If friendship is indispensable to life, lots of people are in trouble. People have fewer really close friendships than they did a few decades ago, and the number of people who have no “close confidants” has increased dramatically, according to research cited by Brooks.
But most people don’t seem to require a great deal from a relationship to call someone a friend. Millions of people have “friends” on Facebook and other social media sites. People often reveal a great deal about themselves in frequent updates on these sites, keeping people they consider friends and confidants informed about their daily lives and giving each other feedback and attention with comments, much the way we do with in-person friendships.
Perhaps we haven’t moved far from ancient tribal behavior where lots of people in your life know everything important about you, and you know everything important about them.
An example: a childhood friend, Judy, writes on Caring Bridge, a website apparently for people with illnesses whose friends and family want updates about their recovery and healing. I have had almost no contact with Judy for over 50 years, yet I know much about her from reading her splendid, candid, and intimate reports about her recovery from surgery.
Judy can learn a great deal about me simply by reading the posts on this blog, and we have an exchange when she posts comments and I respond.
So, what is a friendship?
The word friendship is used so broadly to designate relationships we like that it is nearly useless.
I remember being referred to by the speaker at a conference as “my friend, Gary Stokes.” I barely knew him, had never talked with him accept to say hello in passing. We knew each other’s work, but we were not friends. The speaker used the word friend, I assume, to show respect. We were barely acquaintances, let alone friends.
I have always resisted calling someone a friend unless our relationship met some pretty high standards. For me, a friend is:
v Someone I know intimately. We have shared a substantial amount of information about the most important things in our lives with each other. We don’t have big secrets. We know a real person, warts and all. Our interests, values, and commitments overlap, so our intimate exchange is usually easy.
v Someone I love and who loves me. By that I mean we see the potential in each other and invest in that potential with attention, interest, and caring. Or we like each other a great deal and generally approve of each other. There’s a delight in friendship, a warmth and lightness of spirit. We feel lucky to have a friend, our lives blessed by this relationship, so we try to give as much as we get.
v Someone I like to spend time with. We may like to call someone from our past a “friend,” but we’re stretching the word if we don’t spend any time together anymore, even though we may maintain contact over the phone or by email occasionally. We remain “friendly,” but we’re not friends now that our lives have diverged from each other. Separated, it’s difficult to stay abreast of each other’s lives, difficult to sustain our old intimacy. We may hold onto our deep affection for each other, but it is based on what happened when we used to spend time together.
In the past, I’ve overestimated certain relationships in my life: I thought that we were friends, but through no one’s fault, we were just “friendly.”
Example: I was CEO of an organization for 25 years. Most of the top executives who reported to me remained working with me for the entire 25 years. I thought that at least some of them were friends. We ultimately knew just about everything about each other through thousands of conversations at work and after work. We grew and developed together, becoming national leaders in our field; we all benefited a great deal because of our relationships. We cared about each and respected each other. We spent off work time socializing and knew each other’s families.
But when I left the organization, those important relationships evaporated immediately. I was puzzled and disappointed. I finally had to admit to myself that my position as boss had shaped our relationships. I had to realize that my desire for a non-hierarchical relationship with my colleagues—my desire for friendship–was not possible to achieve. I was the boss, and my authority over my co-workers—however I tried to create a high trust relationship of equals—was a factor. Had I not been the boss, I had to realize, I would not have had thousands of conversations with my reports, we would not have spent countless hours together, and we probably would not have invited each other into our lives.
Sustaining a friendship requires a poised consciousness
I’ve had relationships that meet my criteria for friendship; we loved or liked each other a great deal, at least for a while. We knew each other intimately, sometimes. We spent a lot of time together, in some cases for years.
The friendships ended, not because we moved away geographically from each other, but because we couldn’t sustain a poised consciousness with each other.
Sustaining a poised consciousness when troubles arise in the friendship requires that we have erased our self-pity, our victim stories, our bad explanations for what is going on.
My former friends, including my former wives, and I didn’t really know anything about how our self-pity and victimhood distorted our understanding of challenges. We achieved real friendship some of the time, but at times of misunderstanding, lack of reciprocity, or tension, we sunk into self-pity and victimhood. Our victim stories always blamed each other for our anger, irritation, impatience, and resentment—emotions that eroded whatever friendship we had.
