Say Hello to my new blogger friend Betty!
Betty is blogging about her Sicily trip, which ended late last week. She came to visit a family member in the area and came across my blog while she was researching Sicily. Betty grew up in Wisconsin, too, though she has lived in the Dairy-copycat-state (California) for many years now. We tried several different ideas for meeting up while she was here and finally squeezed in a quickie caffe and cornetto one morning before I went to work. I arrived a few minutes after the appointed meeting time to find Betty on the roadside waiting to hop in my car so we could avoid the morning rush hour traffic. I immediately attributed her practical maneuver to the Midwestern sensibility that runs through all of us who grew up in or spent significant time in the Midwest. Why bother with formalities when we have a mutual goal to achieve?
On top of Betty’s gracious traffic mitigating move, she was warm and friendly and I felt like we were longtime friends by the time she buckled her seatbelt. We easily chatted and laughed as I zoomed us over to Motta to find a bar.
“Make New Friends, but Keep the Old…”
My easy experience with Betty reminded me of the childhood rhyme about making new friends. Friendships have always felt difficult to me, and I do not feel particularly unique in this respect. For many of us introverts, or mixed extro-introverts, making friends feels odd and peculiar because putting all of your energy into a conversation with someone else can be SO draining. For others, it is just difficult to find someone who accepts you and can laugh with you. On top of that, we are all constantly changing as we age and mature, so friendships can be fleeting.
Of course, all the effort that goes into seeking, finding and building friendships pays off in huge health dividends. Intuitively we know this, we see friendships’ effects all around us, and recently the New York Times reiterated it with this coverage, which is a follow-up to a 2009 article about the health benefits of friendship.
The article zeroes in on the teachings of Jeff Zaslow, the author of “The Girls From Ames: A Story of Women and a 40-Year Friendship.” Mr. Zaslow recommends never leaving important words unsaid, saying “I love you” repeatedly to your most treasured friends and family, and emphasizing the importance of long-term friendships in your life. In reverse order, these three aspects of love and friendship bounce around my mind.
First, the importance of long-term friendships cannot be overstated. This is the reason that making friends with your siblings can be the greatest gift you give yourself. Now, not everyone is as lucky to have wonderful siblings, like I do (Love you Jenni and Jim!), so I understand how it sometimes happens that your siblings aren’t your friends. But just as love is an act as much as it is an emotional response, creating friendship with your siblings is a willful act as much as it is natural. Sharing a history with someone who loves you is invaluable. The ability to have an entire conversation with gestures and glances, the laughter that can come from a single-word quip timed perfectly, and the unconditional love that comes with these long-term friendships eases stress, provides comfort and adds invaluable joy to our lives. Thus, such friendships deserve nurture and care, be they among siblings, cousins, or friends.
Among the many friendships I am grateful for, my most recent circle of law school friends is unique to me. I never had such a diverse group of kind-hearted, thoughtful and caring friends as I do in these women. Opinionated as all get-out, strong, intelligent, and witty, every last one of them. And, the most amazing part of all – they like me!
Thus, I tell them “I love you” all the time and I end emails with “Love, Jill” even when I know I won’t necessarily get it written back, or when I’m a little too mushy for another’s taste. If I love you, I love you and I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. To me, there are 1,001 different kinds of love and I intend to relish and revel in all the love I can squeeze into this life. This lesson was drilled into me in my late teenage years.
As my sixteen year old self got geared up for my driver’s license, worked my part-time summer job, and dreamed about a life outside of Northwestern Wisconsin, a close friend of mine was contemplating the end of his life. Unbeknownst to me, he was struggling with depression of some sort, and finally he took the devastating step of committing suicide. With this drastic act, he forever change innumerable lives in innumerable ways. To my family, one of the most lasting changes was the way Dad communicated to us.
It is hard for me to think back to the time before Dad said “I love you” at the end of every day, every phone call, every time I walked out the door. Yet, my journal accounts and my memories of being a growing teenager confirm that he was not always so verbal about his affections. That isn’t to say I didn’t know he loved me, because I did. Yet, there is something so powerful in professing your love, and hearing another’s love professed to you.
When my dad kept offering his love, oftentimes saying “I love you SO MUCH” before the knot caught in his throat, he was also acknowledging his pain and giving me the chance to grieve our family friend with him. It was a million and one small openings for a moment of shared emotion that wove our family tighter together. Professing his love didn’t slow the teenage angst I often felt, it didn’t lessen our conflicts and arguments, but it softened them in inexplicable ways. It started to shed light on new pathways for a friendship to emerge where a fairly strict father-daughter relationship had once been. Knowing my father chose to present himself so vulnerably to me deepened my respect for him, and encouraged me to soften myself and be more vulnerable to him.
