07/06/2011 12:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

Facebook Friends and the Cloud of Witnesses

Several months ago, I cleaned out the bedroom closet of my childhood home. The cleaning quickly morphed into a nostalgic walk down the road of now ancient communication methods. Granted there were no chiseled tablets or rotary phones, but my closet attests to my Gen X-ness. I am a person who for at least 20 years of my life lived fully in a world:

1) without cell phones (I spent half my high school years grounded for not calling when I was going to miss curfew),
2) without texting (we passed intricately folded notes between classes that could also be used as paper footballs),
3) without cell phones (long distance calls were anathema unless after 10 p.m.) and
4) without email (evidenced by the box full of mailed letters and postcards from summer camp and college).

As I opened each letter, each one a relic of friendships past, I relished the handwriting, the goofy drawings, and the snapshot of adolescent drama captured in each missive. I thought of each friend, patiently collecting his or her thoughts, finding paper and pen and envelope and stamp, and intentionally reaching out to me in conversation. Much of what was contained in those letters could easily be contained in email nowadays, but I feel no affection for email. I do for these letters. My eyes teared as I read letters from friends now dead, their scrawled printing a sacred testament to their unique existence on this planet.

These letters reminded me that for a time, friendship was something that ended. Once high school graduation commenced, or that job concluded, or that someone moved away, daily interaction ceased which caused the friendship to subside as well. Transitions were times of grief, because trusted friendships would change and be carried on only in memory. Even Aristotle, in "The Nichomachean Ethics," writes of how friendships, whether based in utility (work and school friends), pleasure (hobbies or passions) or genuine character (best friends or spouses), tend to cease when one friend is removed by a great distance.

And then Facebook arrived; a Gen-X form of friendship resurrection. And like the disciple Thomas who doubts the resurrection of Jesus and needs to see the details, the hands and feet and side of Jesus, to believe he is real, we scan our long lost friend's pages, marveling at their children, their favorite bands, how they have grown beards or now wear make-up, and wonder: Is this for real?

At first, I was shocked to behold the resurrected presence of friends from 10 to 20 years ago. For example, I'd think: Just yesterday we were in Mrs. Gooch's 5th grade gym class, you in pigtails, beating me at tetherball, and now you're a veteran and a country singer and have kids! How did that happen? Or, last time I saw you, you had cheated on me and broken my heart and I drove away in tears, and now here you are, a respectable citizen with a job and a child and a life that went on without me. I knew you would not crumple up and die after we broke up in college, but with your existence confined to my memory, I could believe that you did. But you did not. How did that happen?

Once the shock of resurrected friends wears off a bit, then the normalcy of having everyone you have ever known around each day settles in and thankfulness emerges. I realized that I would never have known the week to week journey of my friend's adopted child without her pictures and updates. It would have taken me years to learn of a friend's dad's death without her status updates. And, on a silly note, I would never have remembered some birthdays without the Facebook reminder.

Using Aristotle's classifications of friends, I will attest that many of my Facebook "friends" were friendships of utility or pleasure at one time, but perhaps social media can assist in allowing those friendships to develop into ones based on virtue and character, which Aristotle insists takes time and trust and love and mutual sharing.

But for the time being, as I scan the friends in my Facebook account I am reminded of the cloud witnesses described in Hebrews, and I am encouraged. In this life of love and loss, a cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our race of meaning and purpose is always a blessing:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race set before us..."

To read more on aging, death, and dying from Amy Ziettlow, visit