09 January 2009

Youthful friendships

Adolescence is variously defined as the time between puberty and adulthood. When does adulthood begin? Legally it begins at age 18 in many countries, but some observers hold that adolescence only ends around age 25 and perhaps even beyond. Within this period the young person makes decisions as to the course of the rest of his or her life. It is a time of increasingly taking on adult responsibilities, choosing a marriage partner, a career path and beginning a family. For our purposes here, it is also a time for either continuing and deepening current friendships or making new friends.

Because early adolescence lies four decades in the past for me, I have little now to say about this period in life, crucial though it may be. But look me up in another two or three years, as our daughter reaches this stage, and I may have more to contribute. Late adolescence is quite another thing, because I have been a teacher of this age group for more than 20 years. I have seen friendships formed among university undergraduates, many, but not all, of which endure for years thereafter.

My own undergraduate years were life-changing, no doubt about it. Some of it had to do with what I was learning in the classroom. Because I was at a liberal arts university, I was taking courses in a variety of subjects, and for the first time I was seeing the interconnections between, say, religion, philosophy, ethics and psychology. This happened my very first semester. Because this was a christian university, I was confronted with the Source of this coherence among the academic disciplines. This was a revelation to me, and I was excited by what I was learning.

But much of what I was going through had to do with the friendships I was forming at the time. I had mostly disliked the social world of high school, with its cliques and pecking order. But university was much different. True, I still spent most of my time with people in the same age range as myself, but the maturity level made all the difference. I met serious-minded young people who genuinely desired to live for Christ and were enthusiastic about their studies. We were all away from home for the first time in our lives and possibly more teachable and open to friendships than at any other time before or after.

This is a time when young people experiment with their own identities, trying on one for a time and then removing it to assume another. At the outset I gravitated towards an anabaptist approach, under the influence of some of my professors, John Howard Yoder's books, and what would shortly become Sojourners magazine. I've written of these changes in thinking before in this space. What is significant for my purposes here is that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself part of a burgeoning community of peers revolving around, not only a common faith, but a commitment to social justice. I had decided to switch my major from music to political science, adding history and economics as minors. I found this new camaraderie an exhilarating experience.

One friend, Doug, with whom I am still in contact, introduced me to the writings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd — names that were unfamiliar to me at the time, but whose ideas resonated with my Reformed upbringing. Remarkably, Doug turned out to have more of an influence on me than all of my professors put together. I acknowledge this influence in the preface to my book. I almost certainly would not be doing what I do now if it had not been for our friendship.

Many, if not most, friendships revolve around shared passions. This may be more pronounced in youth than at any other time of life. I've seen this phenomenon again and again during my years at Redeemer. Young people have an infectious enthusiasm that inevitably draws to them others sharing it. As a teacher I have had the privilege of seeing friendships formed among my own students, who go on to collaborate on common projects, such as student government, organizing or attending a conference together, taking a trip to Ottawa or Queen's Park, or even singing together in the choir! I myself have not exactly been a direct catalyst for these friendships, but I do see "buddies" (Australian: "mates") sitting together in class or having lunch in the cafeteria or even rooming together in the residences or off campus. Of course, some friendships do not survive this living at close quarters, but those that do are likely to strengthen with time.

I love seeing the developing camaraderie among my own students, and I often feel that I am part of this. I will be writing later about mentor-protégé relationships, which mean much to me and on which I have reflected at length over the decades.

Back to my own undergraduate experience. At the end of that crucial academic year, this new-found camaraderie came to a sudden end, as most of the group graduated, leaving me with another two years to go. Admittedly, this left me feeling somewhat at loose ends, and I experienced the absence of these friends as a loss. This was the first sign I had of what might be called the tragic element of adolescent friendships. The easy camaraderie is a hallmark of youth, and it can no more last for ever than youth itself. Undergraduate students in particular feel free to drop by and visit someone down the hall or in a neighbouring dorm with little or no notice. Friendship is casual at this stage, and close friends can spend hours with each other as often as every day, if they so choose.

But this must inevitably give way to a more structured life, with varied responsibilities. Marriage and family, which place constraints on the old friendships. The 9 to 5 job. The mortgage. Community and neighbourhood activities. Moving to another city, after which the friendship may tend to fade. More demands are made on our time from more than one direction. The friendships of youth may not survive this transition, or they may endure mostly as memories, possibly to be taken up again briefly at reunions and similar events.

Yet, as with childhood friendships, it may be that, as young people stand at the threshold of adulthood, they need to think already of the future of the friendships they are forming. Of course, many will not endure past graduation, and there is nothing intrinsically amiss in that. We are, after all, limited creatures with a limited affective capacity. We simply cannot remain close to everyone who passes in and out of our lives. Nevertheless, there are always people whose friendships are life-changing for us and for them. These are gifts of God to be cherished for the long term. That maintaining such friendships takes considerable effort nearly goes without saying, but it is an effort that will be rewarded over the long term.

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