Have you ever learned a lesson that you should have already known? I spent the first half of this year doing exactly that.
I have heard all my life how important friends are. I have been taught since childhood that if I am to have friends, I must be a friend worth having. I have been told that friendship is key to a balanced life.
Yet, I have spent the first half of this year learning—or maybe relearning—that lesson.
Earlier this year, I invited a group of guys from my church to read through a book that had a huge impact on me. We now meet regularly to discuss our thoughts on the reading, as well as a variety of topics. In short, it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
So far this year, I have also been able to reconnect with friends that live far away. I get to hang out with one of these guys every few months or so. I only see another about once a year. Another, we can get together about every three years. Another, this was the first time in about ten years that we have been in the same room. In each case, our wives talked, our kids played, and we picked up right where we left off. It has been amazing.
But, then something hit me: everything I have done with my friends could be done—has been done—digitally.
I have been in discussion groups—online. I’m pretty sure we could have created some space for my reading group. I have ‘kept up’ with my long-distance friends and their families over the years—digitally. If you had asked me what they were up to, even in recent weeks, I would have been able to answer confidently.
But, here’s the thing…
When it comes to personal relationships, digital connection is a great supplement, but it is no substitution.
I would not trade the few hours I have recently spent with my friends for all the digital connectedness in the world. Here are a few reasons why.
Personal Transparency > Digital Appearance
We live in an age in which online profiles are as important as any aspect of public life. Teenagers are being told, “Your personal brand is how you present yourself to the world. It’s your reputation…. defining your personal brand will help you get to where you want to be.” Seven in ten employers will check the social media of potential hires before making their decision. The pressure to present an impressive online persona is an undeniable reality.
We live in a culture of “mutual self-display.” Os Guinness explains, “…everyone is now in the business of relentless self-promotion.” For many, the motto has become, “I post, therefore I am.”  James K.A. Smith writes, “We are no longer seen doing something; we’re doing something to be seen.”
When we are able to curate what people see of our lives, ironically, they don’t see much of our lives. They see our highlight reel. They see us pose and smile. Yet, they do not see our struggles. They do not see our tears.
True friendship requires transparency that exposes us beyond the ability of social media. We don’t get to retake our real-life image. There are no filters for a face-to-face meeting. We don’t get to edit comments after we speak.
However, we do get a connection that shapes us beyond the ability of social media. This happens despite our struggles and often because of our struggles. It is a severely needed dose of reality.
Personal Conversation > Digital Reverberation
Many of us live in a digital echo chamber. We fill our feeds only with voices who share our views and reinforce our biases. Why would it not? We connect so we can have our opinions affirmed and our suspicions confirmed.
But, an echo chamber can be a dangerous place.
The danger of living in a digital echo chamber is that we die an intellectual death of attrition. Like a sports team who never faces worthy competition, we grow complacent and even arrogant. We don’t know how to defend our ideas because we never have to. We’re not even sure if our ideas are right because we haven’t heard anyone say otherwise.
I have had several intensely meaningful conversations this year. There were several in which I discovered, lo and behold, my friends and I disagree. What was I to do at that moment? I couldn’t unfollow him. I couldn’t click the “dislike” button. I couldn’t end the conversation by scrolling on and finding someone that agreed with me.
All sarcasm aside, it can be a jarring experience to have a close friend disagree on an important issue. However, it can also be an educational experience. Whom would you be more willing to listen to than a friend? Who would be more willing to listen to you?
As Mortimer J. Adler wrote, “No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.”
As counterintuitive as it seems, a personal conversation with a friend can be the healthiest place for disagreement. It is a place where we can teach and be taught.
Personal Wisdom > Digital Information
You can learn anything on YouTube. I mean, literally, anything.
We have more information at our fingertips than any generation in history. Even so, that does not mean we will use that information well. As the saying goes, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”
Wisdom has been defined as “moral skill” or “skill for living.” It is not merely having knowledge. It is, as J.I. Packer put it, “the power to see and the inclination to choose the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.”
In my interactions this year, I have learned a lot from my friends. But, I have not simply gained knowledge, I have seen the skilled use of that knowledge in their lives. None of these people are perfect, but they have done their best to seek the best.
I have not only been able to watch; I have interacted. I asked questions and got answers. I shared thoughts and accepted input. I encouraged, and I received in kind.
As much as I can get from YouTube, I can’t get that.
C.S. Lewis spoke of friendship in the most meaningful terms:
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.
Life is given to these words by the famous friendship between Lewis and his longtime friend J.R.R. Tolkien. As Tolkien reported,
The unpayable debt that I owe him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”
A literary work for the ages was brought about by a friendship for the ages.
In his comments on the Lewis-Tolkien friendship, David J. Theroux remarked, “We do not choose friends; rather, friendship itself is chosen, and we are afforded it by a love that comes from God:”
In this digital age, we need to choose friendship. We may use digital connections to foster our companionship, but let us never mistake the former for the latter. There is more to be had in friendship than ‘liking’ one another’s pictures and echoing one another’s opinions. We need to meet. We need to talk. We need to learn. We need to nurture our friendships and thank God for the love he shows us through them.
Personal will always be greater than digital.
 Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 15.
 James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, p. 145-6.
 Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, p 147.
 C.S. Lewis, Four Loves.
 David J. Theroux, “Mere Friendship: Lewis on a Great Joy”
 David J. Theroux, “Mere Friendship: Lewis on a Great Joy”