On Friendship, Peace, and More
Monday, July 30, was the United Nations' International Day of Friendship. When I first saw a notice about that in an e-mail I got from a friend, I was taken aback-there is an effort not only nationally but internationally to promote and celebrate friendship. That seemed to be weird to me. Do we really need a “Day for Friendship?” Is friendship in trouble or something?
Doing some research about this I found out that the day grew out of a 1998 UN project dedicated to promoting a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World.” Wow-a decade dedicated to peace and non-violence for children! That is a bold idea. And out of that effort the UN proclaimed its first International Day of Friendship in 2011, “with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can inspire peace efforts and build bridges between communities.” Again, wow! Those are giant, noble ideas, and it is interesting that the UN thought that these ideas could be served, in part, by recognizing, celebrating, and promoting something as direct and seemingly simple as “friendship.” I was intrigued.
Then I got an e-mail from NPR celebrating the International Day of Friendship that featured several stories of unusual friendships that in this time of such fear, suspicion and partisan strife resonated deeply with me. They were unusual stories about unusual friendships, and they set me to thinking about the whole idea of friendship- what it is, ways it has been an important part of my life, and some of the powerful things it can mean and lead to. Can it be possible that something as large and as daunting as a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence” can somehow be connected to this seemingly simple thing we call having and being a “friend?” Can they be connected?
When I initially think about friendship I am taken back to my growing up in West Philly and to my early school days of the 1950’s. For me, like I think it was for most of us when we were children, friendship was a question of, “How can I fit in? and, “How can I be a part of the group and accepted?” My most regular question from that time was, “Do I fit in yet?” The answers involved things such as what clothes I wore, what my haircuts were like, could I play sports, what music did I listen to, and the like. I wanted to connect with other kids, and being like the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to offer the best chance of doing that. Standing out, unless it was in one of the socially acceptable ways such as being a great athlete or the toughest kid, was a risk As I grew up I became aware that there were some “weird” things about me; I walked down the street reading books, for example. But I was a good enough athlete and was tall enough, so I tended to fit in rather well. I had some good friends and generally had what I would describe as a “good childhood.”
“Sameness” played a big role in all of this. Being like other kids was important to having friends, so I tried to be somewhat the same as my friends. But sameness also played a role in ways I did not understand as a young kid. Philly really was a “city of neighborhoods” then, and that generally meant a lot of socio-economic “sameness.” The city was largely separated into areas by color, ethnicity and class; there were very few neighborhoods where people of different colors, classes, religion and/or nationalities lived together. There were a couple of spots like, but I definitely did not live in one. However, for junior high and high school I went to schools that drew from neighborhoods across the entire city. Suddenly I was spending my days with people from a number of different ethnic groups, of different colors, from different social classes, and who practiced different religions. Or none. It was quietly mind-blowing for all of us. Junior high and high school friends spend time in each other’s houses, for example so I was exposed to new foods, new ways of doing, thinking, and learning. And many of my new friends were having the same experience. Barriers we did not know were there got lowered and erased somewhat. Stereotypes got looked at and a lot got discarded. All of us received new eyes though which we could look at larger things and view the world in new ways. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War, and these new experiences wee not just about being friends in new ways-they connected us to these larger issues as well. No, it was not an idyllic, perfect time-there were rough patches, misunderstandings, and there were some things that some of us could not fully accept or see. But by and large the friendships in junior high and highs school changed and affected us all in profound ways. It expanded our sense of the world and who we could be. And that is something you want something as important as a friendship to do.
I thought about all of that because the NPR e-mail looked at friendships in a way that really raised the possibility of friendship being a way of getting beyond superficial differences and challenging us to be different and possibly better. That, ultimately, I think is what the UN Day of Friendship is really about-friendship can be a way of taking us into new territory and ways of being that can safely alter some small parts of the world in lasting and profound ways.
Below are links to some of the stories from the NPR e-mail. I would be interested in hearing your responses to any of them and to hearing your thoughts on what means and/or allows. Friendship. Please write back about your reactions to the stories; I’d love to come back to this topic in a future newsletter and share some of your responses. Happy Belated International Friends Day. And I hope you get to spend some good time with good friends.