Everything we see around us in the natural world is the result of relationships. Atomic and subatomic particles (source, right), the elements that construct all that we see, are ultimately the result of relational bonds–particles in relationship with each other. We humans, like many other life forms, are also connected externally and socially in relationship with one another–embedded in a meaningful network of relationships.
At early ages of development, we witness romantic bonds as one of the most visible and prominent forms of human relationship. We see couples kissing, walking, shopping, parenting. We see family as a committed relational connection between two or more people of blood or chosen tribe. At a young age, we begin to see that life is full of acquaintances that come and go around us–in the grocery store, traffic, and walking about. Teammates, classmates and colleagues are sometimes cut-off from the rest of our relational network as they interact with us in a situation-based manner, within the context of affinity groups and work.
Friendship is perhaps one of the more nuanced and rare relationships to observe in adults when you’re young and are observing how the world functions. We often experience it first for ourselves–friendship with others of similar socio-economic status, age and class–in preschool, daycare or playing in the neighborhood.
Flip open Wikipedia, and you will find a robust breakdown of human friendship throughout the lifespan. In one of the sources cited there, “Exploring Lifespan Development,” author Dr. Laura Berk talks about adulthood in particular. One of the more rare relationships in life is adult friendship.
“Cutting people out of your life is easy, keeping them in is hard.” ~ Walter Dean Myers
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” ~ Bob Marley
Our world has become less and less tribal. We are disconnected from our neighbors, families, and cities or towns of origin. We choose to spread our lives over spaces that are distant from each other–creating a patchwork of habits and relationships that are unique to us.
This self-made patchwork of life can sometimes leave little room for investing in everyday friendships.
I can’t say enough about how intersecting consistently with individuals that are very different from me–socio-economic status, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and more–has had profound impact on my life and way of being in the world. Highly recommended.
Dr. Berk talks about the benefit of friendship in adulthood. “…Friends in adulthood enhance self‐esteem and psychological well‐being through affirmation, acceptance, autonomy (permitting disagreement and choice), and support in times of stress (Collins & Madsen, 2006; Deci et al., 2006). Friends also make life more interesting by expanding social opportunities and access to knowledge and points of view.”
“A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.” ~ Maya Angelou
“In friendship or in love, the two side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
Viktor Frankl (left) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor (source). I’ll never forget reading his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” for the first time. He writes about what ultimately helped individuals to survive in the horror of what they experienced. He writes the below about a moment in his own experience.
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” ~ Vicktor Frankl
I remember vividly walking through the streets of Prato in the region of Tuscany, Italy with my friend and roommate Sofia (pictured right). This picture of her is one of many I took that day and posted here. “Friendship is the most important relationship in life,” she said with fervor and conviction (and far more eloquently than my memory can recall). I remember having a hushed respect for her words, though I knew I couldn’t say the same phrase so confidently myself at the time.
One of my life’s most impactful mentors, Steve Smallwood (pictured left with his incredible wife, Pam), once talked about friendship over the lifespan using a train analogy. Some relationships hop on for a stop or two, others stay on for the bulk of the ride, and some stay with you for the whole journey. Steve’s philosophy of friendship has served me well as I have consciously tried to apply it in my life, “holding relationships with an open hand”–not taking them for granted, trying not to force or control them, and holding them with appreciation, respect and wonder (even using those words and concept in the manifesto I recently wrote).
“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” ~ C.S. Lewis
One weekend in springtime, I found myself in Galway, Ireland walking along the waterfront with a photographer from Bellingham, Washington (he took this picture of me, right, the following day at the Cliffs of Moher). Hours (and days) flew by as we found connections between almost every element of our lives–serendipitous alignment of passions, lessons learned, and thoughts being wrestled through. When I was on my way out of town, I didn’t make a point to find Eric and say goodbye. I ended up catching a glimpse of him when heading out of the hostel. “You weren’t going to say goodbye?” I had made a choice I now regretted. In my quest to hold relationships “with an open hand” and appreciate them for what they were, I had under-valued and under-honored the gift of time and connection with Eric. My intention had been sincere in trying to apply the value of openness, but I had hurt someone that could have been a lifelong friend. I have tried reconnecting with Eric a few times over the last ten years, but nothing has come of it.
When I was heading east about a month ago, I sat next to Kelvin Westbrook on a plane to Chicago. This won’t be the only time I talk about my conversation with Kelvin. He shared so much with me from his rich life and learning in our short time together. Kelvin talked warmly about his family and how proud he was of his children. He kept speaking of his “friend,” and when showing me photos, pointed to the radiant woman beside him in a few of the shots, saying: “That’s my friend. My deepest and truest friend.” Tears came to my eyes as I deeply felt the impact of what he was sharing with me. He talked about how he had first met his wife and how beautiful their friendship was even from the onset of knowing each other–even now reaching over decades and decades.
Going back to Dr. Berk’s work, she shares that “Robert Sternberg’s (1988, 2000, 2006) triangular theory of love identifies three components—intimacy, passion, and commitment—that shift in emphasis as romantic relationships develop.” Sometimes friendship and passion construct a doorway to deep and lasting romantic love, and sometimes not.
My dear grandma, Adele, was quick to say: “Bob and I were never friends,” when talking about my late grandpa, George “Bob” (pictured right). Their relationship was built on partnership–working for the life they both dreamed in the west, and raising five children. Their connection to each other was one of love, and embedded in a web of friendship with individuals that supported their family life.
I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of labels. We get hung up on words like “friend,” “partner,” “coworker,” “acquaintance,” “classmate.” Adulthood is riddled with the dance between self-made categories in the patchwork of experience we have crafted for ourselves. What would happen if we more deeply valued friendship–wherever it shows up in our daily experience? What would it look like to truly appreciate the relational bond of love that friendship brings? How can we acknowledge, name and celebrate its existence? How can we invest in it? How much richer can our survival be–because of the love housed in friendship? Let’s try it out and see.
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” ~ Toni Morrison
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ~ Henri Nouwen
“No friendship is an accident. ” ~ O. Henry