The Mutuality of Friendship 2

One woman carrying another on her back, laughing together, Friends having fun together

Friends Care

There are many ways to understand friendship, but one thing everyone agrees on is that friends care about one another.

In some circles, this looks like going to parties or movies together. It might mean we help each other when times are hard. For some, friendship is about gossip or encouragement. Some friends garden, sew, or cook together. Others exercise together. Some hang out, drinking coffee and talking. Regardless of what they do, friends enjoy spending time together, they support you when you’re down, and they try not to betray you because they don’t want to see you hurt. All this is a way of caring.

Professionals Care

But friends are not the only ones who care about us. So do teachers, mentors, parents, and doctors. The relationships we have with the helpers in our life can be intimate and transformative, but they are not friendships. Friendship requires a mutuality that is not part of a teaching or mentoring relationship.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t reciprocal in some ways. The professional who serves others receives much in return that helps. By giving, they grow, and change, and become better human beings. However, that is not the point of the relationship. They are not seeking these things. These things just happen.

We all need people in our lives who can be there for us without asking anything from us. In the best of all possible worlds, everyone would have mentors, teachers, chaplains, counselors, parents, doctors who understood that their job was to be present and receptive, to listen, hold, contain, witness, understand, and reflect back the dreams and fears and helplessness and strengths they saw. These are not friends, and they shouldn’t be.

Relationships that Change Us

Professional relationships are not always so clear-cut, however. As time passes, even therapists and clients can develop a kind of mutuality that is almost friendship. They may become professionals together, trading dilemmas, giving each other advice, and sharing a certain intimacy. But they probably don’t buy gifts for one another’s children or mow each other’s lawns or work side-by-side painting or putting up fences. This important aspect of friendship, this doing for one another and trading of favors, is lacking. If the teacher is older and one day gets ill, the student might cook food or do chores for him or sit beside him in the hospital. That makes them friendly, but not the you-help-me-and-I’ll-help-you kind of friends.

Yet in all these relationships lies the opportunity for inner growth and change for the professional as well as for the client.

Though a cliché, it is true that we who work as teachers or healers or counselors can, if we allow it, be changed by the stories, the heart, and the generosity of those we serve. Of course, we can choose to deny the gifts we receive in the act of tending. We can pretend to be all-generous and all-sacrificing. But when others accept our assistance, they give us something in return, even if it is only the opportunity to serve.

Being Taught While Teaching

Michelle Kuo spent two years teaching in an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas. There she met a student named Patrick in whom she took a special interest. When he got into trouble and ended up in jail, she visited him nearly every day for over a year, teaching him to read, to write, and to discover his inner worth.

In the process, Kuo matured. She became a better teacher and a better human being. Patrick’s insights, his use of language, his stories, and his faith all taught her something about the world and about her own heart.

She wrote, that “to know a person as a student is . . . to sense deeply his striving and in his striving to sense your own.” [1] Because of her interactions with Patrick, she learned more about who she was.

Is this mutual teaching not a kind of equality, a kind of friendship?

One woman carrying another on her back, laughing together, Friends having fun together

Things I Have Learned

Over the years as a chaplain, I have been changed by many of my patients. Because of the faith I’ve seen in others, my own faith has deepened. As I have witnessed the strength and determination of those who suffer far more than I, I have become more courageous. When I see the grace and compassion in people who have endured horrific loss and illness, when I see how much they continue to enjoy life, family, and friends, I feel awed and humbled. Because of what I have witnessed, I know more than I could otherwise have known about resilience, goodness, life, and love.

Who is the teacher; who the student?

Nonetheless, I am not going to hang out with these patients at a coffee shop, or jog with them, or invite them to a potluck. To do so would change the dynamics of our relationship so that I could no longer be their chaplain. If we were friends, then when they returned to the hospital needing someone who could separate her story from theirs, who could sit in silent solidarity without being overwhelmed, I might fail them. Their story would become my story. The intimacy we shared would feel personal. I might seek reciprocity from them in their moment of need.

Of course, I’ve been a chaplain for many years, so I like to think I would not so abandon a friend who needed me during a tragedy. Yet the mutuality of friendship makes this more possible than if the relationship were to remain professional.

Maintaining Professional Distance

Yet patients don’t always like this. Those who have opened their hearts and shared their souls with teachers or chaplains may mourn when something they hoped would last does not. Sometimes, students or patients ask for more from a professional than is appropriate.

In her book, Reading with Patrick, Michelle Kuo describes a scene in which she visited an old student in jail. She had instructed him to write about the best part of his day. At the end of his assignment, he wrote, “I feel you sound very sexy.”

Patrick had not understood the nature of her visits, so now Michelle had to clarify the boundaries he had overstepped. With “no-nonsense irritation,” she explained that what he’d written was “inappropriate.” She said, “I’m your teacher.”

