I’ve been thinking a lot about friends and friendships lately. When I ran my Power of Love art contest at Fine Art America, partly to learn more about the FAA community and resources, and partly to keep dialog open on the Power of Love Notes Challenge (pictures can be love notes, too!), I realized that many of the entries showcased friendships.
The image that won the contest – the warmly compelling portrait of a tabby and a pug titled Belinda and Barney – evokes a greater sense of friendship than anything else. And yet contest voters found that portrait the most evocative of love of the 200 or so that were entered.
As a matter of fact, the three top vote-getters were not of couples in the throes of a passionate embrace, or even the predictable mother and child images. They were images of enduring steadfastness – from the portrait of Christ (“We have a friend in Jesus”) to the hand-holding elderly couple strolling on the beach, an image that suggests they’ve been through a lot together, but their relationship, and no doubt their friendship, has stood the test of time.
My husband and I were friends long before we were lovers, and it’s our friendship that has strengthened our lives over the years. It’s one thing to be married for thirty years; it’s entirely another to have a friend of more than three decades watching your back. You’re stuck with your family, to a great degree. But you choose your friends, and hopefully they choose you.
Friendships can bring a joy few other relationships can evoke. Spouses, and children and parents and relatives can hurt and disappoint and annoy, as deeply as they can bring unfathomable joy and immense happiness. But there’s a different level of connection in familial relationships, which to a large degree are defined by duty and responsibility, as much as by love.
At their most compelling and enduring, though, the best relationships are rooted in friendship. Friends – why the best ones light up a room just by entering, and lift your heart when you hear their voices on the phone or see an email or text from them! No conversations are wittier and more interesting, no laughter more heartfelt, no occasion more celebratory and enjoyable than when shared with good friends. There’s a different solidarity there. You’re together by choice, and by some shared affinity, by some subtle connection of spirit that is free of the obligations of blood.
The longer you have a set of friends, the richer the friendship becomes, the more nuanced and poignant, the softer and warmer and better fitting. That said, our friends can be as different from us as Barney and Belinda are from each other, and widely, and wildly, different from one another as well. We tend to gather friends like seashells from the different beaches of our lives – at least if we’re lucky – Our motley collection of friends can hail from a succession of life stages – school, young adulthood, young couplehood, early parenthood, careers, hobbies, faith and philosophy, and late adulthood.
Some friendships fit right away, despite the odds against them. Others you grow into, gradually, with a dawning light. And friendships change, often deepening, sometimes fading, as life takes us on disparate and unexpected journeys. Some friendships are remarkably simple and uncomplicated, enduring with unflagging and astounding power. Some friendships are complex, like group friendships riven by divorce or separation, or by disagreements between individuals in the group, or by new relationships that bring new spouses or the friends of friends, or children into a group.
True friendships, though, persevere in the face of changes. When two members of our tight-knight “gang” of young adult friends separated after 15 years, we were all torn. What now? They weren’t together anymore, but we loved them both dearly. Over the next 20 years, they found new partners, new lives, new careers and new places, but we all stayed in touch, circulating in new ways, stretching our bonds far sometimes, with a few years between chats or visits, but always returning to each other as fondly as ever, connected by our long shared history.
Falling outs offer different challenges. How do you stay in a circle of friends when one of them has been deeply hurtful or betrayed a trust, especially when your regard for the rest of the circle is undiminished? Where an unshared friendship might have been cleanly severed, when others you care about are involved, the challenge now becomes a moral imperative to examine the issue more deeply, to realize that the person is still important to the other people who are important to you. The friendship may never be the same, but the reason for the friendship, and the bonds that created it in the first place, are unchanged. Now the community of friends takes on the greater value – or should if you’re a good friend.
As there are universal joys to friendships, in celebrating our friends’ marriages, births, and positive life directions, there are also universal challenges as we inevitably succumb to stages of life none of us can escape, to loss and sadness, illness and death. The only thing worse than dealing with your own pain and suffering is watching a friend deal with hers. We can scream and cry and rant and rage against the injustices and heartache we encounter ourselves. But when a friend is faced with pain and loss, little we do or say seems enough. It’s easy to feel inadequate to the task of being the best friend we should be. But how do we make the loss of a partner or child better? How do we take away cancer?
Friends will tell you that just being there is enough, that unwavering support is one of the greatest marks of friendship. Being there not because you have to be, like a relative or a doctor or a case worker or a lawyer, but because you want to be, like a friend.
If we live long enough and thoughtfully enough, our friends provide us with opportunities to be better people than we might otherwise be. My friend Rob certainly set the bar high for me. Other friends do, too.
In fact, our friends are the truest mirrors we’ll ever have. In them, we see ourselves not only as we are, but as the people we should be and can be, and that’s the finest gift of friendship.