At a graduation this past May, I heard a remarkable talk on friendship. The person who spoke was in his mid-fifties. He had lost a close friend and colleague earlier in the year. Rather than talk about politics or the future, which is common for graduation speeches, he talked about a lifelong friendship. He began with a quote from Montaigne, ‘If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.’ He went on to describe the obvious differences between himself and his friend. Differences of race and class were among them. Despite their differences, they had both ended up teaching at the same, well- respected private high school where they met.
He enumerated some of the qualities of that friendship, citing laughter and learning from the thoughts and experiences of the “other” as very high on the list. He said that talking with his friend were among the moments in his life when he felt most alive. He encouraged the young graduates to maintain and nurture their friendships.
I too have been thinking about friendships for the length of my life and recently went through some hard, yet wonderfully growthful exchanges with two or three friends. I believe that my expectations of friendship may be far higher than many, but may hold clues to what many of us are looking for.
Here is the story of one friendship that felt so hurtful that I thought it was over, and then it revived.
It wasn’t the deepest of friendships but there was a good feeling between us. I always felt glad to see him and felt welcomed by him at our community garden where we were part of a team. The feeling of friendship extended beyond the weekly harvest; several invitations were exchanged between him and me for activities outside the garden. Then a day came when he said something about a holiday meal and I had the nerve to ask if my husband and I could join him and his wife.
He responded with “I’ll have to ask her and I’ll get back to you.”
His response rather shocked me, because I was so sure of the friendship and because, in my mind, if someone had asked me to add them to a Jewish holiday meal, I would have been delighted and would have said “yes” immediately. I felt like I was Elijah, the stranger, but for some reason, not welcome at the table. I felt very sad and disheartened.
I was so unhappy that I could not go back to the community garden for several weeks. Finally, I had to go to the garden and he was there. He saw in my face that something was wrong. We took a walk and I told him how hurt and disappointed I was and how shocked. He told me what was going on his mind when I asked: that his wife had said that very morning that she felt unable to host the special holiday meal, even for a small family gathering. He felt bad about his response to me but was not able to do better. He admitted that he was not very good at communicating sometimes. He said he could understand how hurt I felt. That helped.
I could see that I put him on the spot and put him in a difficult position. I could feel his regret about what happened between us and his relief that we were talking this through.
This conversation was immensely helpful in healing my feelings. I felt heard and I was able to acknowledge his side of the experience.
Another instance of a problem with a friend also had to do with communication. There were some exchanges between us about getting together and then a drop off. Several days went by and nothing. Then, I saw an email to a group which included me, but nothing to me. That she had time to write the group, and not me, hurt. We then saw each other and made a plan to get together. While we were visiting, I opened up and said that while I felt in my heart that we were friends, the lack of communication unsettled me and made me feel unsure. I told her that I had wondered to myself if there was something I had done that had gotten her upset with me. I told her that my tendency was to criticize myself. She said, “Oh, no, no, no.” She told me her sister has cut off communication with her because of a similar problem of her not responding.
At the end of our visit, she said that I was like an angel as I had helped her to remember the importance of staying in touch with friends and family. That felt good to hear. It countered my tendency to self-criticize. It made me feel as though I had not spoken out-of-hand.
These two experiences make me feel good in retrospect. That both of my friends were willing to discuss what went wrong between us has opened the door to further friendship.
I feel elements of my experiences provide important clues to genuine friendship, and to overcoming isolation. I have noticed that, for me, the sense of connection and trust can easily be broken by lack of communication and personal honesty and being willing to express my real feelings and listen to the experience of the “other” makes all the difference.
Both of these experiences have made me value my life partner more. We are continually navigating our differences of opinion and approach, with all the things life throws our way, and we usually are able to come to a place of agreement and respect for each other, having heard the thoughts of the other.
I consider this relationship to be one of deepest friendship. As the graduation speaker said: He is he and I am I. Yet the more clearly and the more often we communicate, the better our friendship grows. This quality of relationship is something we can all grow to have.