How To Keep True Friends
- Tuesday, October 01, 2002
It’s one thing to start a friendship; it’s quite another to maintain it, to stay on what C. S. Lewis called "the same secret path." Even strong friendships require watering or they shrivel up and blow away. That’s why George Bernard Shaw touched an exposed nerve in both of us when we read the words he scribbled to his friend Archibald Henderson: "I have neglected you shockingly of late. This is because I have had to neglect everything that could be neglected without immediate ruin, and partly because you have passed into the circle of intimate friends whose feelings one never dreams of considering."
It’s so easy to take good friends for granted. And in a sense, we should. Like a comfortable pair of gloves, old friends wear well. But friendships that suffer from busyness and over familiarity can’t afford to be neglected too long. They need renewal. And to suggest that there are techniques for maintaining authentic relationships would be to devalue the dignity friendship deserves. Such a meaningful relationship cannot be reduced to "easy steps." Research has revealed, however, the qualities that keep true friendship alive and well, so we offer two of the most important qualities for your contemplation. Like Shaw, you may neglect your intimate friends from time to time, but if you fail to cultivate these two qualities you can’t expect to keep true friends.
The quality that tops the list in survey after survey of what people appreciate most about their friends is loyalty. It seems nothing, but nothing, matters more than being true. Good friends keep their promises. They don’t tell your secrets to other people. And they don’t desert you, even when you are in trouble.
Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, caused quite a stir when he visited his friend Alger Hiss in prison. Hiss was a convicted traitor and it was bad politics to have any association with him. But when prudent politicians condemned Acheson publicly, Acheson simply said, "A friend does not forsake a friend just because he is in jail." That’s loyalty.
The famous maxim that "a friend in need is a friend indeed" is not the entire story of loyalty, however. A friend in triumph may be even harder to find. Isn’t it easier to be a savior than a cheerleader for our friends? It takes 24-karat loyalty for a friend to soar alongside us when we are flying high rather than to bring us down to earth. Loyal friends not only lend a hand when you’re in need, they applaud your successes and cheer you on without envy when you prosper.
As important as loyalty is, our friendships don’t always have it. Enter forgiveness. Every friend you’ll ever have will eventually disappoint you. Count on it. The wisdom of Proverbs warns that the wounds of a friend are faithful. That doesn’t mean that every offense of a friend requires forgiveness; some slights need only be overlooked and forgotten. Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, understood this when she said, "Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light."
Too many good relationships fade because some slight-real or imagined-cancels it out. Some people pout, brood, or blow up if their friend is not speedy enough in returning a phone call or if they are not included in a social event. They set such high standards for the relationship that they’re constantly being disappointed. They can’t let little things go; every minor lapse becomes a betrayal.
Real betrayal, the kind that leaves you hanging out to dry, is another matter altogether. At issue here is the idea of overlooking and, yes, sometimes forgiving, the occasional pain that comes with friendship.
By the way, forgiveness is a two way street. Unless you are a saint, you are bound to offend every friend deeply at least once in the course of time-intentionally or unintentionally-and if the relationship survives it will be because your friend forgives you. The friends we keep the longest are the friends who forgave us the most. And the essence of true friendship is knowing what to overlook.
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