Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Does it Mean to be a Good Friend?

A few years ago, in the wake of the tragedy of losing our first son, I had an overwhelming need to know I was not alone. 
I longed for comrarderie in my suffering, not to be coaxed out of my grieving or to be told everything would be okay but just have someone there. Someone fiercely available. 
Someone to listen when I was ready to talk and someone to laugh and play when I just needed to forget.

Maybe that was too big of an ask, or maybe we're all just flawed humans with good intentions that only get us so far. Either way, I didn't find the companionship I was longing for. 
I found bits here and pieces there, enough to keep me from completely drowning, which I realize is a gift in and of itself. But, most days I was still submerged in loneliness.
The irony, and the wounding of it all is that I came from a religious community that claimed to value a deep, life-sharing style of friendship. We made claims like, "We do life together," and believed we had come upon the truest form of committed community. We all had good hearts mixed with a lot of religious zeal. And because we were all so young, our values had never really been put to the taste, and thus, neither had our friendships. When the storms of life finally did arrive, the truth was hard to bear.

I watched as my youngest sister and her college friends, with no religious affiliations or moral claims about their community, supported one another and enjoyed one another. They showed up late at night when a friend was down, gathered to celebrate the good and memorialize the sad.  
All the while, I sat waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for those I was "doing life with" to show up and be true to their word. Some did, the best they knew how; others didn't seem capable of offering much more than empty religious ideals.
Since that experience, I have come upon many others who have felt similary "disenfranchised" by their religious communities, and others who were just genuinely dissapointed by friendships they thought would stand the test of time. 
We all share common wounds - a feeling that somehow the loss was our fault, a wondering if we were enough, a confusion that perhaps we were expecting too much, a haunting that we are alone in the world.

With this background, I have spent a lot of time asking, What does it mean to be a good friend? Although I would never claim to be an authority on the topic, my life experiences have lead me into plenty of contemplation and a lot of conversations on the theme. I have listened to friends and strangers share their own stories of woundedness and have sought to name what it is we are all longing for. 
When do we know someone truly loves us? When are we convinced we are not alone? What is it that makes someone a truly good friend?

1) Pleasure: A good friend enjoys you, and shows it. While this may seem obvious, in many religious communities, this step of "friendly attraction" is often skipped. Friends, first and foremost, need to like each other and enjoy each others' presence.
2) Follow-thru: A good friend does what she says she'll do. Nothing undermines a friendship faster than broken promises and empty words - which come in all shapes and sizes. Do you profess a level of commitment that your actions do not match? Do you call when you say you'll call? Do you offer well-intentioned help, but never really give it?
3) Empathy: A good friend delights in your wins & grieves with you in loss. Do you make a point of celebrating your friends' birthdays? Make a big deal of the "big moments" in her life? Do you stop and acknowledge your friends' pains, dissapointments, failed attempts and lost opportunities?
4) Sharing: A good friend shares. As a mom to two toddlers, I cannot count how many times a day I find myself exhorting my children to share, to take turns, to think about the other person. All great advice, and all essential to being a good friend. How good are you at sharing - your time, your resources, your words - with your friends?

5) Communication: A good friend expresses both her love and her frustrations. Communication in friendship is about developing a level of trust and openness that allow both parties room to freely express their souls without fear of judgement or retaliation. When was the last time you expressed, in words, what your friend means to you? Do you verbally affirm your friend? Do you hide your hurts and dissapointments from your friend?

6) Acceptance: A good friend embraces us for who we are. The other day I was venting to a friend about the meltdown I had earlier in the week with my kids. After casually sharing this story of locking myself in my room for a few minutes to calm myself, I realized what a gift it was that I could share this so openly and not fear judgement. Do you embrace their humanity, including their flaws and limitations?  Do you celebrate your friends' uniqueness? Do you harbor subtle judgements - critiques on how your friend lives or parents or believes?
7) Loyalty: A good friend shows up, again and again. One of the things I have heard over and over, and long for in my own life, is the yearning for a friend that shows up, even when it's hard. Good friendship should be fun, but it will also require sacrifice. Do you spread yourself too thin, making yourself unavailable when your friend needs you? Are you willing to sacrifice - your comfort, your time, your energy - for your friend?

8) Challenging: A good friend helps us grow. Nobody that is being truly honest with themselves wants a companion that is always a "Yes Girl." We want someone to call us out when we aren't being true to ourselves and to pursue life in a way that challenges us to do the same. Do you pursue your dreams? Do you encourage your friend to pursue hers? Do you speak up when think your friend is making a bad choice, offering your hand, not your judgement?

Nobody is going to be all these things, all the time. It's more than our humanity can accomplish. But, I believe we have grown far too comfortable with a mediocre level of friendship - in both the friendships that we offer the world, and the friendships that we expect in return.
We all need to know that we are not alone. And maybe that starts with the friendship you offer to the two or three people closest to you.

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