This post begins a series of adult reflections on TOBET’s The Body Matters children’s theology of the body curriculum.
Our staff was already educated in theology of the body and Catholic studies when we began, but writing these books has been a discovery for all of us. (Among our staff of five, there are six masters degrees and a seventh in progress.)
Though geared toward children, there’s a lot here for adults. In fact, I believe there are insights and truths in all our children’s books that will have eye-opening power for adults. I propose to share these nuggets with you, one book at a time, starting with The Body and Friendship, a 4th-grade book. It’s an easy port of entry since we all have friends. The book may cause you to look at them in a new way, though.
Friendships can be “classified” the way the philosopher Aristotle did, some 2,500 years ago. In the book, we use easier terminology for children: practical friendships, fun friendships, and virtuous friendships. By understanding that there are differences in friendships, we are more clear about what we expect from them, and that’s helpful for adults as well as children.
Practical friendships, what Aristotle called “utilitarian,” are more like business relationships. For example, as an accountant, I contract my services to clients. They get financial accuracy and security, and I get paid an hourly fee. We both benefit. It’s pleasant and it’s practical.
Children may have these kinds of relationships with a favorite service person, such as a babysitter or a “regular” waitress at a favorite restaurant. Maybe there are people in their class at school with whom they are cordial but not close. Kids sometimes need to know that it’s okay to have these kinds of casual, easy friendships that don’t require emotional investment.
Fun friendships are termed by Aristotle as “pleasurable.” These are the kind of relationships I have with people in my running club, for instance: we enjoy the same sport, and it is enhanced by the social interaction. We might go to breakfast after a run or travel together to an out-of-town race. It’s all fun and we get to know each other through running, our common passion.
Kids experience this kind of friendship all the time, in pickup sports or teams, choir, or special interest clubs like drama or art. People with similar interests spend time together doing the things they mutually enjoy. There’s a certain amount of personal investment in these friendships because we grow to appreciate people we spend a lot of time with, practicing the things we like to do.
For kids, it may be important to know that they don’t have to be BFFs (best friends forever) with everyone on their softball team. They can focus on the sport and simply enjoy the company of their teammates without being deep in the life of every other person on the team.
Finally, there are virtuous friendship, what Aristotle called “friendships of the good.” These friends are the ones you’d go to the mat for, the rare friendships in which the good of your friend is more important to you than anything you have to gain. These friendships may have been built on common interests, but they’ve moved beyond those interests, to the person.
Virtuous friendships seem to grow after a rough patch. For example, when someone has come to see me when I’m injured, shown up at the funerals of my loved ones, or consistently called me when I’ve gone into my shell… those are the friends I know are on my side for good. They have loved me when it wasn’t easy or fun, or even when I acted like I didn’t want to be loved.
In turn, there are friends I love so much that I will do the inconvenient, the costly or the unpleasant thing, for their sake. It is the willingness to sacrifice that makes these friendships precious. In the book, we help children to see other traits of a virtuous friendship: trust, inclusion of others, and the ability to both give and receive.
So how does all this relate to the body?
Friendship is a drama that plays out through the body. Friendships start when we encounter others physically: we smile, we laugh at their jokes, we do things together. We give gifts or share lattes or help them move.
As human persons, body and soul, we spend time with each other. Not just “virtual time” (texting, Facebooking, etc) but face-to-face time for, as we say in our book, “bodily presence is a present.” In other words, a deep friendship rarely grows without being in the company of each other, not on a screen. There is so much research coming up these days that shows we are hurting our relationships by too much “technoference.” We need body-to-body connections to be human, so our books guide children to put away devices when another person enters the room.
St. John Paul is quoted as saying: “The very essence of the person…is realized by existing ‘with someone’—and, put more deeply and completely, by existing ‘for someone.’” (TOB 14:2). In other words, when we have a virtuous friendship, a friend whose good we value as highly as our own, we become for that person. Such affirmation is our greatest gift. It reflects the infinite exchange of love (one might say, friendship) between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are being “like God” in such a friendship.
In adulthood, time culls our friendships. The bad ones have mostly been peeled away, as we have less leisure time and we spend it more carefully. We’ve learned how to sustain positive business relationships, since our livelihood depends on it! And we’ve been through enough life crises to know who are the friends who stick.
The last chapter in the book brings up for 4th graders their most important friendship: the one with Jesus Himself. We give them concrete examples, attempting to help them know Jesus personally, not as an abstract idea. It’s edifying, not to mention comforting, to think of Jesus as the ideal friend: He listens, He loves, He forgives, and He is worthy of trust. The kind of friend that I most want to be and to have… Jesus is.
Friendships take practice, and that doesn’t exclude my friendship with Jesus. When I get too busy to keep prayer time, and I forget to ask Him for input throughout the day, when I am too caught up in the world to remember that He is my best friend… the relationship suffers. Not because Jesus walks away or gives me my just due. It’s because I, in my limited-ness, need the time with Him. There is a certain discipline involved here, as there is in a sacrificial friendship.
Those who read our books, both children and adults will see things that may fortify their human friendships as well as their friendship with Jesus. And those ideas are worth pursuing, because friends are not just a minor part of life: they teach us how to love.