I have a recent need to understand friendship.
I have always considered myself too lean in the area of close friends, until recently (in my 30s) I realised that I have many close friendships that are flourishing! If I were to introspect on why, this is most likely due to a higher level of self-acceptance that I have gained in recent years, which is probably reflected in the understanding I exhibit to my friends.
Nevertheless, the number of people in my life who I consider close friends have grown, and the rational thinker in me is inspired to reflect on this a bit.
So, I Googled the word “friendship” and was quite confused after this exercise.
Being a good friend to someone has traditionally always been glorified as a virtue. And yet, all the definitions I found on friendship didn’t highlight what it means to be a good friend, rather, only what a good friend means to you. For example, “friendship is the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful friendly hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping and, with a breath of comfort, blow the rest away.”
What is lacking in these descriptions is that they are one-dimensional. They define an approach to friendship from one person’s point of view. My point is, what if you feel this way with a person, but the person doesn’t necessarily reciprocate your feelings with the same level of intensity? Can you still consider this person a close friend and call on him for camaraderie or in time of emotional need? I found the dictionary definition to be the most fair and inclusive:
friendship.n.: affection arising from mutual esteem and good will
I can think of lots of people who stir such affections in me, and I would consider them to be friends, but is that enough to call on them? I don’t think so.
There exists a paradox about the genuineness of friendship that will last. What I mean is that most people will define a close friend as someone who “was there for them in time of need.” I strongly disagree with this concept on the basis that in times of strife people respond to other people’s needs out of humanity—one would reach out to help strangers or acquaintances just as often as friends. Luck has a big part to play in where you find what you need when in trouble. Although one can turn to a good friend in these times, you may get what you need from a perfect stranger who you happened to meet rather than your friend. That person is ordained to fulfill your need at that point in time without any expectation of construing it as the basis of a lasting friendship.
When I was going through a particularly tough phase in a relationship, I was sitting at a coffee shop and was approached by a stranger who picked up on my low mood and sat with me for a half-hour discussing the importance of detachment. Several times in the next couple of weeks, we met to have discussions over coffee and as my mood lightened, I found that he had served his intention in helping me see things in a different light. He then tried to encourage me to pursue the path of faith through religion and I began backing off. That was more or less the end of that relationship.
Did it serve a purpose? Yes. Did it go sour? Not necessarily. We just discovered that when not in need, we had less in common and we drifted.
So, if a “friend in need” is not necessarily “a friend indeed,” who is a friend indeed?
Is a friend someone with whom you can have fun and share good times? Often, we may get attracted to people and become friendly with them only because they are so different from us. They may be from a different culture, different economic status, and in many ways, an antithesis of ourselves—which may be what attracts us towards them.
Then there is the respect factor in friendship—what if I hold someone in “high esteem and good will” and therefore can’t completely be myself in their company? This is a specific situation where age and seniority in life defines relationships. My husband’s friends inspire such awe in me and I know they like and admire me, but is that enough to consider them my friends too?
There is an element of “being needed” that underlines a good friendship. You may have fun with someone, and respect and admire them, but they may not need to turn to you for advice or a need to share. Not because they don’t want to, but because those needs are already satisfied elsewhere. Can they still be considered your friends? When do you know that you can turn to these people for advice and they will not judge you for it? How does one know this for sure without putting it to the test? And further, is it okay that you may need them more often than they may need you?
What I know for sure is that there is comfort in having a good friend. There is a lowering of your guard with a high degree of trust that your friend will hold your intentions safe and tolerate your idiosyncrasies without criticism. In short, the need to be at your best behavior is diluted when you are with a close friend. Automatically, we are able to see the humor in each other’s uniqueness. It’s often similar to the understanding that comes about in a long marriage.
Having said all this, I wonder if the concept of being a good friend is glorified like in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. (A brief history on these characters and their friendship is narrated well on this blog site.)
Karna stood by Duryodhana till the very end, even though he often disagreed with him in principle. He was a perfect example of a textbook friend and has therefore been quoted frequently. Friendships like these are rare—what is rare is the balance of reciprocity in them. Duryodhana stood just as steadfastly by Karna at every stage in his life.
As is often the case, most of life’s answers you are searching for have already been found by others. I find this to be appropriate in this discussion on friendship too. Therefore, I feel fairly safe to turn to the stereotypes and take comfort from them knowing them to be tried, tested and true.
So here’s my two cents worth of wisdom:
Life can be just as much fun with lots of acquaintances, links and chains with a myriad of people who are in your life for a reason or a season. To make lasting friendships with them is up to you. If you choose not to out of a sense of self-preservation and fear of rejection, you may have lost the opportunity to secure a good friend.
It doesn’t matter whether your “best” friend also considers you to be his best friend. We don’t need to weigh each friend’s value in life’s unbalanced scales—the weight of our own expectations will just throw them out even further.
Author: Madhuri Kudva
Editor: Catherine Monkman