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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Friendship: Its Mundane, Growth-Enhancing & Sacred Nature


How do you number your friends? Is it the followers you can count on social media? Is it the people you could easily invite to a dinner party? Is it the number of people that call you frequently? Or is it the people who, in the words of Proust, make you grateful, because they contribute to your happiness; because “they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom”?

The early course of my rather variegated life - that began in the dark ages before inexpensive transatlantic phone calls, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, or other easy mechanisms of communication - depended on much letter writing. I knew from the age of eight - since I was the one who always moved away - that if the friendship was to survive, I had to grab the bull by the horns, and write those letters. And sometimes no answer came back. Lessons were learned. But some of those missives were honoured, and a month or two later, I received that long yearned-for reply. And the friendship prospered on tissue-thin, transparent paper, sent across the waves, sometimes – joyfully - lasting for all the decades of my life – well into the age of instant email - showing the quilted mosaic of our growth together over the years, even if we only saw each other rarely.

At an even earlier age when I was merely four, I learned the astoundingly harsh lesson that just because I had given a treasured item to a friend, she might not necessarily continue to be my friend, and might even ‘betray’ me by running to another person who had made it clear I was not be part of her circle.  Ultimately, my erstwhile friend, gift held tightly in her clutched fist, might even join that other person in laughing at me - laughter that resonated painfully in my ears.

As time went by, I learned to understand C.S. Lewis’ wondrous words: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” It made even more sense when I read Jim Henson’s rather marvellous quote “There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.” Those rare friendships, that nevertheless thankfully may enter our lives more than just once or twice, in successive chapters of our progress down the road of self-knowledge, are the stuff of which dreams are made. Perhaps not the dreams of the young girl seeking her knight in shining armour, but the dreams of those whose souls recognize the depth of meaning and intimate complicity that is possible in sublime friendship.

As I carried on in life, I recognized I also had what I termed butterfly friends, who warmed my heart, and occasionally my spirit, but not my intellect. Conversation beyond the mundane was – often - so important to me and without it - without what I considered depth on so many different levels - I felt unable to spend any length of time with someone. Sometimes it caused me profound guilt. Oscar Wilde put it so well: “Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation”, although perhaps he neglected – as I did for a time – to take into consideration that other bond at the level of the spirit, even when the intellect is not satisfied.

I was also blessed to have had throughout the years another kind of friendship, which showed me the true meaning of Jung’s words: “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed”. Those friendships were not always easy, but I loved those friends deeply. The friendship itself, in each case, fascinated me, as it was such a mirror to my soul, as indeed, I hoped it was a mirror to the soul of each respective friend. Our conversations could sometimes be gateways into the sacred, the numinous, and yet, on the very mundane and down-to-earth level, we could annoy each other greatly, and then I would remember those other words I had read from Jung’s writings in my 20’s: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”. Evidently, this does not only apply to our friends, but also to anyone in our lives. Remembering to be aware of this at all times, can be of great assistance when we are on the verge of blaming the other for how we feel. In this regard, I love Rumi’s words: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”. Looking at the characters that populate your life in this fashion frees you to become more of what you can be, in that Jungian process of individuation.

Friendship & Grief

In my view there are three distinct ways in which friendship can create great grief:
  • the physical death of a friend
  • the loss of a friendship due to a major disagreement or misunderstanding (despite what David Whyte so aptly states: “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness”)
  • the transformation of a friendship that leads to its end due to one of the two changing in ways that the other no longer tolerates.
How can you react? How can you deal with the pain? Again, in my view, much has to do with recognizing the potential jewel in any of these situations. A jewel that arises like the phoenix from the ashes as you slowly become aware of another cycle of growth in your life by working your way through the fire.

None of this is easy, but it is also part of the process of becoming about which so many of the great writers, philosophers, and masters write. If you do not, as Rumi writes: “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames,” you would miss out on some of life’s greatest adventures – some of its greatest significance. Thoreau said “The language of friendship is not words but meaning”.


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