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WEEK 12: Character friendship

How character friends can help you grow in virtue

Home > #3- Practice> Week 12 – Character friendship

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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The best kind of friendship

And now, onto something new.

As you put your habituation plan into practice, this week you will add another dynamic of character education, which is the cultivation of an intentional character friendship.

This section will help you understand what a character friendship is, how it is an important element in the practice of developing virtue in your character and you and your character friend will do in this intensive practice phase.

Let’s start with a great quote about friendship:

‘Friendship is a virtue, or involves virtue. Friendship is one of the most indispensable requirements of life… For no one would choose to live without friends but in possession of everything else that is good. Friends are of help to the young by protecting them from mistakes; to the elderly by looking after them and making up for their failing powers of action; to those in the prime of life, to help them in doing good things‘ [A].

Notice the last sentence: friendship is a help in doing good things. Clearly, friendships are valuable in themselves and we love our friends for their own sake,  but there is also an instrumental value in friendship. The can be ‘a help…’  And that is what we will explore here.

It again was Aristotle who distinguished three types of friendships: utility friendships, pleasure friendships and virtue friendships.  All are good, and all are helpful. But of the three, virtue friendship is the highest,  because it serves the highest end in helping us do good things and become the kind of virtuous person we are meant to be.  These are what we are calling ‘character friendships’.

David and Jonathan are a great example of this kind of friendship in the Bible, as their souls were bound together by the virtues of courage, faith and zeal for the cause of the Lord.

So what exactly is this kind of friendship?

What is a character friendship?

Character friendship is a friendship between humans that is based on the reciprocal love of each other’s character and is expressed in the service of mutual character development.

So a character critical friend loves the virtue of diligence in my character, and wishes to serve and reinforce that aspect of my character so that I may be a better person. She is not trying to change me because my character is bothering her. She wants to see more of the virtue of diligence in my life for my sake, to see me flourish as a human being.

So a character friend is someone who wishes your good for your own sake. This is different from friendships that are based mostly on mutual usefulness, such as those that you might have with a colleague at work. It is also different from friendships that are mostly based on the pleasure of being together, such as those that you might have with teammates in a sport. There is nothing wrong with these other kind of friendship, but in character friendship you are looking for is someone who really cares about you becoming a better person [KK].

This leads to two cautions.

  1. First, be careful of ‘friends’ who have a wonderful plan to shape your life and who consider you their personal building site! Manipulation that can easily lurk around the corner and this kinds of ‘friendship’ can easily become toxic. A good character friend will have input into who you are, but they will do so from the side and not as the directors of your life.
  2. Secondly, this kind of friendship is precious but also very risky, because it entails a component of critical input into our lives. And we do not like criticism.  We like to be flattered and not confronted.  We prefer friendships that are static, complacent and based on mutual admiration.  And hence, character friendships are at high risk of rupture.

How then can you expect to grow in your character through intentionally cultivating a critical friendship?

How a friend will help me grow

Here are three things that can happen as you intentionally develop character friendships [KK]:

  1. You can flourish in an emotional context of mutual trust.  There is a unique connection of trust that happens with character friends and this ‘cushion’ of protection gives you a sense of existential security in which vulnerability, disclosure and reception can happen.  All of these are essential for you to grow in your character.
  2. You can grow as you critically dialogue over virtue.  This can be an abstract dialogue in which you reciprocally shape virtue in each other by struggling together to understand what the virtues are and how they relate to real life.  But more importantly, it should be a personal dialogue about virtue in each other’s character which may lead to critique.   In this way, a character friend is also a critical friend.
  3. You can see yourself as never before.  Character friendships provide faithful mirrors of who  you are.  Once again, Aristotle has put it well: ‘Now we are not able to see what we are from ourselves […]; as when we wish to see our own face, we do so by looking into the mirror, in the same way when we wish to know ourselves we can obtain that knowledge by looking at our friend.’ Self-evaluation and self-perception are good (and you have done this in the Virtue Test), but they can be delusional and short-sighted. Friendship is a necessary condition to know yourself, because your character friends can often see you better than yourself.

This may seem a lot, and we need to be cautious to overstate the power of character friendship in character formation. In the coming weeks you will be led to discover to what measure it can be true in your own experience.

What you will do when  you meet?

This intensive practice plan envisions four meetings over 15 weeks with your character friend.  Precise guidelines will be given in the coming weeks, but generally you will:

  1. Build trust by reciprocally sharing victories and failures in your character.
  2. Give account of your habituation plan.  Ideally, your character friend is also involved in this practice plan, and so this accountability is reciprocal.  But it can also work if you are the only one enacting this particular plan.
  3. Practice virtue reasoning  together, by discussing specific virtues and what these look like in real life.
  4. Receive critical input on your character. This is a constructive dialogue where correction is welcomed.  As the Roman philosopher Cicero suggests ‘to graciously give and receive criticism is the mark of true friendship’  (Cicero, How to be a Friend).

In the next section you will be led to identify a character friend and reach out to intentionally contract these activities over the coming weeks.

Your are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 13 – Engage a friend

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