The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend. – Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of friendship. What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to have friends? When do the people in our lives go from being acquaintances to much more? How is it that sometimes our friendships are no longer? Who would we be without them?
These questions have been playing in the back of my mind because of two particular friendships that have affected me in very different ways. Through one, I learned to let go; through the other, I learned to open up.
It wasn’t until we’d known each other for a few months that we tried to figure out how we became friends. She claimed it was a discussion we had about our childhoods but I really can’t pin it down. I remember that conversation and I remember a warm glow, a sense of excitement wrapped in a feeling that yes, this was right and good.
We remained close even when I moved away. We’d Skype every so often and remained aware of what was going on in each other’s lives. We shared secrets, as friends do, and that made it easy to continue on like nothing had ever happened once we were back in the same city.
The change was gradual. Looking back, I can see the writing on the wall. I can see the distance and the vagaries, the inconsistencies and the preference for other people and other activities. Our interests diverged, which happens, and our friendship faded into memories or got caught up in other pursuits. There are only so many times I can reach out before I’m spent and need to let go to stay afloat.
As Nel Noddings has so eloquently written, there’s a difference between caring for and caring about. Caring is relational and caring for requires two parties; caring about, on the other hand, does not require the knowledge of the second party. I have learned to let go of caring for but refuse to give up on caring about.
Like caring, friendship is relational. Sometimes those relationships end and we don’t always know why. But caring doesn’t have to end. Caring about others on the basis of their human-ness, when that’s all that’s left, is simply the right thing to do.
Two people have told me I’m guarded. They’ve both been right, though only one took the time to find out why. To take down walls, he said, because he wanted to understand what they were and why they were there.
This friendship blossomed over time and then suddenly washed over me, immersed me in something so natural I don’t know how I ever failed to see it. There was a shift one day and we’ve both looked back to recognize it.
There developed a mutual wish to spend time together, a wish first uttered tentatively and then with growing confidence. I found myself laughing a lot, remembering a lot, sharing stories of who I was and what had shaped me. I shared my hopes and dreams, curiosities and fears. I found myself wide open, vulnerable, and free.
And I listened, too, which is probably the thing I do best. I asked questions and I learned. Life through the eyes of another has always been compelling to me.
Responsiveness made all the difference. Even with disagreement, there was a shared attempt to understand the other’s perspective. The idea was not to be right or prove a point but to look at the world with more nuance and complexity. Discussion came from a foundation of unconditional love and trust.
And I found myself wide open.
It takes time to rewire the brain to behave differently. We were patient with each other because openness was simply the only answer, the only way to be. I watched myself become a better person because a friend had taken the time to show me that I could be.
Our relationships take many forms because we are complex and have many needs. Friends are part of our journey, part of who we are.
Like many people, I have friends I’ve known for most of my life and friends I’ve just met. I have friends who I can call crying and friends who reappear when I least expect them. I am very lucky to have friends who are there for me without question, who know me well enough to slap me around when I’ve done something irresponsible, and who wait with open arms once I’ve figured myself out.
Once upon a time, three friends saved me. I will be forever grateful for that.
Nothing lasts forever and friendship is the same. Friendships wax and wane, draw closer and yet seem so far away. Like seasons, their tastes, textures, and scents can change, sometimes very quickly. Sometimes we gradually slide in and out of our friendships, holding hands or drifting away, not knowing where we begin or end. And sometimes we crash, sometimes into each other and sometimes into a door that has closed. Sometimes our knocking goes unnoticed.
And yet I wouldn’t choose any other way. As much as anything else, my friendships have made me who I am and taught me about the type of friend, the type of person, I want to be. We do not walk this life alone.
I am better for having called you a friend and for being a friend of yours in return.