Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Diversity and Friendship

In Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” Dr. Rieux and Tarrou develop a close bond with each other while working tirelessly to combat the spreading disease in their town. At the end of a long day, they find themselves alone together on an empty terrace and Tarrou asks Rieux: “Rieux, have you never tried to find out who I am? Do you see me as a friend?” Rieux responds saying yes, they are friends, but amid all their work they have not yet had time to better understand each other. Tarrou asks, then, that they make this time on the terrace their “hour of friendship.” He proceeds to tell Rieux his life story, emphasizing the experiences that led him to this town and motivate him to combat the plague. For one fleeting hour, he tries to be seen by his friend.


Deep friendship, most would agree, is an extremely important source of meaning and support in our lives. It is something to be treasured. In college especially, when we have been plucked from our home environments and placed in a strange new world, we want to be understood. In this sense, college students emblemize the basic human desire to connect with others.


Stanford students are lucky to be at a very friendly place. Campus is, in general, a congenial atmosphere, and within a week at Stanford many of us make friendships that last four years and beyond. Yet despite being at a place that is conducive to friendship, students often feel alone. We see expressions of this in discussions in our houses and dorms, in mental health awareness efforts or perhaps when a friend unexpectedly takes a break from school.


When I try to reconcile this paradox between friendliness and feelings of isolation on campus, a few observations stand out: Students are extremely busy and our hyper-intensive lives can make it difficult to go beyond the surface in cultivating friendships. Students are also not very eager to share the difficulties we are facing with our friends: we are unused to failure, and often the last thing we want to acknowledge is having fallen short of expectations. But it also seems true that the tremendous diversity on campus poses an extra challenge for cultivating deep friendships.


This point is highlighted for me when I think of the experience I had during the summer after my freshman year volunteering in two villages in western Hungary. After three weeks in a village called Söjtör, I was in love with a place and a people. Part of me wanted to stay there, to belong. Why? One reason, I thought, was that Söjtör was a tight-knit community with a shared sense of identity, a place where mutual understanding developed organically. Through intimate connection in a rooted environment, my friends there found rich sources of meaning in their lives. Closeness came easily.


I found myself envying people who were materially less fortunate. Friends who have volunteered in remote places in other parts of the world—from Papua New Guinea to Ghana to Ecuador—have told me similar stories of communities with fewer iPods but, in my friends’ eyes, more meaning. I suspect many students can find similar examples even at home. To the extent that a diverse campus can feel isolating, returns home over winter break to families and communities with a common cultural identity remind us of what closeness without effort is like. When basic values are shared, mutual understanding does not require explicit curiosity and exchange.


Going to a school that aspires to be a microcosm of the world makes achieving deep friendships tough work. In this spiritual melting pot, knowing and being known isn’t easy. But the rewards of such intimacy are far greater. When we develop deep friendships with those who are different, we experience an irreplaceable exchange: we facilitate another’s growth and our own world is expanded. Sometimes this expansion comes when our unconscious prejudices are challenged. Sometimes it comes when a friend illustrates a preferable set of values or helps us shift our aspirations. In whatever form, these exchanges help us become our better selves. Deep friendship in the context of diversity is the richest, most rewarding kind.


But it usually takes more than an “hour of friendship.” In a diverse environment, the truest of friendships require trusting and sharing to be implicit and perennial. Whether we are happy or downtrodden, liberals or conservatives, privileged or from disadvantaged backgrounds, in all these ways and many more, meaningful bonds require being ourselves, and being seen.


This kind of friendship is the challenge Stanford poses to us when it deliberately admits a diverse class and deliberately diversifies our dorms and classrooms. For our own sakes, we need to consciously take that challenge up.


Send Aysha your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.

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