What Friends Are For
- Tuesday, October 01, 2002
I never would have imagined that a thirty-year friendship could begin in a church nursery between two toddlers. but it did. I was crawling in and out of Mrs. Kolskey's lap and playing around her feet when a mysterious new girl appeared in the doorway. From old photos, I know that her hair was pulled back into two ponytails falling in ringlets to her shoulders. But in that first encounter, all I noticed was her luminous pair of magenta Mary Janes - the perfect shoes - exactly like mine. My shoes, you must understand, were an all time favorite birthday present.
So here we were, two girls in hot pink shoes squealing in delight at our commonality. I had found a kindred spirit. Laura was indeed to become the best friend of my childhood, my bunk partner at summer camp, my college roommate, and the maid-of-honor at my wedding. Today, though she lives in Chicago and I’m in Seattle, not a week goes by without a conversation, and not a significant life experience without her support. Laura is truly a friend to die for.
I couldn’t have known at age five, of course, how precious this kind of friendship is, and how rarely I would find it in my life. But most people do find a kindred spirit or two. In fact, only seven percent of people say they don’t have someone in their circle of friends they can rely on as a Best Friend.
What most people call their "circle of friends" more closely resembles a triangle. Many people have contact with between 500 and 2,500 acquaintances each year, representing the base of the triangle. There are the 20 to 100 "core friends" in the middle. These we know by first name, and we see them somewhat regularly. At the top of the triangle are one to seven intimate friends. These people are closely involved in our lives, and their names are likely engraved on our hearts. Without these people life would be torture.
Short of torture, society’s worst punishment is solitary confinement. In the biblical creation story the Creator, having formed the first person, immediately declared our social character: "It is not good that man should be alone." Most of us, most of the time, would rather be with anyone than be alone. And when we compare being with anyone to being with a good friend, there is no comparison. The reasons are endless. Seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon noted two tremendously positive effects of friendship: "It redoubleth joys, and cutteth greifs in half." How true. Friends make the ordinary - running errands or eating lunch, for example - extraordinarily fun. And good friends ease our pain and lighten our heavy load. Bacon had it right; they double our joy and cut our grief. They also strengthen us, nurture us, and help us grow. And without our knowing, they can even save our lives. Literally.
There’s exciting news about having a kindred spirit these days. Not only are friends good for the soul but for the body as well. Friends help us ward off depression, boost our immune system, lower our cholesterol, increase the odds of surviving with coronary disease, and keep stress hormones in check. A half-dozen top medical studies now bear this out. Their findings didn’t seem to be influenced by other conditions or habits such as obesity, smoking, drinking or exercise. The thing that mattered most was friends. What’s more, research is showing that you can extend your life expectancy by having the right kinds of friends.
Which brings us to a central issue. What are the "right kinds" of friends? What makes a friend "good"? We all know fair-weather friends are no good. These are the people who walk with us in the sunshine, but they are gone when darkness falls. "Wealth brings many friends," noted one wise observer of life, "but a poor man’s friends desert him." Overly engaged and emotionally needy friends who don’t know the meaning of reciprocity are also a downer. They take and take while we give and give but we never see a return on our investment. On the other end of the friendship continuum is the know-it-all friend who mothers and smothers with unwanted advice but never asks for our input. In short, friends cannot be your family. They can’t be your project. They can’t be your psychiatrist. But they can be your friends, which is plenty.
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