The British comedian Jason Manford once observed the difference between UK and US approaches to friendship, and particularly that between males. Paraphrasing to avoid a bit of the more coarse language he might have used, Manford said that Americans are almost always incredibly proud of, and kind about their friends. They might say 'this is Hank, he's a great guy – he has a beautiful wife, a great job and a lovely home – I love this guy!' Americans, Manford posited, are usually delighted by their friends' successes, and actually gain a kind of vicarious pleasure through watching them unfold.
Not so the average Brit, according at least to this comic. He suggested that we wince when even our friends enjoy successes in work or other areas of life, and that we're most comfortable when consoling (and ribbing) our friends through their failures. In contrast to our American cousins, we'd never dream of raving proudly about their latest piece of good news.
It's a massive caricature of course, but the knowing laughter from Manford's audience suggests there's probably a ring of truth. Like the US, the UK is a highly competitive culture, where almost everyone is pursuing some version of a generally-materialistic dream, but the difference here is our high level of cynicism. As a culture, we're generally quite uncomfortable with simply being pleased with each other; quite often this only seems to cause us to reflect on our own feelings of inadequacy.
That's not always the case by any means, and even if we're all a bit susceptible to this kind of thinking, it's more of an issue for some than others. In fact, sometimes I've felt the extraordinary benefit of realising that a friend was counter-culturally and unequivocally positive about me and my agenda. Quite unlike Manford's caricature, I've known that feeling that someone else is 100 per cent 'for' me; that they're actually putting my own hopes and needs ahead of their own.
This is a concept which Jesus taught, not just by implication in his Golden Rule, but in his description of submission, which goes even further than treating others as you might like to be treated in return. His famous words in Mark 9 v 35 that 'if anyone wants to be the first, they must be the very last and the servant to all' is a blueprint for the upside-down priorities of the Kingdom, and in turn of Christian friendship. Putting others' needs and agendas ahead of our own – in theory at least – means that the only person who's not out for us...is us!
All of this is nice in hypothesis, but I'd go even further. I think that in a world that is so competitive, so consumer driven, so entitled, individualistic and cynical, this kind of all-in friendship isn't just something we can muster on our own. When I think about the friends who have truly displayed this level of selflessness, generosity and love, they are often people who enjoy a close relationship with God. I think selfless friendship is a spiritual gift, and one we should pray for.
Even if that kind of friendship is empowered by the Holy Spirit, there are things that we can do to help. Praying for our friends' successes – even those which will probably make us reflect on our own disappointments – is one way, and sometimes requires discipline. It's hard to feel cynical and negative about someone when we've been praying for them. And then really practically, we simply to have to choose that we won't be cynical, or competitive, or get tricked into the world's way of seeing things. Instead, we can choose kindness, generosity and compassion; gifts which inevitably come back in our direction when we start exercising them.
An unremittingly positive attitude towards our friends can lead to superficiality of course, and prevent us from ever spotting and challenging areas in their lives where as friends we also need to speak the truth in love. But there's more than a kernel of truth in Jason Manford's stinging indictment on some friendships, and all of us could do with some friends who are truly 100 per cent in our corner. In order for that to happen though, perhaps we all need to commit to taking the same approach to our friends, and to ask God's help in doing so.