A Lesson in Friendship

Around 10:00 pm one night when I was 16 my cell phone rang with a panicked voice on the other side.  My best friend was barely able to remain calm enough to get words out of his mouth.

After a bit of time, I figured out that he was at his girlfriend’s high school dance. A few things happened and a bunch of the local hooligans were gonna jump him when the dance was over at 11. So I dutifully snuck out of the house, took the car, and drove to meet him to help.

When I look back on this moment I can’t decide if it was a brilliant act of courage and friendship or pure teenage stupidity. The now older me asks what causes someone to drive to a near-certain walloping. The younger me still answers: friendship. If you won’t lay it on the line for your friends, who will you lay it on the line for?

I tend to agree with Henry Miller, who wrote: “Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer.”

What Makes A Good Friend?

While I thought I was a good friend, until recently I’ve never spent much time thinking about what makes for a good friend.

When the chips are down and the odds are nearly impossible, I wanted people to be able to count on me. I might not be at your Super Bowl party, but if you needed help I would drop everything and be there in an instant.

This was the type of friend I wanted to be. That’s the friend I still am. What I missed is that there is more to friendship than being there for someone else.

All through my life my friends have confessed their deepest struggles and conflicts with me. I know about marriage issues, affairs, financial struggles. You name it. I suspect If you polled my friends, I’d be the first person they would call if they killed someone and needed to bury the body.

I am the wartime consigliere. However in times of peace — which is the vast majority of the time spent in friendships — I wasn’t the first person people called.

Vulnerability Goes Both Ways

No matter what was going on in my life – no matter my struggles, errors, or mistakes, I never called my friends for help. I wanted to be self-sufficient. I thought that made me strong.

“The wise man is self-sufficient,” said Lucilius. He wants for nothing. He needs nothing. Chrysippus declared that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool.”

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever called anyone and said something to the effect of: I really need you right now. I never knew how many of these cards you’d get in a lifetime and I certainly didn’t want to waste one on whatever was troubling me at the moment. This has been one of my biggest shortcomings.

Seneca has some good thoughts on the matter. In epistle III, he writes:

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

Hiding Struggles is Weakness not Strength

If I had struggles in my life my friends would sometimes never know. I’m not entirely sure if I was hiding these things from them or hiding them from myself. I felt that if I verbalized my struggles, they’d become real.

When I told one of my best friends I was getting divorced, his response caught me off guard. He replied saying something to the effect of ‘as with many things in your life Shane, I had no idea.’

The unspoken message was clear: I would have been here for you, why didn’t you let me be there for you?

In that instant it hit me. I wasn’t the friend I needed to be because friendship is more than being there for your friends, it’s also allowing your friends to be there for you.

For the longest time I thought that avoiding vulnerability was strength. It’s not. It takes a lot more strength to make yourself vulnerable than it does to keep the walls up and stay protected.

Since this blog is about learning the best of what other people have figured out, I wanted to share this very personal lesson with you.