From two millenia ago, Seneca's third letter casts a prescient spotlight on the Facebook era, in which one can have a couple of thousand "friends" and yet have nobody with whom one can (or should) share one's deep feelings. He admonishes Lucilius for simultaneously calling someone a "friend" and still warning Seneca not to discuss matters of concern to Lucilius, in essence, saying "in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend."
This is, of course, one of the weird quandaries of these times -- we share our grief, our joy, even photos of our dinner, with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people about whom we would be hard-pressed to say even how we know them at all. Of course, people have done this for eons -- we call it publishing. Until recently, though, we have not called it friendship.
But what Facebook, created a dozen years ago on a college campus among folks who actually knew each other, has done has been to redefine the term "friend" to mean, often, something closer to "audience" or "reader."
No wonder so many struggle, even suffer, with this new forum for our thoughts and feelings. We find ourselves sharing ourselves with people who are supposed to be "friends" (that is, after all, what they are called in the land of Facebook) and then being horrified by how this vulnerable sharing is received by folks who are not, in any way, shape, or form, actual friends.
Seneca warned Lucillus of this confusion: "But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken, and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. . . . When friendship is settled, you must trust. Before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. . . . Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship, but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul."
Now, of course, this is not to say that we shouldn't share pieces of our lived experience as humans on Facebook or other such platforms. I'm delighted, as my "friends" in social media know, to share an Arizona sunset, or a soaring Clapton solo, with just about anyone who will see or listen. There are some risks, though, to opening up the vault of one's inner world to a host of near-strangers, risks that are, for some, hidden by the word "friend".
On the other hand, Seneca's letter is not only about being cautious not to share too much with too many. It is also an invitation to go deep with the few who qualify as your actual friends. To repeat, when you have decided that someone is a friend, Seneca writes, "welcome him with all your heart and soul."
What would friendship be like if that were how we defined it? In that context, a friend is not merely someone you play poker with, or kvetch about the state of the world to, but someone about whom it seems you could "speak as boldly with him as to yourself."
This is a theme one finds elsewhere in this Stoic philosopher's work: while the temptation may be to go wide and shallow, instead, go narrow and deep. Very deep.
So, let's share our sunsets, our political rants, our animal videos with each other in the understanding that we need not be friends to do so.
And, if we are friends, let's go deep. As the poet David Whyte writes:
Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.
Words have meanings. Let's not lose the meaning of this most amazing word: