With a little help from our friends: Aristotle, Thoreau and “Red Oaks” on friendship

On the subject of friendship, the following quote from Henry David Thoreau seems to be popular:

Thoreau quote from Brainyquote

For now, we can overlook the fact that this is a slight alteration of what Thoreau actually wrote (!) and instead pause to consider what it was that he was aiming to capture about the nature of friendship. I want to explore the connection between friendship and vocation, and especially the role that genuine friendships can play in the vocational discernment of young adults.

Ideally, a young person has a healthy network of mentors upon whom they can rely as they seek to discern their calling – this may include teachers and coaches, ministers or other spiritual authorities, family members, and, as they enter college, hopefully academic advisors and other mentors on campus. One of the compelling questions taken up in the Leading Lives That Matter collection is “To Whom Should I Listen?” It’s an important question to get young adults to consider, given the noise in their lives.

Young adults need informed input from people who know them well. And this is where their friendships can play an important role in the vocational journey. Here, I’m thinking of insights that a friend might offer into someone’s talents, their interests or dispositions. This might get conveyed in an off-hand comment such as “hey, you are really good at that” (in the face of a task accomplished well). Or as a suggestion such as, “I can easily picture you as a teacher.” Or the observation and naming of a virtue, as in “you have a lot of patience.” These are examples of the kind of things a friend might say that can serve as a kernel of insight.

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From Youtube, “How to Get Many Friend Requests on Facebook.”

Yet students need to be directed to pay attention to these types of comments from friends, that is, genuine friends, people who know them well and who have their wellbeing at heart. (Arisotle’s thoughts about what makes for a genuine friendship are of course relevant here and serve as a good reminder, especially in our Facebook culture, that not everyone with the label of “friend” truly is one). Moreover, they might be nudged toward offering words of vocational insight and encouragement to their friends when the opportunity arises. This is a natural form of peer mentorship.

I was recently reminded of the importance of friendship when it comes to the messy discernment of young adults by an unexpected source, Amazon’s series Red Oaks. The show centers on the lives of a group of young people working at a country club over several summers. While I am admittedly part of the target demographic for this new genre of 80s nostalgia-inspired television, the apparent set-up for this particular show is not my usual cup of tea (which is to say I’m not a fan of Meatballs or Caddyshack-style slapstick humor).

Yet I found myself drawn in by this story’s complex, fallible characters and especially by their genuine, abiding friendships. If you are not familiar with the show, or skeptical of its worth, here’s a helpful summation of the plot trajectory over its three seasons and an argument for why the show should be taken seriously. As the author of the review astutely puts it, the series “understands how a small leap of faith can lead to new beginnings.” It certainly does this, and it’s wonderful to behold on television.

David Meyers (Craig Roberts) with his mother and father (Jennifer Grey and Richard Kind)

There are several touching scenes in which the characters help each other during moments of crisis. Sometimes these pertain to romantic entanglements but just as often they relate to vocational discernment, as they must make decisions about what to do next with their young lives. The show’s main protagonist, David, dreams of making movies, but his father wants him to follow in his footsteps and pursue the more realistic plan of becoming an accountant. It is David’s friends who help him not lose sight of his original passion, even in the face of setbacks (when he does not get into film school) and real financial pressures.

Misty (Alexandra Turshen) and Wheeler (Oliver Cooper)

But some of the most compelling vocational moments come between the unlikely couple of Misty and Wheeler, whose friendship and eventually romantic relationship quietly develops over the three seasons. Early in the show, Wheeler starts dealing drugs at the country club in order to make some money (in part, to be able to make a favorable impression on Misty). In one episode (Season 1, episode 9, “The Bar Mitzvah”) comedic antics ensue when Wheeler loses a batch of the drugs and searches frantically to find it before someone else does. But the show takes a normative turn when Misty learns what he has been doing. She is disappointed; in her chastising she lets him know that she thinks he is better than that, and it becomes one of several important revelations for Wheeler. Another small but significant development comes when Misty encourages Wheeler to start tutoring kids at the club who are preparing to take the SATs. It becomes clear that he is a natural teacher and, through Misty’s encouragement, Wheeler ultimately makes the decision to go back to college. These (and many other) scenes from Red Oaks exemplify how it is that a good friend, someone who knows us well, can play an important role in one’s vocational journey. They capture how it is that a friend might be able to see something in us that we are not yet ready to see ourselves, and hold us to a higher standard.

As Aristotle knew, we don’t just “get by” with a little help from our friends, but we ultimately can thrive because of them.

Hannah Schell is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). 


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