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Philosophy

What It Means to Be a Good Friend and Other Wisdom on One of Life’s Rarest Assets

If there is any one thing that has kept me sane throughout this life of ours—that has pulled me out of the darkest, messiest places; forced me to break apart the frames in my mind and see possibilities that I didn’t know existed; encouraged me to overcome my sadness by focusing on what I could learn; coached me to overcome the heaviest failures and the most painful heartbreaks; consoled me in times of loneliness, confusion, and despair; made me feel like I was seen, heard, and valued; and is one of my dominant reasons to not leave New Jersey—it is the reassurance, proximity, generosity, and openheartedness of good friends.

As I get older, I notice a pattern that breaks my heart: most people don’t have that friend to lean on, someone with whom they can be vulnerable, someone who genuinely wants to see them do well in life, someone who will listen and give real and honest feedback. I think more people have access to credit cards, wifi, and air conditioning than they do a good friend with an open heart and mind.

The privilege and warm reassurance to be able to text a friend and say Hey, I’m going through some tough shit and need to talk, and to be able to empty your mind out for two hours over a neat whiskey with a generous soul who’s eager to listen and help in any way he or she can is, perhaps, the sign of a very lucky human being.

Friendship is a rare, enriching, confusing, and double-edged dynamic. It can be the source of infinite happiness; it can also, however, be a source of great despair and envy. Chances are that when your feelings were hurt in high school, it was by your closest friends and came from a place of fear and ego, not love and belonging. This balance is just a part of life.

Good friendship is a practice—a conscious repetition of empathy, compassion, generosity, sacrifice, patience, love, and above all, forgiveness. None of my long friendships have been smooth or linear. Mistakes were made, misunderstandings created confusion and distance, and there were times of complete radio silence, only to return months or even years later as if nothing happened. It was easier to let the past go so we could rebuild a better future—we both needed and wanted it, without uttering it.

Some people believe that your friends in your younger years are who your friends will be for life—that you will certainly treasure these more. I fell into that camp—believing that I couldn’t make “real” friends after high school or college—but that’s totally wrong. If anything, I have made new friends—unexpected, wonderful, extraordinary friends, many who live far away—based on the values that we share, the worldview that we connect with, the principles that we subscribe to, and how we can help each other to become our best selves.

Aside from family—I place my friends into that category—or a partner that loves you, I don’t think there’s any greater asset that heals our inherent sense of loneliness and meets the desire to be seen and belong.

If I could give you any advice on being a good friend, here it is:

Nothing works without vulnerability

If there is one thread that runs through all my great friendships, it is the ability to be seen without the fear of judgment, to show up wholeheartedly in a conversation or interaction and to tell your story, knowing that the other person, no matter how crazy or awful this story may be, will not judge you. They will listen, see you, and help you.

Storyteller and researcher Brené Brown defined it fabulously: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

What I do, and what my dear friends have done with me, is practice vulnerability. But you don’t practice vulnerability when you’re deciding where you want to go to eat; you practice it when you decide it’s time to move on from a toxic relationship or a bad job or an unresolved hurt.

When you pull back the bandage and you trust that your friend will not judge or shame you, then the magic begins to unfold, and for a moment you can just appreciate this dynamic between you and another human being. Revelations spark in the mind. New insights change what you see; your views begin to change shape because of what you’re learning. Emotions stop bubbling. Clarity ensues, and life, for just a moment, is better.

Vulnerability is frightening and it’s a risk that you decide to take. You may believe that your friend is ready for your vulnerability and honesty, and maybe they don’t reciprocate it. This bad experience can make you believe that no one, especially yourself, is worthy of being heard. This happens to so many people, and if it never gets untangled, it only gets worse.

But it is a risk worth taking, and whether it works or not, you can learn something from it about yourself and the person across from you.

Don’t steal their revelation (how to really help your friend)

“The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect that we know which is which,” said Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things.

A way to help your friend out of the rut that they’re in is to help them see the reality for themselves. If it’s an issue of heartbreak, they’re fixated on loss and never being loved again because that’s what being sad influences you to believe. As a friend, part of your role is to help them imagine a new reality, to see the many rich and colorful possibilities that lie just outside the high walls they set up around themselves.

Do this by asking questions. What worldview are you bringing to the table? What are your assumptions about his or her intentions? What are your intentions? What do you really want? What are you scared of?

This gives you context into their worldview, and it pushes your friend to be really clear about things that need to be really clear.

It’s far more fruitful for your friend to realize they’re in a toxic relationship rather than you insisting that they’re in a toxic relationship. The former is about self-awareness, while the latter is about consultation. Change starts with self-awareness; a strategy to move forward requires consultation. And this, which brings us to the next point, begins with really listening to what’s being said, and more importantly, what’s not being said.

