Have you ever noticed there are some friends who fill you up and some who leave you drained? With some friends, no matter what you do together, you are left with a certain contentment. With others, you leave feeling the opposite.
I bike ride with Annette for two hard hours once or twice a month. We often ride side by side on back roads, pushing through twenty miles of hills while circling the beautiful Briones Park in the East Bay. We pass vineyards, horses, cows, goats and a pair of ewes.
Annette is an exuberant storyteller. She tells me about the challenges in her life. Whether or not they are mundane, they are always interesting because she shares with expression and her honest emotions. More importantly, Annette is a great listener. When I tell her what’s going on in my life, she listens attentively, saying, “Oh no!” at all the right times. Inevitably, I share something of a spiritual nature and if she doesn’t adhere to my beliefs, she listens like a good friend and affirms me. There is freedom of all sorts when we bike. Freedom from moving fast and leaving our worries behind and freedom to express ourselves without fear of judgment. When the ride is over, my legs are wobbly and my neck hurts, but my soul is happy.
Conversely, there are friends I leave with feelings of emptiness. Maybe they are judgmental or just plain shallow. Maybe they are too self-absorbed to have a give-and-take conversation. Or maybe it’s me! Maybe my insecurities and shyness are keeping me from building a real relationship with the person.
In our efforts to find friends who fill us up rather than deplete us, we have to look at ourselves first. One of the best how-to books of all time is Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book should be required reading in high school—better yet, in sixth grade. The concepts are simple but often missed. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s not too late. If you haven’t read it in ages, you may want to check it out it again. When my husband and I were just about to give up on each other and go our separate ways, I thought of this book. To be honest, I told my husband that he better read the book and learn a few people skills or I was packing. We had been married eighteen years and I still didn’t think of him as a friend because there was so much negativity and antagonism being thrown around. My husband responded by buying two copies, insisting that I read it too.
You can guess where I’m going with this. Now I can finally say my husband is my best friend. How to Win Friends and Influence People had a fairly big part to play in our present ability to listen to each other and show the kind of care that nourishes the soul. We are still ridiculously imperfect in our communication skills, but we have made huge steps forward and continue in that direction.
Intimacy, according to minds much more studied than mine, is a matter of tuning into someone else’s reality with the risk of being changed by the experience. It is not a matter of extending your self-absorption to include someone else. I am presently working on a book called The Social Cause Diet where I make the claim that involvement in a social service is a catalyst for intimacy and true friendship, because serving others requires that you leave your self-absorption behind and focus on the people or need in front of you. In the process, nourishing relationships are built with the people you serve and with those who serve alongside you.
C.S. Lewis, my favorite writer who had in equal measure great intelligence and imagination, wrote an insightful book called The Great Divorce. Lewis was not speaking of divorce between two people, but of the chasm between heaven and hell. His description of hell is one I’ll never forget. He pictured it as a grey town where people quarrel with their neighbors and then move farther and farther away from each other until their is no community at all and hardly even a sighting of another person. When I get disappointed with a neighbor or friend and I’m tempted to write him or her off, I think of hell being a place where everyone ends up alone because it’s easier than learning how to get along. Hell, in Lewis’ analogy, is a complete disconnectedness from others. It is loneliness, night and day, without relief.
As volunteerism promotes health (explained further in The Social Cause Diet), loneliness seems to diminish it. One study revealed that lonely people have blood pressure readings that are as much as thirty points higher than in non-lonely people. Some researchers claim that the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking.
Loneliness is an emotion that tells us it’s time to bring people into our lives. Some people boast about being independent and self-reliant, but if they are so, they are probably somewhat lonely. A healthier, happier soul seeks to be interdependent. As we selflessly extend ourselves for another, we realize we are also gaining something for ourselves. We need each other. It’s okay to need each other. We are not weak if we recognize it—rather, we are probably strong and healthy. While we all find it extremely unkind to “use” each other, it is right and wise to realize that we are mutually useful to each other.
Incidentally, this usefullness isn’t a measurable give-and-take thing. I give hours of emotional support to a friend, for example, and then she comes through for me in numerous unexpected ways. But even if she didn’t surprise me by taking care of my kids when I’m in a crunch or by teaching me how to make brussel sprouts that taste amazing, I still always feel blessed after helping her. It’s a mystery really. A very fulfilling one.