Intentionally connect and be accountable
Engaging a friend
This week you will continue putting your habituation plan in practice, but you will also intentionally reach out to a character friend and ask to be accountable during next weeks.
Character friendship, in fact, is not just a theory but a powerful dynamic that you are choosing to engage with. As you become vulnerable and accountable on specific virtue-related issues, you will find the benefits to your character.
How then can you identify a character friend who will walk with you in the coming weeks?
As you think about who a good character friend might be, you need to caution against ideals that may be too romantic. A genuine, dedicated, focused, exclusive, critical friendship can be rare. In reality, most good character friendships are found in differing shades of intensity, and we should be willing to gratefully accept whatever is offered to us as a gift.
So, what are some selection criteria for a good character friend? You may already have someone in mind, but here are seven questions to help you:
- Do they know me well? It may seem obvious, but the first question you need to ask as you identify a character friend is whether they know you well. Have you spent time together in significant shared activities? Have you shared joys and sorrows together? Would they be able to identify your greatest struggles, deepest desires and most nasty habits? Would you think of them as a ‘soulmate’? Another way of putting it is ‘Does my character friend know my virtues and love my character’?
- Is the friend a peer? Although there is great benefit in character mentors (e.g. parents, teachers, pastors, etc) or in role models that are above and beyond us (i.e. the heroes of virtue), here we are talking about benefitting from a relationship with someone who is like us. We are looking for a soulmate who is equal to us in social standing (i.e. not our superior), who will help us see ourselves in them, and that allows for genuine peer discussions as we try to bring virtue into the realities of life. So your character friend might be a fellow student, another member in your faith community, a spouse, or a long term friend of your same age. Ideally, it could be someone who is committed to enacting this same intensive practice plan on virtueducation.net where you can be each other’s friend.
- Are we similar in virtue? Speaking of peers, it is also helpful if your character friend is similar in virtue to you. This does not mean that you scored equally in the Virtue Test, nor that you struggle with the same vices or have cultivated the same virtues in equal measure. Your character friend should be neither too bad (fully vicious), nor too good (divinely virtuous). Soul-mate-ship, in fact, works well in equality.
- Is there honesty and vulnerability in the friendship? Has the character friend you are thinking of ever rightly expressed words of criticism or reproof to you? Is your relationship strong enough to tolerate mutual criticism? If this has not happened before, it may not be realistic to try to make it work quickly now. It is also important that the critical element of the relationship goes both ways. Can you both speak into each other’s lives or is it just one sided? Peer character friendships are reciprocal, where each moulds the other.
- Is my friendship considered as irreplaceable by my character friend? This is a good question to evaluate the robustness of the relationship.
- Is my friendship marked by generosity? Character friendship is about selfless giving to each other and will not work if there is a demanding spirit or a spirit of keeping accounts.
- Is there a reciprocal commitment to each other? This may not be verbally stated, but it is important that there be some sort of covenantal relationship with your character friend. This is a commitment to each other’s good, for better or for worse.
What if you can’t find a character friend?
Most people can probably find a character friend, or at least someone who meets some of the criteria above at least some of the time. But what if you can’t?
A first question you must ask yourself if you do not have character friends, is whether you are humble enough to have them. If you do not welcome critical, evaluative input from others into the deeper parts of your soul and character, it is unlikely that you will have character friends. Or, even worse, if you are a person who is dedicated to vice, you will lack in self-knowledge and self-love and hence you will be unable to love others, precluding the foundations of character friendship. In this case, gracefully and courageously admit that you are the problem, and begin working on your character through the other tools in this website. There is hope that, in time, you can change and from here to a year or two, you will have blessed yourself by cultivating character friends.
But it is also possible that you are not the problem. Your life circumstances may simply have isolated you. Perhaps you live in geographical isolation, or in a foreign country or travel too much to settle down into permanent relationships. Perhaps you have been bereaved of your closest friends. Or perhaps you have simply never invested in this way, being satisfied with friendships of utility and/or of pleasure. If you have have never practiced character friendship yourself you are unlikely to have character friends, for we become friends by practising friendship. If this case, you need to momentarily do without the tool of character friendship in this intensive practice phase, but make a point of developing this kind of friendship as you move forward in life.
But there is another alternative. We have suggested above that, in this project, a character friend should ideally be a peer, but it entirely possible to also greatly benefit from critical friendships that are socially unequal. All of the dynamics described so far will work well, with the added bonus of someone that may have more to give to you in terms of experience in character development and practical virtue. If you choose to go in this direction, you might broaden the range of your thinking to include your pastor, an older member of your family or a teacher that knows you well.
What you need to do
And now the practical part. Here is what you need to do:
- Write down the name of the person you have identified as a character friend.
- Contact them and ask them if they are available. Although a text message might suffice, a nice meal out together would be better. Here is what you might communicate: ‘Dear XXX, I have been following a programme of intentional development of my character and virtues. Part of this programme is to have a character friend. Let me explain more … In brief, would you be willing to walk with me in this journey? It would entail meeting up four times (every 2-3 weeks over the next 11 weeks). It might also entail some brief reading on your part (no more than 20 min per week). The programme will give me ideas on what to talk about when we meet, so you don’t need to prepare anything. Just come along, and help me as I grow.’
- If they are available, great! Let them know that you will be reaching out them about every 2-3 weeks for the next 11 weeks (maybe give them dates). In weeks 16, 18, 21 and 24 you will be given ideas of what exactly to do when you meet.
- If they are not available, try someone else.
- If they are available, set up a first meeting this week. During the meeting show them the plan you are following on virtueducation.net, share with them the results of your Virtue Test and you overall practice plan. Also set up dates for the next meetings (see n.3 above for frequency).
A challenge to community leaders
Discourse on character friendship should be taken up with a passion by all those that lead a community. Whether it be a faith community or an educational community (e.g. formal or non-formal theological education communities).
Character friendships are not a nice optional reality. They lie at the very foundation of how individuals can grow. Hence as leaders, we need to be aware, informed and intentional in making these kind of friendships happen in our communities.
If you are leading a group in using this site virtueducation.net as a developmental activity, this might be a great opportunity to begin fostering exactly those kinds of friendships.