“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
– Helen Keller
Friends! They shape our lives, whether we realise it or not. From an early age, our friends play a crucial role in developing our sense of self. Friends help tell the narrative of our lives. Friendships make the world a far more beautiful place. Friends provide a safe haven, a sounding board, a reality check, comfort and a true sense of belonging. Friends make us better people. Friends, of course, can also make us miserable.
As an only child, friends played a most important role in my life and relational development. Now that I have reached half a century, friendships have become even more integral to the way I want to do life. There has been much study and research devoted to the friendships of children and adolescents, but not nearly enough on the friendships we hold as adults. As fully grown humans, who have lived on this planet for a few decades, we don’t just enter friendships from a void. Rather, we take into them a suitcase full of our own history, ideology and expectations of what it means to have and be a friend. No wonder friendship can be perplexing at times.
So as I reflect on this most important aspect of friendships and how they play a pivotal role in human existence, here are some thoughts:
α. Not all Friendships are the Same
Some of my friends and I shared a meal recently. As I looked around the table at my eclectic and diverse group of friends, whom I love so dearly, I realised how fortunate I was to have these people in my life. Each of them come from very different backgrounds, their worldview has been shaped by a myriad of different life experiences, they hold different paradigms and ideas on various issues (some with great passion), and they all express themselves very differently.
We relate differently to different people. I do not hold my succinct, at times cutting, debate-style conversations, with my sensitive-soul friends. It has nothing to do with being ‘real’ or not. Rather, we learn to respect and understand that our friends communicate in different ways. Communication manners can threaten some people. For example, I find passive aggressive modes of communicating extremely stressful. Others stare in fear and wonder when our family unleashes in its loud opinion-slanging fest.
To love and be loved in friendship we come to the mature recognition that each of our friends are different. This difference is reflected in our expectations, relational and communication style, and in the depth of relationship we have fostered over the years. Each friend you have is different, so are the friendships you foster.
β. Imaginary Friends are best suited if you want Perfect Friends
I would hate to think how many times I have been just one giant ball of disappointment to my friends. To be human means that we can be loving, supportive, kind friends, AND we can fail spectacularly at the same time. The point is, if we are expecting perfection out of our friends and trying really hard to control their behaviour in the friendship space, it might be best to find that imaginary friend from our childhood days. The real ones won’t meet our expectations. Unrealistic expectations can put tremendous pressure on friendships, as can a refusal to simply accept that we will fail our friends and they will fail us. Gratitude for the beautiful and imperfect gift of friendship is a marvellous antidote for the silly notion of ‘perfect’ friends.
γ. Not all Friendships last Forever, not all Conflicts are Resolved
In saying all this, it is important to consider any relationships that are toxic: Anger, Judgement, Selfishness, lack of Empathy, Betrayal are some of the harmful ingredients that destroy relationships. We all exhibit these traits from time to time. However, when they are bound to how a person operates and relates, resulting in them refusing to acknowledge how this is hurting others, we have to take time to contemplate how, if at all, we continue to navigate that friendship.
Dysfunctional traits often lead to conflict in friendships. Conflicts are normal to any relationship. If, however, there is no recognition of the ‘shadow side’ that plays into friendship, no forgiving or seeking forgiveness, no humility and respect, then it becomes extremely difficult to resolve serious conflict. As much as we should keep an open heart, bent on reconciliation, perhaps the most difficult of all is to recognise when a friendship has run its course. Not all friends are forever. We bless what we had. At times we have to let go.
δ. Be a Generous Friend
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil
Generosity has to do with heart and attitude. It is our ability to connect deeply with our friends, with a spirit of hospitality, kindness and support. It’s learning to really listen. The generous gift of taking the time to hear the other, to reflect back their pain, joy, frustration, fear, in a manner that shows that you have listened beyond the words, is truly one of those remarkable measures of friendship.
To live life connected with friends, to share our lives and hearts, has to be one of the greatest gifts we hold as the human family. Money or possessions can never substitute for what it means to love and be loved – the sacred space between kindred heart cannot be bought. Treasure your friends.