Men and women are by nature social animals. We usually grow up in a familial setting and attend school with other boys and girls. We learn, through these relationships, what appropriate social behavior is and what is not. We also learn that friendship can be a rich source of personal and communal growth. Society also tends to organize itself into groups of people, such as an extended family, a church, a business, a service organization, etc.
We now have the capacity to be in contact with friends and family (and strangers) all over the world at the touch of a screen. What is it that people are looking for in social interaction? How does one’s social nature help to deal with loneliness that everyone sometimes feels? How do people foster goodness as social beings? The first thing that people seek through social interaction is identity. Who am I? Who are you? How do we fit together?
Made for Community
First, we are born into relationships. The family is considered the fundamental cell of human society. In the family comes our first identity: as treasured son or daughter. In the family, our intrinsic value can be affirmed and, at the same time, the members can be encouraged to live up to their value. No one comes from a perfect family, but everyone comes from a family that can be better. The family becomes better when its individual members become better, more virtuous people. They do that by forming one another through truthful dialogue and corresponding action.
Second, people look for the ability to decide — and live with the decision of — “Who am I?” This is different from the identity of belonging to a certain family, or being a certain child within that family. This second answer to “Who am I?” builds on the first, stepping into the realm of freedom and holding counsel with oneself. Here human persons use their free will, in control of their own actions, to form themselves further. A person is known and revealed by his acts. It is through free-will action that people establish themselves as individuals in the world. Granted, they are already individuals, but they make up their minds themselves about who this individual is and what this individual is about. This requires making choices in society, both within the family and without. At this point, however, a person seeks personal integrity through free choice and communion with others.
Third, part of being social opens people up to areas of potential growth. Through interactions with others, for example, a young person may begin to experience in which he or she can make a positive difference in the life of another. On the other hand, he may also see how negative consequences of his choices adversely affect others (individually and as a group). Both are useful for a deeper self-knowledge and a greater humility. People can always improve, meaning that they can always make more and better choices that correspond to their own dignity and, at the same time, uphold the dignity of others.
Better for Ourselves and Others
The desire to be better, to be more real — to be one’s best self even — dwells within the human heart. To deny this is to shut down or handicap our rational nature. Human freedom is not meant to atrophy, it is meant to become strong and robust. Inertia of the will leads to personal atrophy — becoming a weaker or worse version of who you could be. Good choices, communion and strong relationships stop that from happening. In fact, the reverse happens. Freedom allows one to become freer, able to choose better for the sake of one’s own good and the good of others.
When members of a community are not focused on fostering the individual’s potential for good, however, people drift toward inertia or, worse, poorer choices. They can suffer from loneliness and even despair due to a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives. This does not mean that every conversation people have must be about purpose and meaning. It does mean that encouragement, help and kindness could be extremely formative for people in a healthy and positive way. It also means that negativity and discouragement (not the same as truthful criticism) should be avoided. When facing loneliness, the best thing to do is to go outside of oneself, to counteract the loneliness in some way. This is most effective when that going out of oneself contributes in some way, however small, to the well-being of another.
Living for Others
Going back to the choices the individual makes about personal integrity, the choices that each one makes about identity, meaning and purpose — while having a huge impact on the individual — have an enormous impact on others. Integral, virtuous people become the “salt of the earth” and the “city set on a hill.” We can become like lights in the darkness for those who are lost. For those suffering from loneliness and a lack of communion, the help of a few good people can make a life-changing difference.
How does someone make choices toward personal transformation and friendship? Remember always to seek what is good, the true good, for oneself and for others. To desire good to someone for his or her own sake, not one’s own, is the definition of love. This means that the other is never a means to an end. One does not use another for the sake of obtaining some other good — not in small ways, not in big ways. Instead, love and friendship are focused on the virtuous development of both people. This may mean that fewer people are real friends, but so be it. We should not waste time being a user or being used.
Perhaps a little remedial work is needed before a person is capable of being able to will another’s good — because to do so requires a certain understanding of one’s self as good — and then extending that benevolence to others. Perhaps a person is not good — where should she start? Identify one area to improve, and start there. Break it down into smaller and smaller pieces if necessary. Let yourself be different, which means, if you do improve, embrace it and love yourself for doing so! All of this is the grace of God transforming and shaping the human heart. Let us be grateful for his calling forth the best part of ourselves, for our own fulfillment and the communion he creates among us.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, R.S.M., is Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Knoxville.