The willingness to be vulnerable with another person, to entrust your vulnerable self to another person’s judgments, is a true sign of friendship. When we instinctively start to put up walls, to withhold that vulnerability, or to see someone withhold it from us, it is safe to say the friendship is weakening or ending. Although I have struggled with initiating friendships over the years, the thing that troubles me most is the time when friendships come to an end.
It is this theme that resonates with me when I read lessons about never leaving important things unsaid. No matter how difficult to say, it is important to be upfront with our friends. Another New York Times article explores this difficult area of first identifying a weakening friendship, and then deciding what to do about it.
The article points out that, “Even though research shows that it is natural, and perhaps inevitable, for people to prune the weeds from their social groups as they move through adulthood, those who actually attempt to defriend in real life find that it often plays out like a divorce in miniature — a tangle of awkward exchanges, made-up excuses, hurt feelings and lingering ill will.”
In my life, I experienced the loss of two significant friends – friends who I still think back to who shaped the woman I am today. I hope that I always said the important things to these friends. One is a high school friend who pushed me away, who distanced herself from me, who used the “I’m too busy” excuse until it led to “We’re not going to be friends in college” command when I pushed harder for an explanation. I like to think we handled the fall-out maturely, with some difficult conversations, and plenty of hurt feelings on my part, but an overall positive attitude about the other person. In recent years, we have reconnected through Facebook.
What about the time when you are the one who decides to end the friendship? “The first step before you end a friendship is to consider, very carefully and seriously, if you want to end a particular friendship or if you just want to wind it down,” said Jan Yager, a friendship coach and author of “When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You” (Simon & Schuster, 2002). “It will usually be a lot more pleasant to just pull away, and stop sharing as much privileged information.”
This classic move of withholding your true feelings is one that can preserve many a friendship that needs time to mature and change in response to life changes. Most people recognize the symbolic gesture represented when a friend starts withholding, yet it can also be a sign of pending connections. One of my best friends who has always known my heart has been leaps and bounds ahead of me in maturity for our entire friendship. She developed a solid career, made career advancements and married all before I got the sudsy beer hops of college flushed from my system. She started having houses and building children (or is it the other way around) and on many levels, I just cannot connect with her on a day-to-day level. Yet, we seem to find a way to share private thoughts with each other when we do connect in person, and sometimes in emails. On the other hand, some friends who I tracked more closely with in daily lifestyle have become more distant and less divulging as we progressed.
The other ended friendship that lingers in my mind was a friend from my middling years (between undergrad and now) who pushed for displays of trust and vulnerability from me, only to deeply betray the confidence I had entrusted in him. After toiling for months over how to proceed, I finally realized I could choose myself. I knew it would hurt his feelings to cut off contact, not to mention the awkwardness of explaining it to mutual friends (the ripples of that puddle still send waves through my life), but I have never felt more sure of a decision than I did the day I told him that I wished him well in life, but that I did not want to put more time and energy into a friendship with him.
This is similar to another friendship the article features: ““My main point was that life is very short and fleeting, and I value my happiness enough to eradicate the negative energy,” Ms. Johnson recalled. For months, the ex-friend continued to try to contact her. Ms. Johnson felt terrible, especially as mutual friends would tell her about the pain she had caused the woman.
Eventually, however, the reports from the mutual friends started to change in tenor. The old friend had been doing a lot of soul-searching after the breakup, they said. The mutual pain might have been worth it, Ms. Johnson concluded — to the point where she might consider another attempt at friendship with her.
Which raises this question: is a friendship ever really over?””
For me, if I ran into any of my former friends in a new social circle, or even on the street corner, I would gladly greet them and hope for a renewed connection. The positive effects of standing up for myself greatly outweighed any marginal hurt I surely inflicted on my one-time friend. The lesson I learned from that experience was to continue to stay open to making friends in interesting places, but to be more selective about exposing my truly vulnerable self until I had established a baseline amount of trust with another.
Which leads me back to Betty. She seemed to know this rule. We enjoyed chatting with each other non-stop, asking questions, getting lost in tangents and coming back to each other in a delightful conversation. We both asked the other some probing questions and got and gave honest responses. Yet, there was always a fence of sorts, marking boundaries known only to Betty and myself; an unspoken need to protect the most vulnerable parts of ourselves as we stepped into the tenuous first moments of friendship.