On Friendship and Hardship

Strong, honest and profound friendships can be hard to come by in a fast-paced world characterized by constant interruptions, overscheduling and lives shared in 140 characters or less.  Sure, we can graze all day long but we often don’t feel fully satisfied.

A hearty friendship feeds your soul. This weekend I feasted.

Friday night the lights twinkled on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco as I drove down the Embarcadero. Beneath the warm light of the Ferry Building slow-walking tourists mixed with locals racing by in running gear. Just beyond the entry of a bustling restaurant and into a noisy bar I saw a friendly face scanning the crowd. My soon-to-be dinner companion knew what I looked like, but I was operating at a disadvantage. While I knew some of her deepest thoughts I couldn’t exactly hold up “B’s” blog post and say, “is this you?” Her wave in my direction clinched it.

What followed was a 4.5 hour meal that moved effortlessly from one story to another revealing a kaleidoscope of overlapping experiences and emotions. To anyone nearby we appeared to be longtime friends animatedly catching up over edame, wine and fusion cuisine. Laughter tumbled easily. In truth we had only exchanged blog posts and comments on and off over several years. Until that point a blinking cursor was as close as our pen pal-like relationship had gone.

Yes, we both speak English — she from Australia and me from North America — but we also speak another language. One that we learned in the heart of darkness, from shared hardship. There was no straining to understand, no awkward silence, no uncomfortable moments punctuating our conversation. The pauses, when they came, were thoughtful ones as we searched around, together, to find just the right word or emotion or answer. We could see into each other’s heart.

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We marveled at the ease with which we could laugh, ponder and reveal our secrets without fear of misunderstanding or judgment. We also talked about friendships and family ties damaged or lost along the way. The anger. The sadness. The unspoken words. The strange isolation that accompanies a loss or suffering others don’t know how to interpret — either because they lack the capacity or because they can’t muster the fortitude to tread into an unknown sometimes messy territory.

We came to these conclusions: Some people, despite our nudging, simply refuse to budge from engagement at the superficial level 24/7. (That’s not to say that small talk and niceties don’t have their place. They do).  But when there is precious time to spare, there are a set of acquaintances, friends and family, we’ve observed, who can’t or won’t visit the underbelly of our lives –even if it’s a quick reference simply to underscore that which has made us who we are now. In their presence we feel unfulfilled, incomplete.

While the avoidance behavior is more often the rule than the exception, there are those who have surprised us with their depth and insights. Who are these people, you ask? Other infertiles? Not necessarily.

Reproductive organs aside, we also belong to another cohort: Those who have a genuine desire to evaluate and learn from life’s suffering and hardship, to crack the oyster and find pearls. (Whereas the first group is all about burying the oysters.)

In this second cohort is where I spent time Saturday. After I completed the required instructions to combat a nagging respiratory affliction, and my friend of 20 years found a sitter for her children, we embarked on a slow-paced afternoon/evening of big girl fun. We indulged in reflexology, sampled a wine flight and managed to secure, without reservations, the last two seats in a cozy Italian restaurant where the pasta is made daily on site. Much like the night before the conversation ran the gamut.

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Clearly our lives had taken very different paths, and over the years we’ve had some spirited discussions, at times talking past each other. But when I wasn’t consumed with my own, I’ve watched her wrestle with a different set of demons, navigate a different set of hardships. Despite all we have experienced, together and separately, we always find the courage to hop into life’s elevator and go down, deep, to explore. With flashlights in hand we uncover and share inner thoughts, question and challenge each other and come away fulfilled, validated. And we usually we see things a little more clearly and grow in the process.

Christina Gombar once addressed this way, why some friendships lose their way:

“If you’re happy being a planet orbiting around someone else’s sun, good for you. But I find one-sided friendships as rewarding as unrequited love affairs, and as healthy. To me friendship is like a Siamese twin: the life blood must circulate through both bodies. When the spirit of one twin departs, the furiously working heart of the surviving twin cannot do all the work of keeping the other half alive; the joint life-force dies.”

Friendships come in many shapes and sizes; the very best ones feed our souls.

Care to share when you’ve been starved or fed?

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Editor’s Note:This blog has received record traffic in the past month or so — due mainly, I’m sure — to the guest posts from New Zealand (Mali), Slovenia (Klara) and Virginia (Wendy). I’d also like to share a story from Ireland. You can read Jane’s inspiring piece here.