Having just turned fifty I am reminded that birthdays can be wonderful time to consider the passing of the years and savour the great gifts that have accumulated over time, such as friendship. I feel priviliged to experience that deep sense of joy and gratitude that comes from knowing that you are loved and from seeing genuine care in the eyes of the friends and family who shared my transition into the decade of the Young Crone. Especially since I know myself to be a fickle and sometimes difficult person to be truly close to. You see, being that close to people scares me.
It reminds me of a question I was asked a little while ago, about the qualities of ‘a close friendship’. For me personally it has everything to do with safety. Few people see past my capable, self-assured and intermittently wise persona and notice the fragile, vulnerable and often gibbering wreck beneath the surface. My closest friends are the people who see that scared little girl and love me for it, not despite of it. It’s a subtle difference, but it lies at the foundation of trust.
Friendships are like concentric circles, building a strong support for your core as time passes. And each new life experience brings another set of human beings with whom we may or may not feel a click. Only in time do we know who will forgive us our mistakes and focus on loving the whole package.
When I started working as a journalist I was in over my head. Not only had I chosen the wrong profession, I was being asked to operate at a professional level that was way, way beyond what my training had prepared me for. But did I call my friends and shout ‘help’? Nope, I battled on, pretending I was in control, having a great time, and being totally obnoxious and hard to reach in the process. During that time one or two of my school- and study friends dropped out of sight for a while. When I finally learned that I did not have to be tough and strong all the time, at least not with everybody, they were there to welcome me back with my lessons learned and a little more humility in my heart. They gave me the space to learn the lessons I needed to learn.
A friend recently shared the expression ‘evolutionary friendships’. It adds another dimension to what I feel is essential when two people decide to nurture their connection and build a relationship. It speaks to me of the tolerance and acceptance that we will not be the same person we became friends with when we first met. Most of us seek to evolve and grow during our lifetime. Some of us seek out experiences far and wide, others stay closer to home. It doesn’t matter, life finds you anyway. Evolutionary friendships allow both parties to grow and evolve. Sometimes within the containment of the relationship, but sometimes by letting one another go, hoping you will meet again further down the line. Just like my school buddies did.
Perhaps the biggest threat to a true and meaningful friendship is the idea that you have to be on your best behaviour to earn the right of a love that should be freely given. Yet more often than not, the idea is in our head, the notion that we need to conform to how someone wants you to be, or needs you to be. The trap, if you feel trapped, is usually in your head. Testing the theory by breaking out of your role is liberating, but it also takes courage. After all, vulnerability comes at a price and not everyone can be trusted with it. We may want to be loved for our vulnerable, confused, and even our less attractive aspects, but that means we need to be prepared to share them, and thus to know who we can safely share them with.
I’ve experienced both; people that respect my need to let my confidence grow slowly and people who bulldozed in. There was the kind and brave therapist who shared honestly; “I’m here to help you, but I am not feeling very useful to you.” Here was support and love on offer from someone who I knew was capable of holding the entire grand piano of emotions that constitutes my inner life. And yet I had been holding back, testing him, until that moment at least. And since his approach was so respectful and kind, his comment was all I needed to allow the confused five-year old to come out and play and rage. Safely.
In contrast, there was once a fellow psychotherapy student who wrote, perhaps even with good intentions; “you always seem so happy but I think you are wearing a mask.” Of course she was right, it was a scary judgemental group and I was in hiding. But her abuse of insight led to one of the most enervating and in retrospect amusing bit of mask-dropping anyone has ever seen from me. For two days I ranted and raved, misbehaved, cried, shouted, laughed, and externalised the internal roller coaster of all my emotions. They were embarrassed. They were afraid. With parallels to my upbringing they tried to reign me back in. Indeed, seeing their strong reliable classmate join them in their fields of broken dreams, misbehave and hurl insults was not quite as pleasing as they had thought it would be. And to me it was painful to know that I couldn’t be seen in all that I am.
Sometimes you decide to show more of yourself, sometimes others respectfully see behind the mask and love you anyway. I think it’s okay to have both friends and acquaintances; the warts and all gang, and the people with whom you can have a good laugh but who remain on the outside looking in.
Friendship, for me, is a relationship where the entire sum of your being, the parts you show and the parts that you keep from general view are loved and respected. Where you are seen to ‘hide’ and yet not provoked to show yourself before you are ready. Where on this amazing journey of life, so confusing, so enervating, and so bloody demanding, there are those that are interested in what you see, in what you hear, in what you experience, without it having to be perfect, consistent or even right.
How lucky I am that as I enter my fiftieth decade I have a tribe around me of loving, loyal, generous and patient friends whose loving eyes teach me more about myself than I could ever learn alone.