By David Hegg
Sometimes it turns out that famous clichés are just plain wrong, or at least wrong in enough important situations to make them suspect. One with which I particularly disagree is “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I know what it is supposed to identify, and I flatly disagree. Familiarity, with the right people, in the right way, and for the right reasons, actually breeds contentment.
You’ll notice that “familiarity” relates to a concept found in the word group derived from “family.” The core idea is that those in a family come to know one another in a deeply personal way. And, being “family” means having a relationship that is much more than surface recognition. This is at the essence of the cliché as usually understood. Too often when we get to know too much about someone, our familiarity with their faults leads us to hold them in contempt.
But what is the alternative? Never get close to anyone? Life without deep relationships just can’t be the answer since the greatest joys in life come through relationships with others.
What is necessary is a deeper consideration of the whole concept of familiarity. And for our purposes here we can substitute the idea of friendship. If real friends are those who know us best, and still love us, then we might better coin the cliché to say “friendship breeds contentment.”
Friendship is one of the most valuable commodities a human being can possess. And I greatly fear that this wonderful moral value is at risk today for at least three reasons.
First, because of the social media blitz that has overrun our society we are much more apt to have connections with people than commitments to real friendship. Anyone who has cultivated deep relationships knows that they are fueled by communication. As well, the best conversations don’t happen by text or email, but in a setting where the whole person can be involved in listening, responding, emoting, and validating mutual understanding.
Second, when we do seek out friendships, we too often do so in a selfish way. It is as though we truly believe that God’s purpose in this world is to make us happy by making sure everyone around us is focused on our well-being. We make ourselves the center of the universe and then hold our friends responsible for making sure our universe runs well. And when they don’t, we appease our consciences by saying, “Well, I guess now I really know what kind of person she is!” And we turn away, agreeing that familiarity breeds contempt.
But the problem isn’t familiarity but pride. If we sought out relationships with others for their sake as much as ours things would be different. If we determined that the best life is the one that lives to serve rather than be served, we’d probably find that familiarity breeds opportunity to come alongside our friends in a much deeper and satisfying way. And in the end, we’d find that sacrifice for others is actually the stuff of satisfied living.
Third, friendship suffers when we’re afraid to be real in a world where every little defect is magnified. I get it. We’re so afraid that others’ familiarity with us will indeed breed contempt because they will see the real us. But the truth is that those who refuse to connect with the real us will never be satisfied with us no matter the façade we erect.
Friendships are built on grand familiarity coupled with a desire to be used in the lives of others for good. Good friends are those driven by an ethic of undiluted love for those around them. And, if you are blessed as I am to have many of these golden individuals in your life, you’ve already learned that a growing familiarity with them only breeds contentment.
Certainly the idea of living with an “others-centered” focus is at odds with the “me-first” environment of our day. It always has been. Jesus recognized it, and still asserted that he was a friend to sinners. When he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened with cares, and I’ll give you rest,” he set the tone for what it means to love others. And that kind of love, when truly understood and received, brings rescue and refuge, never contempt.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” runs Sundays.