Imagine you are going to throw a party. You make a list of fifty of your friends. You send out invitations to those fifty friends. How many do you reasonably expect will RSVP with a Yes? How many Maybes? How many with a No? And putting all that aside, on the day of the party, how many friends would you expect to actually show up? 45? 30? 20? 10? 1?
I’m going to estimate that most of you, being the modest and humble types you are, would guess around 25-30. Maybe a little less, maybe a little more, but I think most of us could reasonably count on at least half our friends most of the time.
This isn’t a test of friendship levels; it’s the prologue to a story of mine.
Way back when, in the olden times, when I was twenty-four, I decided to throw a big birthday party for my first husband. Things were not going well in our marriage and I thought that a celebration might raise both our spirits. I made a list of friends and family to invite. The total of friends on that list rounded out at just above fifty.
I began making invitation phone calls. It took a few days to connect with everyone but when I was done I tallied the results. I will never forget that moment.
It was morning. I sat on the living room couch with my bowl of Cheerios—spoon in one hand, party list in the other. The TV was on. Much Music played REM’s “Everybody Hurts”. The camera panned past a collection of despondent, lonely and angry faces. I stared at the paper in my hand, at the columns of names with check-marks for Yes, x’s for No, and question marks for Maybe. Family members all had check marks, as expected. There were several question marks. The rest resembled a very one-sided game of X’s and O’s. There was one check mark.
I dropped the spoon into my bowl, splashing Cheerios and milk onto the coffee table I had painstakingly sanded and repainted in my attempt to make our home look a little less shoddy. I crumpled the paper in my hand and started to cry.
More than any other clue pointing to the dire state of my marriage and the increasingly disturbing behaviour exhibited by my alcoholic husband, this list of x’s and question marks, this list of friends who would not come to our party, illuminated the truth I had worked so diligently to avoid. In three short years, every friend I had was either gone, alienated, or keeping themselves at a safe distance away. I was friendless.
Don’t worry, we won’t linger here in this gloomy past for much longer. But if you’re wondering, I went ahead with the party and our family showed up. That’s it. Not one single friend made an appearance, not even the one with the check-mark next to his name. It was an awful experience but a much-needed wake up call.
These days I often write or talk about my friends. I have a lot of friends. A lot of good friends. When I say that, I’m not bragging or trying to wave my friends around like a status symbol, I am merely stating my overwhelming gratitude. Because I remember, every day, how it feels to be friendless.
I have been pondering friends lately, specifically my abundance of incredible friends. I’ve been trying to boil it down, to figure out how this came to be. How did I go from friendless to friendfull in the past twenty-two years? What’s the secret?
Yesterday, on Facebook (yes, I’m there a lot, I know), an online acquaintance shared an article about the difficulty in making friends in our older years. At the end of the article, I was even more confused. The author posited that after the age of thirty we not only make less friends but also less close friends. But this has not been my experience. Quite the opposite, in fact.
So, as adults with busy lives and little free time, how do we make and keep friends? Good friends? Close friends?
I don’t believe there is a secret. I don’t believe there is one magical thing you can do to create friends. I do believe there are lots of little things you can do to increase the odds of connecting with others. I also believe that adjusting our thoughts and expectations about friendship is equally as important as any action we take.
I’ve decided to inflict my thoughts and theories on you…
It Takes Two
Some friends are handed to us by fate. It happens. But if your plan is to wait for fate then you may be waiting a long, long time. Most of the time, friendship requires us to go out, put ourselves in the path of others, and swallow our pride and fear long enough to reach out with some offering of companionship. Or, at the very least, for us to seize on the offering of companionship from someone else.
When Prez and I had our little beach hut in Baja there were more than a few nights when he would mix a cocktail, fire up our old ’72 Suburban, and say, “Let’s go make some friends!” We would drive over to the beaches right next door and look for people that seemed interesting. I know how creepy this sounds but we made some of our best friends just by walking up, introducing ourselves and inviting people along for a day of hiking or boating or even a game of bocce ball.
Sure, a few people mistook us for timeshare salespeople at first, but that’s a small price to pay for meeting new friends.
Putting yourself out there is frightening. I won’t lie about that. Which brings me to my next point…
Extroverts Are Your Friends
I am not shy but I am an introvert. Given the choice between sitting alone reading or writing and going out in public to be around a bunch of strangers, I will almost always choose the “alone” option. Thankfully, my husband is exactly the opposite. Prez thrives on new people, new experiences, the unknown. I’ve lost count of the number of times he has literally dragged me out to some event I’ve dreaded, only for me to end up having a fabulous time and meeting at least one new and interesting person.
If you’re shy or introverted, you probably hate the idea of parties and small talk and all that “getting to know you” stuff. But chances are you probably have one outgoing extrovert in your life—a spouse, a family member, a friend or co-worker. Let that person be your social tour guide. Vow to give in and allow that person to drag you out at least one out of every four times they offer, no matter how much you want to say no. You’ll make them feel good (extroverts love getting people out of their shells), and you won’t feel quite so alone when you venture out into the big bad busy world of socializing.
I owe at least 75% of my friendships to Prez, either directly or indirectly. Either he has gone out and made the effort to make a friend, (who becomes my friend, who I go on to connect with on a regular basis), or I use the lessons I have learned from him to go out and make friends of my own. In all cases, I wouldn’t have the rich bounty of friends I enjoy now without the help of my favourite extrovert.
