A person begins a conversation, a letter, an introduction, or an e-mail with a “I know you’re busy” or “I know lots of people would like to have your time” or, with what is really at the bottom of it, “I know we are in some way unequals” … and here’s the next comment, “but I’m wondering if you have time for me or my question?” The one so addressed often says: “I do have time” or “It’s not so bad” or even “You and I are equals.” What about friendship between unequals?
How many of us have enjoyed a bit of the glow of being around someone we think well-known or wealthy or famous or powerful or significant? Does this glow make us feel important? Of course it does (if we are honest). Or, if you are on the receiving end, is there not a subtle sense of pride in being approached this way? Let’s be real. This sort of thing happens.
What to do? How do you deal with friendships between unequals in a variety of ways? Now, as Christians, we might jump up and down, or raise our hands and wave our hands for attention, or even toss our hats down and stomp on them to cry “Foul! Foul! Foul!” Why? Because we believe we are all “equal in Christ.” This is good theology, but the reality of life in this world is that students are not really equal to teachers, and children are not equal to parents, and all sorts of inequalities invade our world and put one person to an advantage. What proves this is the flush of pride that comes our way when we are invited into the company of someone we consider “somebody”.
So, then, how do you deal with friendships that are unequal in one way or another?
Follow this thread with Epstein and tell us whether that is the approach you take.
Friendship, Epstein says in chp 12 of his Friendship: An Expose, is about equality. “Friendship, in essence, confers equality on the person chosen as friend.” The advantage of power or prestige, he says, “has to be suspended.”
The problem, of course, is that “no two people are entirely equal.” There are all kinds of differences and issues that create “inequality” of various sorts: power, prestige, money, culture, etc.. Therefore, friendship is taxed at times by these subtle little inequalities — in fact, sometimes near equality — say between two well-known athletes or two successful pastors or between two wealthy familes — creates the obstacle to friendship because of rivalry.
Here’s his strategy: “The only way that I know to do so is to practice a subtle and persistent reciprocity.” And this:
“Everyone must try to make friendship his own utopian country in which no inequalities exist,
where the coin of the realm is imaginative sympathy,
all competition and rivalrous feelings are strictly outlawed,
the oxygen is considerate talk,
and the blood circulates best when stimulated by the constant exercise of thoughtfulness, generous impulse, and kindness. The earnest practice of friendship, in short, requires us to be rather better than most of the time we really are.” [Epstein, that last clause is not an easy one.]
What do you think? What do you do?