Foremost among my many blessings, (and perhaps the first to be taken for granted) are my good friends. I’ve got a lot of them. I know it’s been said that if you can’t count your good friends on just one hand, then perhaps you have too many. But it’s not true; I have far more friends than I can count on one hand.
This morning I started doing a bit of thinking about just what goes into the making of a close friend. I’ve broken it down to four key ingredients – I’m sure there are more… but hey, who’s got the time?
Honesty is a term we’ve heard since childhood. To many of us it’s nothing more than a buzzword. Our leaders have been mythologized for their honesty (or their lack of it.) The very concept of honesty has, I’m afraid, gotten lost. Just to refresh my own understanding I’ll spell it out as I see it:
Honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, being where and when you say you’re going to be, and crucially, admitting when you’re wrong. That last one is where we all have trouble. We make the mistake of believing that our friendships are predicated on our being smart, being proficient, being clever, and on being strong. We are deathly afraid of being anything other than totally right all of the time, and so to protect that insane image of ourselves, we are often less than honest.
The truth is that while we might be attracted to those aforementioned qualities in our friends, (the cleverness and the strength) none of them has anything to do with what makes a real friend. True friendship insists that we don’t distort reality. It requires that we clarify rather than obfuscate the world around us; that we, by our honest appraisals of ourselves, and others, help to order the burgeoning chaos in this ever more complex and ever more troubling world. A friendship is the antidote to falsehood. It’s honesty that provides a friendship with the space for our hope, our love, and our creativity to flourish.
As with honesty, respect is a word we hear bandied about each day without taking the time to truly appreciate its deeper aspects. Even though many of us would like to think we could act otherwise, respect is not something we can accord to strangers, at least not the kind of respect I’m talking about.
We can and should of course be, as the Boy Scout Handbook advises: friendly, courteous, and kind… but those are surface actions, perfunctory injunctions, which while necessary for the proper functioning of society, don’t come close to how real respect needs to play out between good friends.
Respects demands that we feel something of the sacred when we’re in each other’s company, something akin to a sense of wonder. After all, our friends occupy a very singular place in our lives; our friends are the ones that we choose. They become, through mutual volition, as close, and in many cases, even closer than family members. One has to respect that important power of humans to choose who they love. And through that power it’s as if we’ve said something sublime: “let us come together and share the joys and sorrows of our lives, let’s become this thing called – friends.”
This is as most of us well know, no small consideration. Notice too, that the respect I’m talking about here is not primarily a respect for accomplishments and distinctions, or for talents and awards, (though friends must surely learn to celebrate each other’s triumphs as well.) This kind of respect begins with an acknowledgment of the mutual gift that is being proffered. I propose that we examine the idea of holding in our minds, a respect for the very mystery of friendship itself.
Empathy is easy to talk about and very difficult to put into practice. It is by its very nature a state of mind, which contravenes a basic part of our humanity; our animal selves, our base selves, and our self-serving need to simply stay alive.
This primal and instinctual part of who we are is not a bad thing in any way, but because of its constant focus on ‘me’ rather than ‘you,’ it betrays the higher levels of humanity to which we must aspire. To be human is to subsume the survival instinct within the more lofty urge to allow others to survive.
This is where things become challenging and where friendships are often put to the test. To be as concerned with the welfare of a friend as we are with ourselves, requires a rewiring of our brains, a retraining of our minds and habits. It demands that we see the world less as a hostile place of paucity and more as a nurturing place where love and abundance can flourish. I’m aware that empathy of this sort is an ideal, something to grow towards, to reach for, and while we may never become totally empathic, perhaps we can at least, become mindful enough to judge whether we are on – or veering off – the pathway towards empathy at any given moment.
I once heard someone say of a person I admire, “Don’t make him out to be more than he is, he’s only human after all.” Taken in the light of what little I know about empathy, and what tremendous human-powers it takes to be truly empathic, I now feel more, rather than less in awe of this particular person.
I had been very angry with someone. Years had passed and I was still angry, still convinced that this person should have acted differently. Even after her death, I remained angry. About five years ago I visited her gravesite and had a bit of an epiphany. I began to see the anger I was carrying as a huge stone. I was standing at her grave in the falling light of a late summer afternoon and all of the sudden, almost reflexively, I let my hands go wide apart, as if I were pantomiming the dropping of this metaphoric stone.
The whole thing probably took me no more than ten seconds, but the image of this massive stone I’d been carrying, falling of its own weight, was enough to completely change my perceptions of this woman. Whatever anger I had fell away in that moment, (along my gaining a lucid sense of how insane it was for me to have needlessly carried that ‘stone’ for so long.) When I think of her today I feel that she did the very best she could. I have only feelings of love for her.
Forgiveness is an extension of empathy. If we truly feel for someone else, we surely understand that we too make mistakes, we too act out in anger, we too are overly self-protective. To say and to feel, “I see that quality in myself ” is the cornerstone of a lasting friendship.
To all my friends, old and new… I thank you for sharing this, (your only lifetime) with me.