New Study: Friends Really Are Like Family

“Friends are the family you choose for yourself,” the old saying goes, but new research indicates that your close friends may be more like your family than you realize.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 1,367 pairs of close friends from Framingham, Massachusetts, who had been friends since the 1970’s.  Researchers compared the participants’ DNA to one another, and then to the DNA of approximately 1.2 million pairs of strangers.  In their research, scientists from Yale and the University of California at San Diego looked at well over 400,000 points of comparison along the DNA strands of each of the participants in the study.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to be more genetically similar to each other than they are to strangers, including strangers with whom they share the same ethnic background.  In fact, the average genetic similarity among close friends was equivalent to the level of genetic kinship that exists between fourth cousins, i.e. people who share a set of great-great-great-grandparents.  That’s a pretty distant familial relationship, obviously, but still statistically significant enough that scientists are baffled as to why good friends could be so genetically similar without technically being related.

One explanation may be that people with similar genetic makeup tend to live in or move to similar environments, increasing the chances of their meeting and becoming friends.  It may also be that people with similar genetic traits also tend to share similar skills, making it more likely that they will find themselves engaged in the same type of work or activity.  Interestingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to share a closer sense of smell than any of the other senses.

A possible implication from the study, if the results are eventually shown not to be specific to the good people of Framingham, is that you might be able to create and take a genetic test, to determine whether you and someone else should become friends.  At first glance this might seem to be a pointless test, since even genetic similarity does not guarantee the bonds of friendship.  After all, almost everyone has at least one genetically close relative whom they do not get along with or do not speak to, for various reasons.

However, if these findings hold up over time, there could be potential practical implications beyond scientific theory.  For example, one could imagine that, in the formation of sports teams or military units, such a genetic test for similarity could be viewed as increasing the statistical chances of the members of the group being able to work well together.  Although not a guarantor of success, genetic closeness could be one factor among many to be taken into consideration, in the formation of productive groups.

Admittedly, most of us don’t need a test to tell us whom we care about the most.  By its very nature, true friendship doesn’t require a scientific explanation: it’s simply a gift, one freely given, received, and reciprocated.  Yet at the same time, it’s still interesting to learn that those people in your life whom you love as much as your own family may, in a sense, be just like family, on a genetic level.

"Snap the Whip" by Winslow Homer (1872) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer (1872)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Friends on Earth and Friends Above

Meeting someone in real life whom you’ve been communicating with via social media for ages is something of an odd experience.  It’s not quite like meeting an acquaintance with whom you’ve had an extended, written correspondence via e-mail, even if the messages have been going back and forth for quite a long time.  Social media outlets allow not only for an instantaneous exchange of words and images, but also of reactions: it’s their speed which makes said exchanges seem more like friendly chatter.

Yesterday for example, I got to hang out for an hour with my friend, writer and film critic Steven Greydanus, as he was in Washington recording some television appearances.  Although we’ve been chatting on social media for awhile, this was the first chance we’ve had to sit together and have caffeinated beverages.  As often happens on these occasions, I experienced an initial sensation of adjustment – this is a real person! – followed by very easy conversation.  When you’ve been conversing on social media, most of the preliminaries we human beings tend to go through when we initially meet are already well out of the way.

On the way home afterwards, I thought about how many good people I’ve met through social media over the years.  Cliff way up in Nova Scotia for example, loves the old-time radio shows broadcast online Sunday nights through our local DC public radio station, while Vicki out in Arkansas loves discussing art history and British TV murder mysteries.  And I have superbrethren all over the place, from the US and Canada, to the UK and France, since apparently I’m not the last son of Krypton after all.

However, it’s entirely possible that I may never meet any of these people. Technology has come quite a long way, but we’re still not at the point where Star Trek-style transporters stand in our office buildings, ready to zip us off to wherever we need to go in a cascade of light.  We remain dependent to a large extent upon circumstances, as to whether our online friends from Nevada or Australia are ever going to be passing our way, or whether we are going to find ourselves in their neck of the woods.  And yet as maudlin as that may sound, I don’t think it reduces the genuine good that social media can do, in forming permanent friendships.

There’s a lovely old hymn called “For the Beauty of the Earth”, which in America tends to appear on the hymn boards at Mass around Thanksgiving.  It was written by the English High Church Anglican poet Folliott Sandford Pierpoint in 1864, and is usually sung to the music of the hymn “Dix”, written by the German Evangelical Lutheran composer Conrad Kocher in 1838.  While the hymn’s structure of giving thanks and speaking to the beauties of nature make it a natural choice for singing at Thanksgiving, in Pierpoint’s verses there is a wonderful allusion to human relationships that transcend earthly limits.

In his litany of things to be thankful for, Pierpoint lists, “friends on earth, and friends above,” reminding us of the long-held Christian belief in the “communion of saints”.  That connection among both the living and the dead, as all await the Last Day, is something that helps to bind the Christian community together, even with all our divisions and disputes.  People of faith recognize that human limitations of time and space are no boundaries whatsoever to God, and so in that spirit we can direct our thoughts and prayers to those with us now, including those whom we may never get to know in real life, and also those who have gone before us.

