Lesson 2: Professional Friends

Casino friendLast summer, I participated in a conversation that illustrates the current situation of friendship. A man sat down beside me and revealed he worked at the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas. When I asked what he did, he hesitated. “It is hard to explain,” he responded. “Many people can not understand. I am a friend.”

He then launched into what was at least a 20 minute soliloquy explaining his position. He has been in the gambling business for over 25 years and has seen many changes. The greatest and most disheartening have been those technology has brought. Everything is digital now; everything silent. There is no more machine noise, no more jingle of coins, no more sound of hitting the jackpot, and no more cheers at winning. Rather than loudly celebrating victories with those at the next machines, winners are more likely to text a friend across the room or even across the world.

“That’s where I come in,” he said. “I greet them at the door, talk to them while they play, and especially celebrate with them when they win. I am their friend.” He went on to explain the critical factor is time. His job is to make people feel at home, so they stay. “Everything is statistics,” he volunteered. “The longer people stay, the greater the house odds. You might not be aware that the success of the casino is more dependent on the little guy than the high roller. My job is to befriend the ordinary gambler.”

When I observed it sounded as if he is also a friend of the casino, he agreed. However, he quickly noted, the gamblers really appreciated his conversation and interest. And he went on to say most of the time he developed warm feelings for them as well.

This concept of a professional friend intrigued me, because I had been asked to be one about 45 years ago. At the time I laughed. “Professional friend” seemed an oxymoron. Now I was listening to a man professing to be one in a corporation that represents our society’s basic values. Things had certainly changed since I was asked by Loren Young to consider becoming a professional friend in a business he was establishing. Loren at the time was the chaplain of the Washington Redskins and a well-known Southern Evangelist. He had discovered many famous people with whom he associated, especially corporate executives, had no real friends. They had nobody with whom they could share their failures or their successes, no one to grieve or celebrate with them.

Loren felt most could not even count on their families. He spoke of being with celebrity types in critical care units of hospitals while their wives and children screamed at them for being uncaring. After the family left, the sick executive would inevitably begin sharing his deep concerns with him. So he planned to offer himself as a friend when needed. I would cover central Pennsylvania when he was busy elsewhere. If an executive at Hershey Foods needed a friend for a few days, I would be available– for a price.

At the time I thought this was vulgar. Today, I can see some would regard me to be a professional friend. I made money being religious. I was paid for being a friend to my parishioners. For that matter, many people regard their therapists, doctors, lawyers, and financial advisers as their friends. Television constantly reminds us we have a friend at the bank, the insurance office, the stock brokerage, and the car dealership. There are all kinds of professional friends out there.

Of course, this only makes sense when we think of ourselves living in an economic system rather than a local community. A system breaks everything down into specialized functions that fit its requirements and conditions. An economic system has no common good except raising the standard of living. It manages almost all of its needs through impersonal technologies rather than personal relationships. If friendship is to fit into the system, it has to have some economic value.

There is no doubt my acquaintance from the Flamingo Casino has what makes for success in our economic system. He is good looking, well spoken, and intelligent; qualities that served him well in passing, single function, casual relationships. However, the primary reason he wanted to talk with me was his failure in long term, multifaceted, close personal ones. He lamented that he has “lost” 3 wives, 2 fiancees, and 2 daughters. I was obviously speaking with a man who has tremendous trouble with traditional personal relationships but is employed as a professional friend.

Of course, this points to a great pain in our society as well. As we have been promoting values that work in an economic system, we have neglected those necessary for local community: steadfast love, faithfulness, trust, honesty, integrity, vulnerability, and self-denial. These are the topics examined in writings about traditional friendship that we shall examine in the coming lessons.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    I have been receiving many more responses to this series than usual. For some reason, they are being made face-to-face or in personal e-mails rather than comments on the site. A number of people responded to the first lesson by speaking of how friendships enabled them to grow. Those commenting on the second lesson talked about how thinking of themselves as a professional friend, something that had not occurred to them previously, had led to some new insights. Another moved the discussion to gender and romance, observing he notices men normally do not have many deep friendships with other men that span time. In his ever-colorful manner, he called these “Bromances”. He then went on to talk about the changed relationships between men and women, observing that an enduring human relationship with a wife/ husband/ significant other can be almost as good as the “infinite, timeless love relationship Christians have or try to have with Jesus”. He called these “JE-mances” I found most of these responses especially interesting, because they reflect what traditional treatments write about friendship. They, also, lead me to write something about friendship in modern marriages before proceeding to these classic works.

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