Maggie: My friend’s mom asked her why she wasn’t a better aunt to her young niece. My friend thought too much time had passed for her to now get involved in her niece’s life. And she didn’t think her niece even wanted a friendship at this point, since she doesn’t really know her. Do you think that it is too late for her to be a good aunt?
John: That is a really insightful question. But rather than focusing on the aunt-niece relationship, let’s broaden the question and talk about friendships in general. Then we will bring it back to your specific question. What do you think of that as a strategy for helping us answer the question?
Maggie: Sounds like a strategy Socrates used in Plato’s Republic, which you told me about just last week: start with a broad question, then use that answer to help understand the more narrow and specific questions.
John: I am so happy that you remember.
Maggie: You talked about it for an hour over dinner, how could I forget? But let’s get back to the question. What is the broad question?
John: Right. The broad question is, “Is it ever too late to be a good friend?” How would you answer that question?
Maggie: My gut says that it depends on what type of friendship you are talking about, whether it is a pleasure friendship, utility friendship, or virtue (complete) friendship.
John: I think that’s correct. Let’s examine them in order. What about pleasure friendship?
Maggie: I don’t think it is ever too late to be a pleasure friend. It takes so little effort to be kind and to show you care and to bring a smile to someone’s face, even a person you have ignored for many years. Think about it. It takes less than one minute to send someone an email saying, “I was thinking about you today. I hope you are well.” Better yet, we can send that person a card saying the same thing, and that takes less than five minutes. When people receive these notes, it makes them happy, even if they haven’t heard from you in a long time. Emails, cards, phone calls, birthday gifts: these are all simple and easy ways to make people happy, to bring them pleasure.
John: I agree. And a person can start doing these things at any time, even if they haven’t talked to the other person in years. Reconnecting is easy and it generally makes people happy. And such connections start the building or rebuilding of a friendship.
Maggie: It is easy, as you say.
John: How about utility friendships? Is it ever too late to be a utility friend?
Maggie: I think it is harder to reconnect as a utility friend and it may take a lot more time. It would be weird and a bit suspicious to reach out to an old friend after many years by offering to help her. If we have ignored this person for many years, we probably need to work on being a pleasure friend first. Then, after making a good connection, we can offer to help her if she needs it. What I am saying is that after making a good connection, it is not too late to offer to help someone. But we should wait until after the connection is made.
John: I think I agree with that, generally speaking. What about virtue friendship? Is it ever too late to be a complete friend?
Maggie: My feeling is yes, but I don’t really know the answer to that one. Can you help me here?
John: This is a harder question. I certainly think that former virtue friends can become pleasure friends after reconnecting. But whether or not they can pick up their complete friendship is questionable.
On the one hand, it takes years to build up the trust required for a complete friendship, and it takes a continuing commitment to the friendship to keep that trust alive. When we ignore the friendship for many years, it is challenging to get that trust back, if it ever really comes back. That is why we shouldn’t ignore our friends and family members.
On the other hand, some rare friendships seem to survive the weight of time and neglect. These are the friends that immediately connect and pick up right where they left off, even after years of absence. But these are unusual cases; they are very rare. Most complete friendships require attention to survive.
Maggie: I think you are right, most people cannot revive a complete friendship after years of neglecting the relationship. But in some unusual instances, it can happen.
John: So, again, the better thing to do is keep up with friendships and relationships. Don’t neglect them. Seriously, it takes so little effort to keep in touch, we should just do it.
Maggie: This seems so easy to me. Why don’t people keep up with friendships?
John: For two key reasons, I think.
First, keeping in contact with others is a habit that we have to develop, and which many people have not developed. To form the habit, we need to intentionally think about others and actively connect with them on a regular basis. It can be challenging to develop the habit, but after we intentionally work at our friendships for six months or so, it becomes easier to maintain those relationships.
Second, some people expect others to take the first step and reach out to them. But this ignores the fact that the most important part of a friendship is the active component, not the passive component. We should actively take the first steps. In doing so, we will bring joy to people in the world around us and lay the foundations for what may eventually become very rewarding relationships.
Maggie: I like your reminder that it is more important to actively be a friend, then to passively wait for someone to befriend us. We need to remember that. But why do you think people take the passive approach.
John: I suppose there are lots of reasons. Some people are just selfish or self-oriented; they only think about themselves. These folks want other people to reach out to them, but they won’t lift a finger to reach out to others. Some people are introverted and have difficulties navigating social interactions. These folks feel uncomfortable taking the first steps in renewing friendships. Others are just lazy. It takes energy and effort to be a friend (although not much) and they don’t want to make the effort. And most sadly, some people just don’t want to be friends any longer. They have other friends and their old friends are no longer important to them. Although I have found that these folks usually regret their decisions later in life.
But we shouldn’t judge people who take the passive approach to harshly. We never know what is going on in someone’s life that might explain why he or she does not try to keep in touch and keep a friendship alive. Which, again, is precisely why we should take the first step and exercise the active component of friendship.
Maggie: So bringing it back to my friend, I don’t think it is too late for her to be a friend to her niece. She could start out by sending her niece postcards and letters. She could also send her birthday gifts. Once she establishes a relationship, she can offer to take her to a park or a concert or a baseball game. This will build up their friendship, which in time may blossom into a close aunt-niece relationship.
John: I think you are exactly right. Your friend should initiate the friendship and build on that over a couple of years. I bet if she does, she will have a very rewarding relationship in the future.
Maggie: Thanks for talking this through with me. It has helped me too. I am going to start reconnecting with my friends and family. I can’t wait to see where it leads.