Forming genuinely good, mutually beneficial friendships in real life through initial contact on social media is absolutely possible, whatever others may say to the contrary.  Sociologists tell us that online relationships are not real, even if they may feel real; they can be abusive, parasitic, and shallow.  Fortunately, I am not a sociologist, and I’m quite happy to give you many examples from my own life where true friendships have formed through initial online contact.  Such things are not automatic of course, since not everyone you meet through social media is going to become a close, personal friend, but they do actually happen.

Yet even in those relationships that never go beyond social media – someone with whom I share a laugh on Twitter, or whose travel pictures I “like” on Facebook – I find that I can and should still be of service in some capacity.  All of us, whatever our station in life, need other people. We seek words of encouragement, hope for the future, and new, helpful ideas.  We want to laugh, shed a tear, or share our frustrations with the difficulties of this life.  In that regard, dismissing the possibility that anything good can come out of social media, is a bit like questioning whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.

Never discount the fact, gentle reader, that not only may your words, your example, or your prayers have a profound impact on someone else whom you know in real life, but you may also have such an impact on those whom you only know through an online account.

Selfie with Steven Greydanus (Courtesy the latter)

Selfie with Steven Greydanus
(Courtesy the latter)

Saying Farewell: A Friend Ascends Mount Carmel

I write this post with somewhat mixed emotions, because this is probably the last blog post of mine my friend Channing Dale, blogger and hostess of the “This Catholic Life” podcast, will ever read before she heads off into a life without new media.  Who knows, perhaps she (and many of you) would see this as a good thing.  So before she logs off for the last time, allow me to share some of my thoughts with you about this remarkable young woman, who has been called to the challenging, deeply spiritual life of the contemplative Carmelite Order.

You can listen to the story of Channing’s discernment of her religious vocation, and how she has been preparing for the new adventure of her life, by listening to this recent episode of the Catholic Weekend show, where she joined us to talk about how she came to realize that God was calling her in a very special way to be a bride of Christ.  As you can see, Channing has already taken down her website, This Catholic Life.  After tomorrow, she will be deactivating her social media accounts, as she enters into the contemplative, cloistered life in just a few weeks’ time.

I had the privilege of meeting Channing for the first time in real life at the Fortnight for Freedom closing mass celebrated on Independence Day last year at the National Basilica.  Not only did we attend mass together, but we ended up on the front page of The Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese! Well, sort of:

Cover

CloseUp

It is safe to say that was one of the absolute hottest, most stifling days I can recall being out and about in the Nation’s swamp capital, but spending time with such a poised, smart, and fun-loving young woman deeply committed to her faith, was a source of great hope and inspiration, knowing that gifted and intelligent people like her are responding to the call to religious life.

Then in January of this year, I got to meet up with Channing in person again, when she returned to Washington to participate in the March for Life.  I managed to record a special segment for the Catholic Weekend show with her and over a dozen other Catholic new media users, who gathered for a meet-up at the National Gallery of Art before the March began.  You can listen to that episode here, and to see more pictures of Channing and the rest of us, here is the link to the original post.

Though our friendship has not been one of very long duration, Channing has always been ready with prayers, encouragement, and humor throughout.  I shall miss being able to simply type her a message and have a near-immediate response, or seeing her ask for prayer intentions for those who need them.  Indeed, I shall particularly miss having her around during those moments when I lose my temper – not an infrequent occurrence, sadly – and need a bit of perspective on how not to pummel people into the ground on social media.

However I, do know that the calling which Channing is about to follow into the contemplative life is one which will bring her into an even deeper and more wonderful communion with Our Lord, and that she will be praying for all of us even as we pray for her.  The great Doctor of the Church and reformer of the Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila, described the experience of her own entry into that life in a rather powerful way, in her “Autobiography”, and I can think of no better way to conclude this post as she prepares to tread the same path.  God bless you, Channing, as you enter into this new life with Christ, and please know that I and many others will be praying for you and wishing you well.

When I took the habit, the Lord soon made me understand how greatly he favors those who use force with themselves in serving him. No one realized that I had gone through all this; they all thought I had acted out of sheer desire. At the time my entrance into this new life gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose. Whenever I recall this, there is nothing, however hard, which I would hesitate to undertake if it were proposed to me. For I know now, by experience of many kinds, that if I strengthen my purpose by resolving to do a thing for God’s sake alone, it is His will that, from the very beginning, my soul shall be afraid, so that my merit may be the greater; and if I achieve my resolve, the greater my fear has been, the greater will be my reward, and the greater, too, will be my retrospective pleasure. Even in this life His Majesty rewards such an act in ways that can be understood only by one who has enjoyed them. This I know by experience, as I have said, in many very serious matters; and so, if I were a person who had to advise others, I would never recommend anyone, when a good inspiration comes to him again and again, to hesitate to put it into practice because of fear; for, if one lives a life of detachment for God’s sake alone, there is no reason to be afraid that things will turn out amiss, since He is all-powerful. May He be blessed for ever. Amen.

Group(L to R) Mike Gannon, Channing Dale, Fr. Kyle Sanders, the author, Pat Denny