An Ode to Friendship

Celebrating the Give and Take of Human Relatedness

Friends! – What would life be like without them?! How much poorer would it and would we be? Friends give our lives a sparkle and depth, they enrich our lives immeasurably. Friends share those special moments in our lives with us: Important experiences like the beginning and end of significant relationships, jobs, or periods of education, and life’s milestones like significant birthdays, marriage, births, and deaths. How much poorer is a visit to the movies, a café, the theatre, or a sports game without a friend?! Someone we can share our immediate experience and exchange our impressions with. We’re social creatures and have a need to share our life experiences with close others. Who better to do this with than someone we know and love and who knows and loves us?

Friends are part of our lives and know what’s going on with us. We share our worlds and internal experiences with them and they in turn inquire about what’s happening. And we have a strong emotional bond with them because of this intimate knowing. Friends provide a sense of being important to one another, they hold us in their hearts and minds. We know this when we haven’t got it: When we find ourselves in environments that feel strange and alien, amongst people we can’t relate to as they seem to come from a different planet, without any significant points of connection. Have you ever been longing for a friend? What exactly were you longing for? An ease of interaction with flowing conversation that makes time disappear? Precious times that make you laugh and feel good about being alive? A support in times of trouble or despair? A sense of comfort with someone that you know well and that knows you well? Someone that you have a shared past with that provides a sense of belonging, place, and safety? A sense that you’ve come home? A secure base, from which to venture out into the world? Someone that you can trust because you know that they accept you for who you are and look out for you?

I don’t have everyday contact with most of my friends, partly due to my own and their geographical movements and distances, but with all of them there is an ongoing sense of continuity and affection when we meet, no matter how long it’s been since the last time we met. There is a sense of intimacy and being able to pick up where we’d left off. To me, a life without these friendships would be a very deprived and poor life indeed.

Visiting friends and family in my country of origin recently I had a deep sense of feeling connected and being carried by these friendships. Travelling like this is a somewhat unusual experience as it involved going from one long-standing and close friend to the next, which in fact made it an exhilarating experience that I felt compelled to share with my friends.
What I had a heightened sense of and what I mean by the sense of ‘being carried’ by these friendships is a special sense of care, love, and support, of being known, and accepted for who I am. Of being able to share what’s really going on inside of me without worrying too much about how this comes across. It provides a warm and fuzzy feeling. All the things that families tend to be stereotypically known for but don’t always live up to. As the saying goes: We’re stuck with our family but we can choose our friends.

Different qualities of friendships
Having sung the praises of satisfying friendships, are they all and always like that? It is fair to say that there probably isn’t one prototypical kind of friendship but rather friendships are relationships with various degrees of connection and intimacy. In other words, friendships come in many different shapes and sizes and depend on our capacity, interest in, and willingness to form lasting connections.  Our friendships and their qualities are ultimately a reflection of who we are.  They often reflect our experience of past relationships: Have important relationships been a source of joy, hope, support, and trust for us or do we associate feelings of emptiness, tension and conflict, or abandonment with them?
Our personal circumstances also play a role: Single people tend to have different friendship needs compared to people in intimate relationships. We all have a need to be special to someone, and in the absence of an intimate partnership, friends can take this place. This can make us vulnerable to being displaced by new partners, and the pain and grief we may feel in such a situation can be intense and resemble that of a relationship breakdown.
Other circumstances that can determine the nature of our friendships can be about moving away geographically or getting very busy with other aspects of our lives such as work or other interests that absorb all of our attention. We may inadvertently lose touch with friends and lose sight of what’s important only to ask ourselves further down the track what has become of us and our friendships.

People have different expectations of friendships that go from knowing someone superficially, engaging in occasional activities with them and having a good time together to very close intimate bonds that resemble more the connection between lovers or ‘soul-mates’. The term refers to a very particular and special bond between two people. It is often a sense of deep knowing of the other, their essence, of being in tune, on the same page. I have had this experience in my own life. The connections had a strong sense of having known the person, of a strange, unexplained continuity, even though this didn’t make sense with regard to our current lives. It is quite a curious experience that many people have.

Then there is spiritual friendship, which may in fact encapsulate the essence of true friendship if there is such a thing. Spiritual friends share a particular kind of connection, which sometimes goes with the strange sense of continuity mentioned above. It is often experienced as very ‘deep’ as it involves a very intimate part of ourselves, which we tend to share with only very few people. It encapsulates a fundamental orientation to life that is about life’s meaning and purpose. A sharing of such values often goes very deep, even though this may not necessarily reflect a strong bond in other, more external characteristics of our lives and our personalities.

