“I shall come again, for I like myself when I am near you.”1
Sometimes I think back on the darkest moments of my life so far, and I realize that they have always found me alone. Somehow, the same conditions that threaten to engulf me in the deep bowels of despair do not seem quite as menacing when my friends are with me. And I do not simply mean that I feel better when I am surrounded physically by people – I don’t like most people I encounter. I mean that when a friend is present physically or over the phone or in a letter or in a souvenir, I am given an extra reserve of buoyancy that I may not have managed on my own.
Some people describe my tendency to be apart by saying that I am “independent” or “strong” – implying that I do not need other people. This is not quite true. I think it is fundamentally important to be my own person, not to be controlled by other human beings, so that my life is not wholly dictated by someone else. After all, each person has their own life to deal with, and there is no reason why other people would know what to do with my life when they haven’t quite got theirs together. Moreover, human beings are at best flawed, and at worst, downright evil. I don’t think it is wise to give them too much clout in the government of my life. Despite all of this, I maintain that everyone needs at least one friend, even the most “independent” of people. We need friends. Maybe not all the time, but there are times when a good friend is more valuable than all the gold, oil and food we could ever lay our hands on.
You see, sometimes we fall, or we get weighed down. It is the supreme task of life to learn to pick our own selves up at times like these. This is how we become “strong”. Yet, some things are simply too heavy for one person. Friends help us carry our burdens when we no longer have the strength to do so. They encourage us, reassure us, comfort us, and make our lives that much better with their presence.
“What makes friendship such a wonderful gift is that it blesses you just for being who you are.”
I remember how I made my very first friend. I was nine years old in primary school, and I was having a rough time with my class teacher. She had some kind of inferiority complex and she always assumed that I was mocking her in some way, even when I was completely silent in class. One day, she sent me out of the classroom to kneel down in the corridor for the duration of her English class. I can’t remember what the supposed reason was, but I doubt it mattered. She seemed to relish the power she wielded over me as class teacher. I had been kneeling for about 15 minutes when a student came out from an adjacent classroom, on an errand to find a blackboard duster. She looked at me kneeling and asked who’d punished me. I told her. Then she said “sorry” and went on her errand. A few minutes later, she re-emerged from her classroom to return the duster she had borrowed from another teacher and found me still kneeling. Instead of returning the duster, she made a detour to the science lab. After a moment, she came out, and not far behind her was the science teacher. He approached me and asked what happened to get me punished. I told him. He went into my classroom, said a few things to my class teacher, then returned and told me I was free to go in. By this time, the other student, A., who’d intervened on my behalf had returned from her errand and smiled and waved at me as I entered my classroom. I blinked back tears; it had not previously occurred to me that I mattered enough for anyone to show me such kindness. It may not seem like a big thing to anyone else, but to me it was huge. Before that day, I had seen A. around the school, but I’d never really talked to her (not that I talked to anyone really). After that, we became friends. Fourteen years later, we still are.
“A friend hears the song in my heart and sings it with me when my memory fails”
-PIONEER GIRLS LEADERS’ HANDBOOK
If I am indeed strong today, it is partly because I had friends who believed I could be. I don’t think it is possible to overestimate the extent to which the love and support of my friends has kept me going when I had little else to run on. And so it breaks my heart to see how flippantly some people treat friendship. Take the term “friend-zone” for instance. It is a contemporary phrase used to imply that one is disappointed and frustrated because one’s relationship with a person is “stuck” in mere friendship and has not “advanced” to dating (ie, a sexual relationship). Because if you’re not sleeping with a person you happen to be attracted to, then any time you share with that person is wasted. Or as Nelly Furtado put it:
Flames to dust, lovers to friends,
Why do all good things come to an end?
Funny enough, a few of my friendships began with physical attraction. I felt pulled as if by a magnet toward certain people whom I didn’t know well except for what I initially saw. The more time I spent with them, the more I discovered, and the more I wanted to know. And when I knew them well, I was glad that I did.
When I hear people say of former friendships “the friendship ran its course”, I am puzzled. Friendships are neither horses nor greyhounds that run around a track and cross the finish line. If a friendship ends, it is because one or both people stop trying. Since I do not make friends easily, I try to keep the ones I already have. Like everything else good in life, friendship requires effort. Maintaining a friendship is like cultivating a rose garden – only it takes two people to cultivate it. If one person stops holding up their end, then the roses wither, the friendship dies.
Let your acquaintances be many,
But one in a thousand your confidant.
When you gain a friend, first test him,
And be not too ready to trust him
For one sort of friend is a friend when it suits him,
But he will not be with you in time of distress.
Another is a friend who becomes an enemy,
And tells of the quarrel to your shame
As much as it is important to appreciate friends, it is equally important to know who your friend is and who he is not. Last year, a “friend” had no qualms about lying to me over a prolonged period of time about something that concerned me intimately, and when I confronted him with his dishonesty, he proceeded to use things I had told him in confidence against me. So I closed that chapter of my life and ended that friendship. It hurt, but it was a necessary hurt. Dishonest people are bad news, especially the ones that play mind games.
After that episode, I withdrew into myself, as is my wont. I began to inwardly question all my other friendships and wondered how many more might blow up in my face. But then I realized that by letting myself think this way, I was letting this one false friend overwhelm the trust I had for the very real, very true friends I’ve been blessed with. In the end, it was them who helped me put back together the piece of my soul that had been shattered.
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
He who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
No sum can balance his worth
- Taken from an anecdote in Stephen R. Covey’s and David K. Hatch’s Everyday Greatness:
On her frequent trips on foot to Temuco, an old Araucanian Indian woman used always to bring my mother a few partridge eggs or a handful of berries. My mother spoke no Araucanian beyond the greeting “Mai-mai,” and the old woman knew no Spanish, but she drank tea and ate cake with many appreciative giggle. We girls stared fascinated at her layers of colourful hand-woven clothing, her copper bracelets and coin necklaces, and we vied with each other in trying to memorize the singsong phrase she always spoke on rising to leave.
At last, we learned the words by heart and repeated them to the missionary, who translated them for us. They have stayed in my mind as the nicest compliment ever uttered:
“I shall come again, for I like myself when I’m near you”.