It was getting pretty annoying: a friend in a foreign country only ever texted me when she needed help with her English homework. She was important to me, so at first, I was happy to oblige. After the fifth or sixth time, I began getting annoyed. Then, when I visited the country, I invited her to grab dinner with me. She accepted — but later reneged and never followed up. It hurt, but it finally hit me: I was “useful” to her. I served a very specific purpose in her life, and that was to help her with English homework.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes about three different kinds of friendship: friendships of virtue, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of utility. The first kind is the most noble kind: it is a relationship of pure goodwill in which two friends love each other out of, well, sheer love, rather than out of any ulterior motive. The third kind, these friendships of utility, are entirely based on ulterior motives to the point that they’re not ulterior anymore: they are the obvious foundation of the relationship.
The “friendship of utility” is, in some ways, the most painful. While we all benefit from these relationships — and all need help with our homework every once in a while — no one particularly likes being the “useful friend.” We all like thinking that we have value beyond the help we can offer in quantifiable ways.
What hurt the most was that she didn’t value the other things I could bring into her life as a friend. She didn’t want to spend time with me — she wanted to use me for the benefits that I could tangibly offer her and her grades. She didn’t want to share any of the laughter, community, or joy that friends often do.
We all do this, especially, and inevitably in the academic environment of Princeton. We all need someone’s help with a class; many of us have wanted passes at some time or another. But none of us like being on the other end. The knowledge that someone keeps me in their life for the sake of their English grade is painful because that precludes them from keeping me in their life for the sake of their happiness and meaningful social life.
As we enter the school year, it might be a good idea to reexamine our friendships and evaluate the purpose of each one. Are we friends with a particular person because of the joy they bring us or because they help our grades stay up? If it’s the latter, ask yourself how you would feel if that’s why someone maintained a friendship with you. Then imagine how your friend would feel if they knew that’s why you maintain a friendship with them.
After yet another plea for help with my friend’s English homework, I told her that her behavior was hurting my feelings, and that she and I both deserve to have more meaningful friendships than the useful one we were maintaining. She was hurt to hear me say that — but she also realized the truth in what I had to say. Our friendship isn’t back to what it could have been, but she also changed her attitude toward my presence in her life. I look forward to hearing from her now that I know she’s actually looking forward to hearing from me, too — especially since she now only occasionally asks for help with her English homework.
Leora Eisenberg is a senior from Eagan, M.N. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.