“How often we find ourselves turning our backs on our actual friends, that we may go and meet their ideal cousins” (Henry David Thoreau).
FRIENDSHIP IS A THING THAT HAS TO BE NURTURED. There are few people who wouldn’t say that friendship is one of life’s most valuable treasures, and yet we don’t work on it and take care of it as we would if we really appreciated its value. And because we don’t nurture our friendships, we lose them. We fall into the pattern of losing friends and gaining new ones, losing friends and gaining new ones, losing friends and gaining new ones. Surely, friendship was meant to be a more durable thing than our personal histories make it appear.
As Thoreau observed, we often fail to nurture the real friendships that we have because we spend so much time looking for “their ideal cousins.” In the real world, friends have flaws. Not only can our friends exasperate us; sometimes they can hurt us deeply. And so we’re always on the lookout for “better” friends, ones that don’t have the annoying idiosyncrasies of our present ones. Most of the time, however, this is a poor use of our time. We’d do better to nurture our present friendships, being grateful for the tangy individuality of each one.
Ideally, what should happen as our lives continue is that the number of our friends should grow. Old friendships shouldn’t have to be replaced — they should simply be added to. “You date the evolving of a mind, like the age of a tree, by the rings of friendship formed by the expanding of the central trunk” (Mary McCarthy).
One of the exciting aspects of friendship is that friends do not have to be clones of one another. As our minds mature and “rings of friendship” begin to multiply around the trunk of our character, there can be an intensely interesting variety in these relationships. As a favorite teacher told me many years ago, “If two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Indeed, our friendships are beneficial to us, not because they stroke our sense of self-satisfaction, but because they challenge us and invigorate our minds with other viewpoints. Nurturing these friendships means appreciating them, respecting them, affirming them — and making frequent investments in them.
“The most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart” (Elisabeth Foley).