Death and friendship

Take a moment to think about the best and worst incidents in your life. Was it perhaps getting, or not getting, an important promotion? Or perhaps you won, or failed to win, a coveted award. In fact, the overwhelming odds are that you will identify the best and the worst incidents in the history of your relationships.

This was the conclusion of a large study reported by the University at Buffalo earlier this year. By a large margin the subjects reported that the beginning or ending of close relationships: making or losing a good friend, falling in and out of love, the death of someone in the family – ­ these kinds of making or breaking of close social relationships ­ mattered more than the dramatic events of success or failure.

I suspect that we all know in our hearts that this is true. However much we may have entered into the consumer society or competitive endeavours of various kinds, and however much these may seem to dominate our waking lives, it is the success of our long-term relationships which really matters. But it is a pity that sometimes we only realise that when we lose them.

I recall reading (but cannot trace the reference) the thoughts of a woman on her deathbed, when she considered how she had lived her life. It was a Martha and Mary story. She decided that she had focused far too much on the useful, and doubtless necessary, activities ­ busy, busy, busy. And too little time on simply showing her love to her family. If an evidently holy woman could think that, what does it say to me about myself?

Perhaps an additional motivation can be found in a meta-analysis of 148 studies covering over 300,000 individuals, who were followed up for an average of seven years (Public Library of Science, August 31 2010). A meta-analysis combines the results of several similar studies in order to obtain the largest and broadest sample. It showed that people with adequate social relationships had a 50 per cent improved rate of mortality over those who did not. This percentage corresponds roughly to factors like smoking and obesity.

Adjustment for several factors such as age, sex, initial health and cause of death confirms that this is a general finding and not restricted to certain classes of people. This throws an interesting and important focus on social life as a factor in longevity. Being a pater of a large familias, I am fortunate in my social relationships. But necessarily this is not true for many people ­ whether we are thinking of young men and women who find it hard to make friends, right through to the elderly who are allowed to slip off our radar too often.

Undoubtedly we have an advantage in belonging to a religion which has an endemic social content, which can naturally spread out from the ritual unity of the Eucharist. But how many of those familiar faces in the pew do we actually know as individuals? To whom does our ‘sign of peace’ have a real, rather than a nominal, meaning?

A study in the American Sociological Review suggests that the higher levels of happiness found in active churchgoers results from its social opportunities rather than any religious merit.

It is clear that the influence of the parish priest, both in the way he conducts the liturgy and the ways in which he provides opportunities for social occasions and a sharing of parish tasks is important. But priests are thin on the ground and, in any event, is this not where we in the laity can be taking initiatives? The local schools have many opportunities to be effective here. And so do we ­  on a personal basis. I am not pretending that this is always easy. Characteristically, lonely people suffer from a tension between wanting relationships and a fear of rejection. In people over 50 this tension is a measurable factor in raised blood pressure. (University of Chicago. March 2010)

There are of course many secular opportunities such as adult education classes (becoming increasingly expensive, I fear) and many other groups open to members who want to join in charitable work or who share a common interest.

 The last are important because  the psychologists tell us that loneliness is not a function of the spread of our circle of friends but whether we have close relationships which include substantial sharing of conversation. Two or three close friends are more important than a multitude of ‘acquaintances’.

For those who are retired from full-time work I will put in a plug for the University of the Third Age (U3A). This is a widespread organisation, with a local presence, which provides and encourages cooperative learning groups. And many other events. No academic qualifications are required, and the groups cover a broad range of activities from the arts, foreign languages, current affairs etc. And if there isn’t a local group to suit you, then U3A will help you to start one. Ask at your library or ‘Google’ U3A.

‘I have been a member of a philosophy group for several years now; and our boast is that we only lose members through death. The exchange of wisdom between people with a lifetime of experience is impressive. I do not see it as a missionary activity but we often discuss moral and religious matters as part of our brief. No one has any doubts about what I believe and why. And I, in turn, have a good understanding of other members’ beliefs and values. We disagree less often than you might imagine ­ and always with respect.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Death and friendship

  1. st.joseph says:

    Your last sentence’And I in turn, have a good understanding of other members’beliefs and values. We disagree less often than you might imagine and always with respect.
    That to me is the whole soul of what you say of death and friendship.
    Without that- we cannot be true to ones self, otherwise we live a lie.

  2. peterdwilson says:

    Certainly one of the most unpleasant situations in my life was a mutual recognition that an engagement to marry was not going to work out, although friendship has remained (probably helped by living at opposite ends of the country!) Fortunately I have a good circle of local friends, largely within the parish. With no disrespect to our last resident priest, it is remarkable how much livelier the parish has become in the years since we lost him and have to do everything within lay competence ourselves.

    I agree entirely with stjoseph on the crucial importance of treating conflicting views with respect; without it, we can never learn, and are more likely to damage ourselves with anger or resentment.

  3. “Two or three close friends are more important than a multitude of ‘acquaintances’.”

    I’ve always thought so. Or put another way, most of us could probably count true friends on one hand pace the ludicrous lists that people tend to accumulate on social networking websites. A trend indicative of an acquisitional mentality perhaps?

    However, I’ll probably confess more than most insofar as I’ve always preferred to accept an introverted approach to parish presence despite various chastisements of such behaviour over the years (from numerous sources) but why endure some of the personality clashes which stem from arbitrary ‘communion’ yet deplete spiritual solace in the presence of the Holy Spirit?

    We cannot but help having busy lives and, admittedly, there’s a need to be mindful of losing our humanity whatever good may flow from our respective endeavours. I just find the occasional homily where folk are told (with the barest of rhetorical pretence) not to bother attending Sunday mass (if that’s to be the extent of their personal commitment to a particular parish) belies a position of privilege and a lack of affinity with many of the factors which may motivate the stability and growth of souls.

  4. claret says:

    John Gilheaney excuses himself from further parish involvement on grounds that would appear to be amply justified to him ( and which could equally apply to any parishioner,) but I would hazard a guess that he would balk at a description of himself as ‘apathetic,’ yet it is apathy that kills a parish.
    I see time and again a relatively small handfull of people who are the bedrock of a parish because no matter what it is ‘on offer’ they involve themselves in it because they know that without support it just dies. They strive to compensate for the many who see anything in excess of one hour a week as some kind of insufferable burden. Each of us has a Ministry of some kind but if we fail to practice it by making excuses for not doing so then we have no right to complain if a parish fails as to meet one of its primary duties to be a community of faith, and this includes a social aspect as well as a spiritual one. In writing these comments I do recognise that most baptised catholics never go anywhere near their Church ( except perhaps when looking to get their child baptised or a place at a Catholic school!) and it seems churlish to decry those who do
    but more is required of those who are being given more.

  5. Valerie Gamble says:

    I believe we have a duty to support our Pastors,that to me doesn’t only mean financially.
    I also believe it to be important for our children to be involved in parish life,both Spiritually and socially.It may teach them to learn communication skills, in proffessing their Faith(not only by living it) but by discussing it when the opportunity arises in the ‘market place’. It is the tree of Life and we are it branches.

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