There’s a line at the end of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that has always bothered me. After he has just experienced an influx of generosity from the people of Bedford Falls, and while everyone is singing “Auld Lang Syne,” George Bailey picks up the angel Clarence’s copy of Tom Sawyer. The inside cover contains an inscription for George, which reads,

“Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

In one sense, the line valuably affirms the ultimate importance of relationships – something too often forgotten in an atomized world in which many view the cultivation of relationships as a distraction and a nuisance. Along this vein, my close friend (who tragically died in a car accident this past March) used to frequently reference a quote from Georges Florovsky that served as a maxim for his own life, and should serve as a reminder for us: “What shall pass from history into eternity? The human person with all its relations, such as friendship and love.”  

But the line from It’s a Wonderful Life can also be interpreted as containing a rather sad implication: that not having friends may be a sign that someone is a failure. Experience has taught me that at any given time, many people in the world do not have what they would call “friends.” They may have acquaintances who do not seem to quite fall into the category of friends, or they may feel utterly alone. Is it fair to classify these people as “failures”?

It’s true that not having friends can be partially or wholly one’s own fault. There can be personality flaws that act as obstacles to relationships with others, and unless they’re overcome, may be more likely to leave a person without friends. There are those who don’t make the regular overtures or communications necessary to maintain friendships. And there are those who do not place enough value on friendship. I suppose one could use the term “failure” in some of these cases, though I think compassion rather than condemnation is recommended.    

But a lack of friends can also be the result of circumstances. Obligations to family or work can leave some people very little time to cultivate friendships. When people move, the process of making new friends can take a long time, sometimes even years. Then, too, there are times in life when people are surrounded by others who do not share many of the same principles and interests, or whose personalities clash with their own. In these situations, one should always remain gracious and open to the possibility of friendship, but these relationships may not progress beyond the level of acquaintance.

It’s also the case that many friendships come to an end for either unknown reasons or as a result of human imperfections. On this latter point, those who have read the Bible may recall the lament of the psalmist: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has turned against me” (Ps 41:9).

Finally, we should consider that friendship has traditionally been looked upon as a gift rather than a guarantee. As C.S. Lewis exclaims in The Four Loves when describing certain moments with his friends, “Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?” There are virtues and behaviors conducive to friendship, but when you’re dealing with a matter of two free wills, there is no precise formula for manufacturing a friendship; there is an element of mystery to it. Just as we do not fully comprehend why friendships have blossomed in some cases, so we do not fully comprehend why they have not in other cases.

When it comes to the matter of relations with others, the most we can do is work on overcoming our faults, be giving toward others, be selfless, and remain open to friendship – that is a lot, and we can be happy doing it. If you have close friends, count it as a blessing; but if you don’t at any given moment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a failure.