Speaking of Introverts
As a self-identified introvert, I love that society is beginning to recognize the difference between being “anti-social” and just enjoying silence and your own company. At this very moment, I am all alone in a quiet house and I could not be more pleased. HOWEVER! Accepting my introvertedness does not mean I should use it as an excuse to avoid all social situations.
Be careful. Don’t miss out on the joy of new friends while hiding behind the introvert label.
Not So Great Expectations
One of the lessons it took me the longest to learn was to let go of my expectations when it came to friends. (Actually, letting go of expectations is kind of a general recipe for happiness in my experience, but that’s fodder for another Chronicle).
The biggest friendship mistake I ever made—sadly with one of my former best friends—was setting an expectation based entirely on my needs and habits. Something very small started a chain effect that continued until there was no friendship left to salvage. A hard lesson to learn.
You have to be pretty jerky to disappoint me, as a friend, these days. I have few expectations of my friends. I am happy when I’m with my friends and I wish them the best when I can’t be with them. I recognize that everyone has the potential to annoy or to let each other down and that shouldn’t be how we define the people we love. If we want forgiveness, we must also forgive.
This is not to suggest you shouldn’t set boundaries or expect basic respect, simply that you should take a good hard look at your expectations. It’s not enough to say, “Well, that’s what I would do and so it’s reasonable for me to expect that from my friend.” Your friend is not you.
Evolution Is Not Just a theory
In his story “The Body”, Stephen King’s character Gordie Lachance writes, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 – Jesus, did you?”
I love that line for so many reasons. Mostly, because it’s true. The friendships we have as children are different than those we have as adults. Those early friendships are raw and honest in a way that can only happen in childhood. There’s so much at work in childhood friendships, so much that is powerful simply because it is novel and because we have not yet learned to censor our feelings.
But here’s the trap: Those early friendships are not better than the friendships we have as adults. Different, not better.
It is too easy to look back and lament for those lost days and to forget about all the benefits we enjoy from our adult connections. I think too many of us get stuck on the idea that friendship must be this all-encompassing entity, that our friends are somehow lesser if they do not measure up to our childhood ideals. Everything else in our life evolves but friendship must not?
No, I will never have friends again like the friends I had when I was 12. Or 16. Or 21. Or 30. Or 46.
And that’s just fine.
What Do You Want From Me?
Intentions are strange creatures. They often exist beyond our comprehension and yet, somehow, other people are able to sense them.
I think it’s no coincidence that when I used to want friends for what they could do for me—keep me company, make me laugh, help me with problems, ease my sadness—I had few friends. When my intentions changed and I started making friends based on my appreciation for whatever made that person unique, I found myself with more friends than I felt (and still feel), I rightfully deserved. Ironically, these friends now give me all the things I used to seek: they keep me company, they make me laugh, they help me with problems, and they ease my sadness.
Intentions and expectations are closely linked. We expect our friends to call us a certain number of times per week because our intention is that we want our friends to keep us company. If you’re not sure what your intentions are, look at your expectations and you can probably find a hint there. Or not. Humans are very good at lying to themselves. You may not see your intention until it is gone. Or, you may see your intention but ultimately fail to change it—intentions come from a deep place. Even so, awareness is a good place to start.
I imagine there are lots of lonely people out there (because I’ve been one), who look at other people surrounded by friends and think, “Wow, I want that.” Lonely people who are constantly frustrated and disappointed because few people respond to their needs. But therein lies the problem: their needs. Our radar picks up on neediness, we sense when someone wants us around to fill a void or perform a service, and we instinctively pull away.
To draw people in, our intention needs to be one of giving not taking: I can make you laugh, I can keep you company, I can help you solve problems, I can ease your sadness. And, as I talked about in the previous Chronicle, this usually means we have to figure out how to meet our own needs, first.
My Bleeding Heart
The last point that I have been pondering is vulnerability. Friendships deepen with trust and trust begins with vulnerability.
Think on a moment when a friend confessed something important to you. Maybe they told you they were having trouble with their spouse, maybe they lamented over money problems they’d been working hard to hide, maybe they questioned their faith, maybe they came out to you about their sexual orientation or identity. Whatever it was, how did you feel in that moment they confided to you? Let’s take that one step further: did you then feel more comfortable about confiding something to them?
We think of vulnerability as weakness but in friendships it is the means by which we strengthen our bond.
Remember that story way back at the beginning of this post? While I was married to my first husband, I worked so hard to put on a brave face and act as if everything was going GREAT! Even with my friends. Especially with my friends. I had been so vocal about how awesome this man was that the idea of coming out to anyone and admitting that everything was awful terrified me.
There I was, that sad young woman crying into her Cheerios, friendless because she could not be vulnerable. And when the marriage ended and I reached out to some of the x’s on that party list, I was shocked at the support I received. The second I was able to speak honestly about my failure to make my marriage work, I was immediately offered comfort and sympathy and friendship where I thought I would only find derision and a lot of “I told you so”.
I have so many other thoughts about friendship that evade articulation for the moment. Like so much else, friendship is trial and error and—more often than we’d like—a giant leap of faith.
I still don’t know why I’ve been blessed with all these friends but I’ll do my best to be a good friend in return and to always be grateful for the people life puts in my path.
To my friends who may be reading this, thanks for being you!