Some people’s friendships tend to revolve exclusively around group activities, whilst others prefer one-to-one contact. We may like to hang out, go out and have fun with friends, and enjoy their company because they’re fun, witty, deep, interesting, stimulating, or entertaining. Usually, contact with them makes us feel good. Given that friendships are voluntary connections, unlike family or work relationships, it usually is a positive quality that maintains the bond. Sometimes a friend may have an attractive quality that is lacking in us, or, alternatively, reflects one of our own that we prize. We tend to share important characteristics and interests with the people we count as friends: Hobbies, political/ideological/ philosophical views, occupations, economic or general life circumstances, where we live, life events like a shared past, or a significant event like a birth or having emigrated to a new country.

An interesting experience that many people are familiar with is when friends from different parts of our lives come together for events in our lives like birthday parties. The different groupings essentially manifest our internal world and its various aspects for everyone to see, and sometimes the groupings don’t go together. This makes some people anxious about bringing their various friendship groups together for such events.

Some friendships can be light-hearted and to some extent non-committed whilst others are highly committed, involve daily contact, and an intense sharing of personal experiences that are sometimes exclusive to a particular friendship. They can resemble the nature of a partnership without the sexual aspect. We may reveal aspects of ourselves to friends we would never reveal to our life partners and discuss with them difficulties we may have with our life partners before we discuss them with our actual partners.

When things get tough …
So is a sense of positivity and happiness, a certain kind of ‘feel-good-factor’ the hallmark of friendship?  What happens when we’re not doing so well, are feeling low or down? Do we just avoid our friends for fear of being too much of a burden on them? Indeed people report such sentiments and behaviours. There is something unsightly and unsocial about feeling out of sorts, and some people prefer their own company to being with others. This can be due to the expectations that people have about social situations: They’re not usually places that encourage us to reveal personal details about ourselves and our lives, especially when they’re considered to be negative.

Having said this, the saying goes that ‘we find out who our real friends are when we go through crises’. When the chips are down, we’re not at our best and don’t look terribly attractive as a friend, the people who stick by us despite this usually turn out to be the ones that we can count on and trust. Some friends and friendships can be lifelines that help us through our darkest moments. Going through an awful experience with a friend on our side can make a profound difference to the experience: It can actually make it bearable. When everything around us is collapsing, the connection with a true and trusted friend can be like the light of a ship at night in the endlessly black ocean. Later on, the friend’s loyalty and support tends to be seen as a sign of real friendship that has stood the test of time. Usually these kinds of friends are in the minority and often some painful shedding goes on during such times. They are sometimes accompanied by great disappointments in people we thought were our friends, we thought we could trust and that would stand by us but didn’t live up to our expectations.

Then there is the issue of being in conflict with our friends. Conflict in friendships raises the questions ‘how important are we to one another, is it worth my time and effort to work through it, and are we able and willing to work through it?” Depending on the outcome, this can be a very painful and disappointing experience, and many people have had experiences of this nature.
The ABC Radio National programme ‘Life Matters” (May 29 2013, June 7th 2013) and the Sydney Morning Herald Supplement ‘Good Weekend’ (May 2013) recently had programmes/article on friendship and friendship breakdown, which in part discussed the painful experience of being dumped by close friends, often without explanations. A number of people described this as being similar to the end of a partnership.

In Conclusion
There is a multitude of different aspects to friendships. Friendships are important in many people’s lives, and not having any friends is somewhat of a social stigma. At the same time, our degree of connectedness depends on what’s important to us and our past experiences with relationships. Different friends and friendship groups meet different needs within ourselves. Nevertheless, being the social creatures that we are, friends can make our lives meaningful and worthwhile, whilst at times also making our lives miserable. Like with most things in life, there are dark and light sides to friendships. They can fill our lives with great joy, meaning, support, and a sense of connection but they can also be a source of great pain, grief, sorrow and disappointment. What it is for us depends on who we are and what we are willing to put into relationships in our lives.  This sometimes includes examining ourselves and what we bring to a given situation. Having said this, it is also important to acknowledge that there are factors outside of our control, and what goes on for our friends can sometimes be unpredictable and intolerable, and occasionally unknowable. Friendships take part in the big give and take of human relatedness with all the complexities and contradictions that this entails.

Posted on 01 August 2013 in - Temenos Journal - Friendship

Stefan Durlach

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