I am in the habit of telling my first-year students that their university years are the time of great friendships. This frequently excites them and inspires them to open themselves to others in order to be able to get to know those lifelong friends. Most of them have come from another city or another country and have left behind their families and their friends from childhood and adolescence. They feel that their hearts are being torn out upon seeing the roots of their affective lives torn up this way. They are disoriented and at the same time enchanted by the girls or guys who seem to have walked off of a movie set, and who they have just encountered in class or in a university cafeteria.
During the first year they develop new friendships, sometimes very absorbing ones, and over the course of their later years they dedicate more time to those relationships that are evolving towards greater depth or stability. Although at this age they are not seeking “blood brothers”, on occasions they swear eternal friendship to each other, without knowing that this hardly ever comes true. Not only are there betrayals or losses of confidence that do away with the friendship, but also—as those of us who are older know well—the friendship dies away if time is not dedicated to maintaining it.
Years ago I learned from my good friend Ricardo Yepes that friendship is “reciprocal, dialogued benevolence”. The three terms are relevant: it is important to care for each other in a disinterested way; the feelings of affection must be mutual—there is no such thing as a “Platonic” friendship—and above all communication, conversation is essential. Physical proximity is not necessary: friends can use the internet, the telephone, or—as people used to do—they can write letters, but if the communication is interrupted for a long time the friendship disappears, even if the affection remains. Friendship is nourished by daily interaction, said Jordi Maragall in a magazine interview years ago. If the frequent time together disappears, the friendship is lost, even though the mutual esteem is maintained.
Every once in a while I am contacted, by telephone or email, by an old school friend from high school that I haven’t seen for some forty years in order to ask me for a favor. Four decades have passed, but on hearing the voice of that old buddy I am always struck by the impression that it was only yesterday that we had last talked. The friendship has disappeared, but the affectionate appreciation is still there. In fact, if one is able to re-establish frequent contact, many times the friendship can immediately blossom again, as though there had been no interruption at all. “On occasions”, my friend Rafael Tomás Caldera wrote to me, “it can take longer, since there are so many stories that have to be told to one another… and at times you discover that you are no longer going in the same direction and that there is no longer any interest in a renewed friendship”.
In writing these lines what I want to convey is that friendships are not eternal of themselves, but rather they are constructed over time by means of habitual, affectionate contact. Therefore, in order to cultivate friendship what we have to do is dedicate time to each other, and do so with gusto. Listening to one another “without looking at your watch and without expecting any results,” wrote Mother Theresa of Calcutta, “teaches you something about love”. This is what happens between friends. Friendship knows how to wait, it is patient: “Patience”, in the words of Von Balthasar, “is the love that becomes time”. Even more, the love that is friendship comes alive by way of shared time. The time that we dedicate to our friendship—and not only the affection—is what maintains our friendships alive.