I was intrigued when I ran across a new book hitting stores this week. It’s called Perfect Strangers, and it chronicles the surprising story of friendship that grew out of the Boston Marathon bombing several years ago. The book’s author, Roseann Sdoia, suffered significant injuries from one of the explosions, but was taken care of by a trio made up of a university student, a firefighter, and a police officer. The book explores how the ensuing bond of friendship helped them all through their recovery processes.
Friendship as an institution is under constant attack in our contemporary culture. Perhaps the most insidious enemy of friendship is one that claims to actually improve it: social media. As a culture, our technological advancements are outpacing our ability to process what they are doing to us as human beings. The newest and shiniest technological frontier is something dubbed “AR” (Augmented Reality). Tim Cook, CEO of the world’s most powerful and profitable company, Apple, recently commented that it is one of the most important technologies of the future:
“I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone, we don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives.”
A close cousin to AR is AI (Artificial Intelligence). You’ve probably heard the doomsday predictions about how most jobs will eventually be replaced by some form of AI (ie robots taking over the manufacturing industry), but you’d probably be surprised to learn that Silicon Valley is further ahead with AI than most of us realize.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and the SpaceX program (the one that wants to colonize Mars), has funded a new corporation called Neuralink, which aims to mass produce “neural lace technology, implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
Musk is convinced that robots will soon have more power than humans, and that we need to prepare now to withstand their assault on humanity. If it sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster, the reality is that few of our leaders in Silicon Valley are asking if the technology they are creating is morally right and good.
In a world where our technology gives us greater ease in controlling our environments, our ability to relate to each other has declined significantly. Recent studies have found that current college students are close to fifty percent less empathetic than their counterparts twenty years ago. We spend more time on our devices than with other people.
One of the main reasons friendships receive such little attention from us is that they are just so ordinary. We very rarely think of them for how significant they are in changing the world.
Think about the examples of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect in early nineteenth century England. In a wonderful short essay in the C. S. Lewis Institute Report, Richard Gathro explores how William Wilberforce’s friends were one of the most important aspects in the eventual abolition of the slave trade in England. Or consider C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was extremely helpful in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, while Lewis doggedly encouraged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in spite of Tolkien’s misgivings. Their group of Oxford friends, the Inklings, have influenced so many modern Christians, but it all began with friendships.
In Scripture, we see the positive examples of friendships in David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Timothy, and Jesus and Lazarus, just to name a few. Tim Keller, in his outstanding book The Meaning of Marriage, which he wrote along with his wife, Kathy, argues that friendship is the greatest force for change in the world. He describes all the various things we do in life as the artillery, while friendship is the infantry. All those things and pursuits are used by friendships, but it is friendships that change the world.
Cicero wrote perhaps the most famous treatise on friendship (De Amicitia) and it was widely read by the founders of America. Their lives give witness to the power of friendships to accomplish something much greater than any individual can on their own. Jesus himself poured himself into the twelve disciples as a way to communicate to all of us that our greatest impact will largely be felt in the people that are closest to us.
So, how are we investing and building our capacity for friendship? Our culture so overvalues the technological that we wind up sacrificing what is most human in the process. Challenge the culture of unlimited technological advancement by tethering yourself to the people God has blessed you with and seeking to invest in what God is doing in their lives. That will truly change the world.