefits often mask its dangers. And so most use taken-for-granted technologies from contraception to Facebook without any reflection or discernment. Pragmatists couldn’t care less about whether Facebook, as a culture-shaping institution, is redefining friend. Narcissists have a narrow bandwidth—they are the center of their universe so that being a “friend” is more like looking into a mirror.
Albert Einstein said the most important thing anyone can do is name something—a task that faith communities used to take up. Today, other institutions, such as the 121-year-old American Dialect Society define reality. Two weeks ago they gathered at the Baltimore Hilton to vote on a word of the year and a word of the decade. “The point of the word of the year thing is that choosing words reflects reality,” says Jesse Sheidlower, the author of F***. Facebook, Twitter, and the American Dialect Society have replaced the faith communities’ historic role of defining reality.
Frank Deford also discovered that when Russell is asked for an autograph, he gently replies: “I’m sorry, I don’t give autographs.” “You won’t?” “No, won’t is personal. I don’t.” Then, if Russell senses a polite reaction, he often asks, “Would you like to shake hands with me?” Russell is open to a conversation with a potential friend, since he defines friendship as based on love, recognizing limits, and assuming liabilities.
1 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
2 Willard, Knowing, p. 200.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London, UK: Fontana, 1960), p. 62.
4 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 83.