Fortunately, Patrick got it. “He never crossed that boundary again.” [2]

Power Imbalances

As a chaplain, I have had to set similar boundaries. Though my visits with patients are not always deep and powerful, the intimacy of our dialogue can, at times, be soul-building. For some, when that relationship ends, as happens when a patient leaves the hospital, it can feel like an abandonment.

Perhaps that’s why men sometimes make sexual innuendos and women offer invitations for shared meals. They don’t want that moment to end.

Then there’s the disempowering nature of being a patient. When we’re lying in bed wearing a hospital gown and the professionals all wear uniforms and badges and carry symbols such as stethoscopes that show their importance, it’s hard to remember that we, too, have dignity and worth. We might try to right this imbalance of power by seeking reciprocity through light-hearted conversation or by showing off our expertise.

At other times, people just want a little companionship. Thus, when I arrive, they ask about my life or my opinions. They think they want a chaplain visit, but they don’t. What they want is a friend.

Teaching the Teacher

But, as we noted, professional relationships sometimes change. Parishioners or students or mentees can become friends with the one who has helped them. This can be done awkwardly, in a way that hurts people. It can even be abusive. Yet relationships evolve. Over time, they can almost turn into friendships.

Such was the case for Steven Strogatz and his high school calculus teacher, Mr. Joffray. A few years after he graduated, Strogatz started writing to his teacher, sharing math problems. He wrote in his book, The Calculus of Friendship, that he never said much to his ex-teacher about what was going on in his life. He didn’t even tell him when he got divorced and then remarried. He figured the rules of their relationship were that they did math together, and he maintained faithful boundaries.

But as his teacher aged and Strogatz started calling him Joff instead of Mr. Joffray, and especially after his teacher retired, Steven started to feel that “Joff and [he] were now fellow teachers.” [3] Joff began to confide in Steven, and Steven began to lecture Joff about calculus.

Yet Joff had always encouraged his students to explain math to him. Throughout his teaching days and in the letters he wrote to Steven, he humbly sought his students’ wisdom. He would ask how they might solve a particular problem, then show honest amazement at their wit and creativity.

Joff himself shared with Steven an anecdote of a time when he was at the classroom chalkboard, trying to solve a problem and clearly having difficulty. A student raised his hand and explained what the next step should be. Using the student’s advice, Joff was able to solve the problem. He praised the student and asked, “How did you come up with that?”

The student told him, “Oh, you showed me that last fall.” [4]

Teaching by Guiding

Had Joff truly forgotten how to solve the problem? I know sometimes I have brain freezes that leave me uncertain of information I’d known before.

Or had Joff paused intentionally, giving space for one of the students to step in and figure things out. The best teachers, they say, draw out from us what we already know, or they ask us the questions that allow us to work things out ourselves, or they help us uncover what appears hidden. In this way, over time, the student becomes the teacher. This works best when the teacher is self-assured enough to appear ignorant, to encourage, and to give the student the opportunity to be the one who knows.

To guide another by seeking guidance ourselves, or to invite another to discover her own answers rather than explain to her what we think is true, takes a special kind of teaching, mentoring, chaplaincy. I believe we can all learn to do this, but it takes learning. The effort is worth it, though, for when we do it, we help the student grow.

Mutuality of Caring

Of course, this doesn’t mean the student and the teacher will become friends, exactly. Though Steven visited Joff at his home a few times, listened to his stories, and shared his own joy with his career and his family, and though there was a mutuality of caring between them, there was not the equality we think of as part of friendship.

Yet professionals need friends, too. We need people with whom we can share the insignificant pieces of our lives, with whom we can play and relax and tell our stories. Sometimes it will be our turn to offer assistance, wisdom, listening, advice, but in a friendship, such giving will be reciprocated.

Sure, even with friends it feels good to serve, but that is not what friendship is about. We cannot always be the ones who are strong, who help, who know. In friendship, we receive not just by giving, but by revealing our weakness, by being vulnerable, by allowing others to care for us. This is the mutuality of friendship, and when we navigate it well, our friendships bless us and hold us and keep us as does nothing else.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Kuo, Michelle, Reading with Patrick, New York: Random House, 2017, 270.
  2. Ibid, 150.
  3. Strogatz, Steven, The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, 57.
  4. Ibid, 106.

Photo by Nqobile Vundla on Unsplash 

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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2 thoughts on “The Mutuality of Friendship

  • Anne Richardson

    Thank you Barbara for this thoughtful reflection on friendship and how navigating the intimate waters of chaplaincy, mentorship, teaching and other professional relationships can easily be blurred if one is not aware of boundaries. Water is fluid, so the relationship may morph over time in some instances, but that would need honest and open conversations and mutual agreement from both parties.

    • Barbara Stevens Post author

      Thank you, Anne.
      Good point that for such relationships to change would take honest communication.