Once self-pity becomes a factor in a friendship, once we start blaming each other for our unhappiness, our lack of poise will endanger the relationship, making us wonder if we really share the same values, making us wonder if we really like each other, and diminishing our desire to spend time together.
If we lose our poise with our friend:
v we can’t stay present for each other. We’re thinking about past wrongs and we can’t get into the now, the only place we can work things out.
v we don’t feel connected. Upset and off balance, we lose faith in our friend and begin to have fantasies of flight.
v we don’t feel grateful about our relationship any more. Instead, full of dark emotions, we feel burdened by the relationship.
v we stop being creative. We’ve moved into the default mode of self-pity now and our bad explanation for what is going on makes it impossible to invent ways to revive our friendship. We’re stuck.
v we have become heavy and earnest. When our friend comes into our thoughts, we feel pain, hurt, and regret.
If we haven’t come to understand our self-pity (and most people have not), then it is almost impossible to revive a friendship gone sour. We may make a noble effort at renewing, but if we haven’t got down to the fundamental reason our souls have drifted apart, if we simply try to forgive and forget, our self-pity, victimhood, and bad explanations will return again, usually as soon as our next disagreement, misunderstanding, or disappointment occurs.
Our self-pity and victimhood, our bad explanations, our lack of consciousness, we now see, made a sustained friendship impossible.
Losing our poise, we did not have our love available, so we parted.
In the first place, the people we were drawn to a as friends were people like us—people who still felt sorry for themselves some of the time and inevitably blamed others for whatever troubles they were having.
Living in this murky level of consciousness, neither of us was able to rescue the friendship from collapse.
Instead of helping each other become more conscious when challenges in our friendship inevitably occur, we may compromise our feelings, keeping them hidden, pretending that nothing is bothering us in order to keep the semblance of a friendship alive.
But we will ultimately fail and our friendship will dissolve, each party hurt and disappointed, blaming the other for what has happened.
The great practical advantage of a poised consciousness
If we are fortunate enough to be warriors, men and women at war with their weaknesses, we have erased our self pity.
Now, poised when challenges occur in our friendships, we take full responsibility for creating the problem and look for the opportunity to learn.
When challenges in relationships occur, we know that we are creating our relationships. We don’t blame our friend. We don’t get angry, irritated, impatient, or resentful.
We don’t undermine our friendships by losing our balance, composure, or equanimity.
Instead, we engage with our friend to determine what might be going on. We examine together. We talk. Without ego, we seek clarity together, looking fearlessly at what might need to be changed in our friendship.
My own experience with this part of the journey is that my friendships improve dramatically. Poised, we talk about problems calmly. We enjoy the process. Usually we discover that the solutions come pretty easily to what we thought were big problems in our relationship.
Poised, we discover that we only need one or two high quality friendships.
A real friendship satisfies much of our need for human closeness.
Practically, we only have so much time, and we don’t have enough time for more than one or two close friendships, since sustaining a real friendship requires devotion of time.
At last I have the friendship of my dreams with my wife Mary. We have learned about our self-pity and victimhood together and have freed ourselves from it.
Our friendship looks to us like the most fortunate element in our lives.
Now, for both of us, other friendships have come to us—each of them with the same sex. I, for the first time in a long time, have developed a male friendship that I enjoy a great deal. Mary has created a close female friendship.
We also find that our social life has expanded, with a large group of friendly, warm, bright people in frequent contact.
In a concentric ring around our marriage and our key friendships are lots of people who are friendly. These friendly relationships are similar to a full-scale friendship, but are less intense in interest, time spent, and love exchanged. We value these very friendly relationships a great deal and invest in them continuously. Our lives are abundant in people we like who like us as well.
There is no limit to the friendliness created by a poised consciousness.
Poised, our love is available to us at all of the time. Poised, we cast a big net, making friendly contacts wherever we go.
We make sure to stay in touch with friends from the past now geographically distant. We make sure we are friendly to all of our dispersed family members, even if we rarely see them in person.
We offer our friendliness to the clerks who serve us in the stores. We offer our friendliness to neighbors we meet briefly at our rural mailboxes. We refuse our friendliness to no man or woman and attempt, like Gandhi, to take all human beings into our loving embrace.
Those closest in, our couple of friends, get the most of us—our love, our interest, our time.
But those few friends fuel our love for everyone.