Safe Harbor

Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words. – George Eliot

How does a friendship start? Do you remember meeting the people who are now your closest friends? I almost always do, because those people play such a vital role in my life.

I met my oldest friend on the school playground, in third grade. She approached me because her mother had advised her to “look for someone who’s alone” to make new friends. I was indeed alone- very alone, in fact, since I’d just moved cross-country, didn’t know a soul, and was facing long, solitary days ahead. We’ve lived thousands of miles apart for many more years than we were ever close together, but even when I’ve been lonely, this lifelong friendship has meant I’ve never been alone. (Undying thanks for that super-timely advice, friend’s mom.)

I connected with another friend due to her son’s thoughtful act; he spoke to my son, a stranger, at the park (Is there a playground theme happening here?), providing words of encouragement that made him feel better in a moment of sadness. When my son told me what had happened, I had to express my appreciation for his kindness- and that conversation served as the beginning of one of my most precious friendships.

I could go on- I find there’s something memorable about how all my close friendships began. (Sometimes, it’s not the first meeting, but a moment when a casual acquaintance clicked over into true friendship.)

What sets these two particular friendships apart is that I have the benefit of being able to actually look at a history of communications with both of them, and it’s very telling.

I have letters upon letters from the first, because we met years before texting or emails. I go through them sometimes, laughing at old jokes and remembering past joys and pains. They’re among my greatest treasures. (We don’t “write” as much these days, but I have an absolutely hysterical text stream that transpired recently as we waited for her to disembark from a plane after a long and harrowing trip to visit.) Love, empathy, and humor have carried us through the decades.

My second friendship, much newer in comparison, has a singularly delightful aspect. Our very first communications are documented through Messenger… I can scroll back and read the whole evolution of our relationship. Which I did, this week. What I see, from the very first, is her kindness, and generosity, as well as a willingness to accept someone just as they are.

When I look at all my closest friendships, there’s a common thread- these are people that see my failings and frailties and manage to look past them. They are people I can open up to, knowing that my thoughts and emotions are safe in their care.  I can laugh and cry with them in equal measure, and when I’m going down the wrong path, they are the people that help set me right. They are my safe harbor in a storm. I hope they feel these things from me in return, because that type of friendship is a lifeline… and a gift.

Interestingly, I had two separate conversations this week about how difficult it is to find true friendship, and how frequently (even as adults!) we can feel excluded from it.

That set me thinking: third grade is a speck in the review mirror now, but the lesson hasn’t changed much. We seek out friendships because there is an aspect of our lives we want to share, and when we find someone who has that same wish, we click together like magnets.

But we have to be judicious in our friendships, because the wrong connections can cause conflict and pain. I’m not saying that any given friendship will be perfect; like any relationship, it may have difficult times- times when you’re out of touch, or in disagreement- but you’ll find that the resolution of those issues happens through good communication, love and respect.

It can be hard to know whether someone is capable of that type of friendship at the outset, and we may find that we have to backtrack in a relationship that proves untenable. (Not fun!) As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve found that making the right connections has become easier, and it’s because I know myself better than I ever have.

With that in mind, these are the things I know that I want in a friendship, and the things that I try to provide. I’m not always successful, but when I require myself to be the kind of friend I need, I tend to attract the kind of friends I want.

1.    Make time. We’re all busy, but if keeping a relationship is important, you’ll find a way to connect. It might just be a quick text or a birthday card that’s always delivered late. (Ahem, sorry about that again, friend.) We think about people all the time; do something that conveys that idea, even if you can’t get together as often as you’d like. If you tend to forget to check in, put a reminder on your calendar.

2.    Be trustworthy. When we get close to someone, we make ourselves vulnerable to them. Recognize your responsibility in that role- it serves as the foundation of any real friendship. Once trust is lost, it’s very, very difficult to rebuild.

3.    See strength. For the most part, we’re unnecessarily hard on ourselves, and our weaknesses loom large in our own minds. Friends can objectively speak to the strengths they see in us, so be a cheerleader. Put into words what you admire about someone- they might really need to hear it, because they can’t see it in themselves. A sincere compliment is never wasted breath.

4.    Communicate. Speak and listen in equal parts. Allow yourself to open up, and pay attention when someone else does the same. It’s absolutely stunning how much we can find to talk about if we’re also willing to listen.

All things considered, I have a very simple litmus test for good friendship: time spent always feels too short, and knowing them makes me a stronger, better person.

And that’s as it should be.

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