What Is a True Friend?

Note: Due to space restrictions, this column was not published this week in the Barrow Journal, but it will appear next week on February 20, 2013. I’ve received permission to go ahead and post it here for Valentine’s Day.

On Valentine’s Day I will take my boys to a small party where they will exchange valentines with their friends. Watching them form their very first friendships, I reflect on what I have learned about friendship these past forty years.

A wise person once told me that she would not know whom her best friend was until she became an old woman. Only at that time, she asserted, could she look back on her life and say, “You have been my best friend.”

Young people throw the terms “best friend,” “best friend forever,” “BFF,” or “bestie” around like balls, hoping the person they throw it to will toss it back at them.  I have no doubt that for some people, the friends they make in their youth stick with them for a lifetime.  But as we grow older, we realize that true friends are rare.

Some friends are here for only an era of our life – school days, college, married with children, a summer vacation – and then when the ties that bind them loosen, they slowly (or quickly) exit our lives. I don’t think this lessens the value of the relationship.  We need various people to learn from and lean on during the different seasons of our lives.

What can weaken a friendship? Two friends may mature at a different pace, or sometimes interests change.  Distance can have a huge impact, if someone moves, or perhaps there’s a complete change in lifestyle. Are there friendships that can withstand any or all of these conditions?

True friendships withstand the test of time and the changes that can put obstacles in the way of a stress-free relationship. That is, it’s easy to be friends with someone who is available, who you have much in common with, and who you agree with on most issues.

I’ve learned that true friendship does not have much to do with what you have in common, though, of course, commonalities are needed, especially since they bring you together. What holds your friendship together is a deep love and concern for the other person’s well being. You care, so you continue to be there for that person.

  • Friends show up in times of trouble. When I lived in Japan, I had a friend at home who died of cancer, and I’ll never forget the e-mails she wrote to me before she died. In one of them she said that once she was bound to a wheelchair, she learned who her true friends were. I wonder if I had been at home, would I have been one of them?
  • True friends give each other space to grow and change though maybe not in the way you would choose for them. As long as your friend is happy, healthy, and living in harmony with the people around them, you cheer them on.
  • True friends are honest with each other, and they accept the other person’s honesty. They don’t let petty arguments come between them. They forgive each other. They realize that they don’t always have to agree.
  • True friends give you the freedom to have other friends. They are secure enough to know that if you are a worthy friend, they don’t have to do anything to persuade you to spend time with them. They know you have enough love in your heart for all your friendships.
  • True friends aren’t difficult to meet up with, and they aren’t hard to keep in touch with, if they live far away. While we all get busy at times, true friends inform each other that their friendship is still important, and both of them make an effort.

In the past I had a friend who pulled out a calendar and listed a handful of dates over the next three months that she could schedule a time to see me. Hmm, I thought, I’m busy too, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to find time to spend together (this was before we were married with children, of course). In contrast, I have a friend in Australia who I have been e-mailing for thirteen years. Our correspondence has ebbed and flowed depending on the demands of our lives, but both of us keep it up and neither of us wait for the other to write first.

  • True friendships are those that bring out the best in you. Your friend should give you energy – not drain it.  How many times have we stayed in relationships simply because the person was present, but deep down we know they aren’t good for us? When possible we should clear our lives of people who drain us and leave space to foster relationships that fill our wells.

A friend of mine told me she believed the mark of a true friendship was intimacy – your friend knows and wants to know what is happening in your life. On some level, they stay involved in your life. Indeed, that’s the mark of a true friend.

It goes without saying that to have true friends, we must work at being a good friend.  Even after forty years, I’m still learning how to be a better friend. I hope that I can guide my boys at fostering meaningful relationships that can last or at least serve a good purpose in their lives.

What do you think? What would you add to this list? And by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day!

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