Walk with wise men and you will become wise,
but the companion of fools will fare badly.
My mother always wanted to know who my friends were, and kept constant watch. “I don’t want you to fall in with a bad crowd,” she would say. I protested: she was not giving me credit for good sense, she didn’t think I could recognize a bad lot. Since then, I’ve seen many parents have a similar battle with their kids. Once, a parent did intervene, forbidding her son to play with a particular group of other boys in the neighborhood. That didn’t work: it just made the forbidden playmates all the more interesting. After another year, the family moved to a different part of town.
Human beings, at least Americans, usually believe that they are immune to outside influence. We tell pollsters that we don’t pay any attention to TV commercials, but our clothing and gadgets reveal that we’ve succumbed to this year’s fashion colors or the latest techno-toy. We think we’re immune to influence.
There are people who are attracted to folks who take risks, scorn rules, act bad, and push people around. Anyone who teaches has noticed that, even in a large class, the three people with the poorest study skills manage to find each other and band together. If the friendships last, people often find themselves going along with activities, or performing behaviors, that they previously avoided.
There’s solid evidence for the impact of good friends, too – not only in research, but in everyday life, if we watch for it. One semester, I had 4 members of the college hockey team in my statistics class. In spite of a heavy schedule that included missing class to travel to away games, all four of them maintained a straight A or A- record through the entire season – even going to the playoffs. When the season ended, three of them kept studying together as they had on the travel buses; the fourth didn’t hang out with the team anymore. Three of them left the course with some type of A grade, but the fourth – in spite of all his good grades at the beginning – averaged them down to a C+ by the end of the semester.
This little snippet of a proverb at the start offers us both the hope of gaining wisdom and the warning about watching our lives go astray. Sometimes we just fall in with people because they are there – rather than actively looking for people whose companionship will help us grow in wisdom. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a wish fulfilled is a tree of life.