"When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside world which is like the cold space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly." [Hillair Belloc]
How many close friends do you have? I define a close friend as someone you would invite to a family dinner without first having to make any excuse for them or some aspect of them, or otherwise feel embarrassed about them when they're sitting with your family - someone whom you accept without compromise or condition.
Research indicates that the average American has two close friends, while a quarter say they have no one with whom they can be authentic or discuss personal or emotional issues.
But without true friendship, all that is left is loneliness. In its most serious form, loneliness is considered a serious, even life-threatening condition, heightening the risks of heart disease and depression.
Many of us feel a kinship with Oprah and engage in non-stop communicating with others on MySpace and Facebook. Many of us say that we have huge networks, both online and off. But many of us don't have many – or even any - friends.
So what's the difference between connecting online and true deeper connections? Who supports you - really, really supports you - when you feel lonely, unhappy, overwhelmed, lost, stressed or sad?
Many folks have "just-in-time" buddies or acquaintances who they attempt to convert into a "friends" so they can feel supported in time of need. But, transpose this immediacy into a long-term, deep and true friendship? Probably not.
- How do you define friendship?
- Would your friends describe you as a true and real friend, or more as an acquaintance? Would you feel comfortable asking them?
- What are loneliness and friendship like in your life at work, at home, or at play?
- Do you feel safe disclosing your innermost thoughts and feelings to your friends? To your partner or spouse? If not, why not?
- Do you ever feel alone or lonely when you're in a group, even at home? *
- How do you deal with your loneliness?
- What was your experience of loneliness, aloneness and friendship as you were growing up?
- Does your lifestyle exclude time and room for developing meaningful friendships?
- Do you find friendship risky? If so, why?
- When was the last time someone referred to you as a "real friend"?
- How much time do you spend in social networking a week? Do you pride yourself in amassing a huge number of social network "friends"?
- How many of your social network "friends" do you really, really, know in the sense you would invite them to family dinner tomorrow night?
From a mental health standpoint, what's striking is the increase in depression in our society, both among the poor and the rich, the affluent and the not-so-affluent. One causal factor in this is loneliness.
In spite of the huge growth in "connectivity", people are isolating themselves from each other in ever increasing numbers. We have created a whole range of tools that reinforce "the casual" - email, instant messaging, social networking, Twitter, etc, but all the while we're reducing the opportunity for soul mates to really connect. Moreover, we've come to expect things instantly and don't spend the time it takes to establish real intimacy with another person.
The sad truth is that the frequency of contact and the number of contacts in our network does not necessarily translate into quality of contact.
On Facebook, some members proudly announce they have 1,000 friends. But they probably don't even "know" half of them. Is it any wonder that in "real life" so many folks say they have difficulty making really satisfying connections?
Meanwhile, we spend thousand of dollars on home entertainment centers to further distract ourselves from real connections. "Family time" for many has become an event focusing more on "doing" rather than on a deeper process of sharing and being with (or even communicating with) one another.
Many of us say we belong to the "church of true friendship", but in reality very few of us show up at the services. We say friendship is important, or very important, but then engage in lifestyles that take us away from the path of friendship. It's no different from folks who agree with their doctors that they need hip replacement, but never get around to having the procedure.
Many think, or thought, Starbucks was a solution - a Marshall Plan for creating connections and friendships. But, lo and behold, what has happened? Folks get their lattes to sit in a corner, connecting with their laptops.
I'm curious if so many of the major disconnects we feel in today's culture - disconnects driven by fear, anger, hate, isolation, insecurity and the like - are a function of loneliness and the lack of true and meaningful friendships.
I'll leave the last word to Carl Jung: "Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible."