How the Poet David Whyte Made Me Understand the Power of Friendships

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During this past turbulent year, the coronavirus pandemic has meant that most of us have had to endure isolation. One thing has become very apparent: good friendships matter greatly in our welfare.

We have an inner need to belong and connect. Relationships are the bedrock of our emotional well-being. No matter how strong we feel we are, we need to have relationships that nurture and sustain our strength throughout our lives.

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the director of an 81-year-old study on adult development, states in his famous TED talk that people with healthy relationships live much happier and longer lives. The study focuses on having fewer but deeper longstanding relationships.

Another Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, has said, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

For me, relationships and friendships are synonymous.

What does friendship really mean?

In the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a friend is defined as one attached to another by affection or esteem, an acquaintance, one that is not hostile, or a favored companion.

However, that definition is not enough. It lacks depth and does not come close to the true meaning of the word — friendship.

To comprehend real truths, I have always gone to the poets. They don’t come any better than David Whyte. In his book, Consolations, Whyte defines friendship in a manner that spoke immediately to me, leaving the true essence of what friendship meant indelibly marked on my heart.

He starts by emphasizing that the cornerstone of a rich friendship is forgiveness and mercy. Friends stand tall and close to each other especially during each other’s vulnerabilities, being both present and forgiving to each other no matter the circumstances.

“Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion that we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.”

Friendship makes us better and more whole. We get to know each other’s weaknesses and strengths. We encourage each other’s better parts subtly ignoring (not critiquing) what makes us small. Friendship is a lens for us to see the goodness and future possibilities — best self in others as they do likewise.

“In the course of the years, a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves. To remain friends, we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves. Through the eyes of a real friendship, an individual is larger than their everyday actions, and through the eyes of another, we receive a greater sense of our own personhood, one we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding not only of the self and the other but also, of a possible and as yet unlived, future.”

Friendship makes all relationships work. Whether it is partners in a business. A romantic relationship. Marriage. Also, between parent and child. Without friendship, our relationships are doomed to fail

“Friendship is the great hidden transmuter of all relationship: it can transform a troubled marriage, make honorable a professional rivalry, make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love and become the newly discovered ground for a mature parent-child relationship. The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.”

Friendship stirs us into being more curious and exciting. We tend to do more things with friends as they give us that ‘Dutch courage,’ we often lack on our own.

“Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years, we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going.”

Even in death, a good friendship continues. Past conversations and memories remain like guideposts to us. We talk to them as if talking to ourselves. They remain somewhere in the ether checking in on our lives.

“Friendship transcends disappearance: an enduring friendship goes on after death, the exchange only transmuted by absence, the relationship advancing and maturing in a silent internal conversational way even after one half of the bond has passed on.”

However, we all undervalue what true friendship gives us. It is being a witness to each other. In this arduous life, we always need friends around us that support, believe and watch us as we walk down our chosen paths.

“No matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

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I rise daily at 5 am, meditate, read and journal on my Self-awareness journey. Some of my reflections make it to my blog; others don’t. (http://mo-issa.com)

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