When my husband and I were newlyweds, we moved to Portland, Oregon. Those first few weeks in Portland were unsettling — we slept on a stranger’s hardwood floor, caring for her ailing kitten, while adjusting to college. Oregon (not “Or-e-gone” as I quickly learned) was both magnificent and disorienting. As dazzled as I was by Mount Hood, by the craggy coast and the mossy forests, all this beauty reminded the Midwestern me that I was far from home.
But my geographical confusion was nothing compared to my internal disorientation in a new city with a new husband and no friends of my own. Because I’d been rooted in one town for all my life, I’d never realized what an effort it could be to make friends — and to keep them.
Strange as it sounds, the quest for a friend was a little bit like dating: lots of false — if hopeful — starts, and many near misses. I had one friend who was a consistent no-show, another with whom I had unspoken miscommunications, and others that I enjoyed but didn’t understand, or visa-versa. The more desperately I tried to make friends, the lonelier I became.
A year into the Portland experience, my husband met a woman named Amber on our college campus. They struck up a conversation, and afterward John urged me to call her. I was uneasy about the idea of calling a stranger, but he pestered me until I finally gave in. That first night on the phone I sensed a sameness in her. Just as I recognized my husband the first time I met John, in Amber I recognized a friend.
C.S. Lewis says that we know we’ve made a friend when we can say to the other, “What, you too?” Amber and I were bound together by a string of coincidences — large and small. We had both attended two colleges, each transferring after one year. When I introduced her to my cockatiel Elijah, and she said, “When I was a kid I had a cockatiel named Elijah as well.”
Ten years — and three cross-country moves later — she is still my closest friend. Thanks to our cell phones, we chat almost daily, sometimes more. When I feel weak, I call her for courage. She helps me toward that place where I can laugh about my life and struggles. I’m not very strong in myself, but I become stronger through friends like Amber.
Here are a few ideas I’ve learned since my days in Portland about making (and keeping) friends:
Years ago a pastor offered this advice. He said, “Expect nothing from other people.” At the time, I thought this was a strange idea. I figured that if you expected nothing, you would get what you expected. Over the years, I’ve come to see that while I do need to set reasonable goals for myself, I do well to keep my expectations for others modest. If we can break free from high expectations for others, than we are more likely to be able to accept — and enjoy — them as they are.
Perhaps the quickest way to kill a new friendship is to expect — or demand — too much. I tend to retreat from people who expect things from me that I can’t give. These days, with two small children to care for, I can barely finish a thought, let alone have a decent phone conversation. Amber has patiently stuck it out despite my tendency to drop the phone on a whim, along with some ongoing technical problems, which I like to refer to as our “phone curse.” She describes this phenomenon on her blog, under the post What to do on a Rainy Day. She writes, “Call Jenny. A brief conversation ensues, followed by a sudden cry, a crash, and dead line. Further calls get only the sound of a fax connection.”
If you can lower your expectations, not only are you likely to reduce your own frustration, but you might be able to better see the other person’s gifts. Sometimes our own expectations blind us to the grace before us. We become so fixated on what we want — or what we imagine we need — that we miss the gift that is being offered.
Years ago, Amber and I were at a Chinese restaurant, and she cracked open a fortune cookie to reveal this ticklish proverb: “Alas, the onion you are eating may be someone else’s water lily.” An unopened water lily does resemble an onion, bitter and unappealing.
But often things are more than they appear at first glance — and it is often this way with relationships. If you can take a step back and allow a friendship to unfold on its own terms, you’re more likely to glimpse the water lily. Preconceived ideas of how things should or must be leave us grasping after onions.
Rejoice in the Other
It becomes more possible to weather another person’s shortcomings when you’re able to see their strengths. I can tell that a friendship is growing when I begin to genuinely enjoy another person’s gifts — not feel threatened or envious of them, but rejoice in them as if they were my own.
I’ve never understood why some people provoke envy, while others — even extremely talented people — don’t. It might have something to do with transparency. The more deeply we know another person’s secret hopes and anguishes — and the more we can identify with their struggles — the less inclined we are to envy them, the more eager we are to see them succeed.
I love that REM song, “Night Swimming.” Although the song is suggestive of skinny-dipping, I’ve always sensed that “Night Swimming” is a metaphor for much more. The song is about friendship, about the innocence of making oneself vulnerable. One line captures something essential: “You, I thought I knew you, you I can not judge.”
As I get closer to people I’m less inclined to jump to simple conclusions about their life and struggles (or how I might fix them). As the “armchair adviser” in me recedes, compassion, sadness and hope grow. As one of my mentors told me, “When you really get to know another person, sometimes all you’ll want to do is weep.”
Transparency fosters this continual revelation. And the more open another person is with me, the more clearly I see the truth of Plato’s saying, “Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is waging a terrible internal battle.”
The Ever New
Friendship is not static. It grows as we do — each leg of the journey reveals a fresh landscape, transforming our inner geography as well. The twists of the journey keep friendship fresh, even as the years wear on.
Christopher Bamford, editor-in-chief of Steiner Books, expressed this eloquently when he wrote, “When we speak, even when it is the intimate expression of a deep, personal experience, we are a single voice. We have forgiven each other a thousand times. We have let go of so much that could divide us that we have let go of ourselves. Our relationship seems to exist in and out of the unknown, the ever new.”
Our deepest friendships offer a sense of continual discovery, but they can also provide a sense of consistency during years of change. When I am around Amber — who knows my history, foibles and failings and loves me anyway — I am more whole.
This wholeness is fertile soil. We often don’t see or appreciate that soil, but so many seeds sprout here. According to a saying from the Talmud, “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it, whispering, ‘grow, grow.'”
And this is what friends do best — they see us, fragile as we are, and whisper “grow, grow” as we push our way up through the soil.