Edith Stein on Friendship
How friendships can help change lives
Posted Nov 30, 2018
My mother was a master at the art of friendship. I learned so much from watching her be completely present, intertwined and fully engaged with her friends. She even went so far as to take on the accent of the other. My godmother was from County Kerry, Ireland and when my Italian, Brooklyn mother finished talking to her on the phone she took on a slight Irish brogue. She was completely oblivious to this and when asked about it she would say, ‘I was just so into what she was saying, and I was really listening’.
The word friendship comes from the old English word freondscipe and means a mutual liking and regard. We can define friend plus ship and get ‘the act or power of attaching to another by feelings of personal regard and preference’. A friend is there and exists for our mutual benefit. Aristotle believed it to be one of the most necessary things in life.
Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Discalced Carmelite nun. She wrote a lot about philosophy and being in friendship with others. She believed we are all in the same club and seek the same thing -- peace and a sense of attachment. She carefully examined the nature of the bond we form with others.
In our social unions, we can share with others and as Stein notes literally stream together certain conscious experiences. A general mental perception and consciousness form a unity with one another. What is remarkable is that in this streaming together, the individual’s essence is never compromised. The unique personal identity is the mark of an individual and can never be altered. It is with us from the beginning and once we die it ceases to be.
The individual is shown to be a person through the knowing of other persons in empathy. We become clear on who we are and what we want. Self-knowledge is gained. Understanding of the self occurs through the primal encounter with the other. The egos of each meet one another and individually they are revealed to be both unique and mutually related. Through empathy, we can develop what we are lacking or bring forth a dormant trait.
A component that fascinated Stein was how can we achieve remarkable feats and make changes with no actual means to do so. Where do we acquire our power to move our life in new more beneficial directions? Our friends can help. ‘The attitudes of a person have the peculiarity of operating contagiously and transferring themselves from one person to another.’ Stein writes.
Life requires power. Life power is concerned with the perception and experience of objects and events. We are influenced and empowered by our friends. When we feel we can’t accomplish or achieve something, we can do so if we are open to receiving the power of another. We must be open to it, Stein cautions because only then can we be transported by its vigor.
The life power of our friends can have an invigorating effect on us. The key lies in remaining open. Stein gives the example of a sunset. If we are not open to receiving its beauty it has no marking effect. We can still perceive and see the sunset but to be moved by its beauty that’s a responsibility that lies with us. We must choose to receive it as such and allow the beauty to alter our consciousness.
In 1918 Stein writes in a letter to her sister: “Everything that is now so terrible is precisely the spirit that must be surmounted. But the new spirit already exists and will prevail beyond all doubt. It may be clearly seen in philosophy and in the beginning of the new art form of expressionism.”
Stein was a phenomenologist which is a branch of philosophy concerned with how we can objectively come to know the world. It’s telling how she referred to expressionism- which is the subjective expression of emotion in the arts, as to that which would help overcome the horrific zeitgeist of the day. Here we catch a glimpse of her uniqueness and her intent to broaden phenomenology to include the human and world at large.
Stein lived during WWII and died in Auschwitz in 1942 and greeted death with both dignity and grace. She was the embodiment of hope and sought to be a pioneer in the face of sexism and hate. She rose above it all and is now a saint, revered by many and remains a mystery that still needs to be better understood. We have only just begun.
In 1993 my mother died at the age of 56 of breast cancer, an event that forever changed me. The loss has made me more attuned to the power and wonder that friendship can bring. The death of a mother profoundly awakens you to your own sense of humanity and creates a space that is more alive than ever in the very void in which it leaves. I fill up that space by recognizing the influence of the other and marveling at how blessed I am to be surrounded by such wonderful friends.
Calcagno, Antonio (2007). The Philosophy of Edith Stein. Pittsburgh, PA; Duquesne University Press