What listening looks like

Listening isn’t accomplished when you think you have all the right answers and you see the situation so objectively it’s clear what the next decision should be.

People who truly listen are curious, and listening starts the moment you take what’s being said and reflect it back to your friend to seek deeper clarity and understanding.

“Could you tell me about your expectations or the story you’re telling yourself?” “Could you elaborate on what you just said?” “I’m really happy you came to me for this. I’ll be glad to help you out. Here’s what I see. … What do you think?”

How to empathize, forgive, and accept

Some of us have friends that make our other friends wonder how we’re friends with a person like that.

This is especially true as you get older and are still friends with people from your childhood or high school. Sometimes your friends grow alongside you in every way—emotionally, professionally, spiritually—and other times you have friends who take a different route.

One of my best friends is the complete opposite of me. There was a period in our friendship where we became distant because I was seeking to change my life. I became a hermit—devouring books, reading/writing for most of the day, and cutting back on going out and spending money. In short, I was fundamentally rewiring my brain and habits.

It was hard for my friend to accept this new behavior because it was so sudden, and it was hard for me to accept his inability to accept it. On Friday nights he would call me and insist I come out and “stop hiding.” After months of saying no, he stopped calling me because he knew what I would say. It was easy for me to create a grandiose sense of entitlement and arrogance as a defense mechanism. They went out three times a week and spent hundreds of dollars while I sat at home and read three books in a week.

It wasn’t until my other best friend popped my bubble and made me aware of my behaviors and attitudes without judging or shaming me that I realized what I was doing. He asked questions like, Is it worth destroying this long friendship? How do you think your actions are affecting others? Why does it seem like you don’t care when I know you do?

First, it took vulnerability to get on the same page with the complete-opposite-of-me friend. This wasn’t something new—we’ve been honest with each other before—but my inability to speak up and to share what I was going through had created emotional distance between us. Second, it took forgiveness to move forward from this event, to learn from it, and to strengthen our friendship. He accepted what I was doing—even encouraged it—and I learned to balance my attention and time. Showing up once or twice a week and doing nothing with my friends but having fun made me realize that this was one of my greatest joys.

Fair-weather friendships

Our self-interest usually outweighs our benevolence, but this shouldn’t be surprising. We keep things that are useful to us and we discard things that aren’t. It’s natural.

The Roman philosopher Seneca had a great insight on this in Letters to a Stoic [emphasis mine]:

 Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendshipsA person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful. This explains the crowds of friends that clusters about successful men and the only atmosphere about the ruinedtheir friends running away when it comes to the testing point; it explains the countless scandalous instances of people deserting or betraying others out of fear for themselves. The ending inevitably matches the beginning: a person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends because it pays him to do so.

Growing up with kids from all cultures and walks of life, this skill was necessary for survival and navigating the social landscape in schools or in neighborhoods. It feels great to be seen and to be of use to someone for a time, but to believe that this is an authentic friendship rather than a supply-and-demand one is to deceive yourself.

What is an authentic friendship that goes beyond a person’s usefulness?

I think there will always be a strong yet silent undertone of usefulness in every friendship, but not in the way that Seneca is describing, which seems more manipulative, like a used car salesperson.

It’s useful to have friends from a diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities because it helps you empathize, learn cultures, and have compassion towards differences. It’s useful to be surrounded by smart friends because you learn better decision making, how to accomplish goals, and how to level up in life.

But there is a clear difference between being friends with someone who supplies you with an item and being friends with someone because you connect on an emotional, personal, and spiritual level. You care for this person, want them to do well in life, and genuinely enjoy their company. Whether they’re rich, poor, connected or not, it doesn’t matter—you are bound together for life by some mysterious energy that would be painful if lost. These are, I think, true friendships, and the ones worth cultivating and keeping.

* * *

“Each friend represents a world in us,” said the author and speaker T. Harv Eker,  “a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

Unexpected people will barge into your life and flip your world upside down, for good or for ill. Learning to trust someone, to share your story and to hear theirs, is an act of faith—you simply don’t know if someone will appreciate you or misunderstand you.

It’s a risk worth taking, one that will certainly invite heartbreak and one that will occasionally make your heart sing. To not take the risk is to deny yourself the possibility of forging new friendships that change the fabric of your life, that add color, depth, texture, and richness. The tradeoff is worth it, I think, and hopefully these honest reflections have helped you in some way. We all need friends, and that starts with being willing to take a leap and to trust what happens next.

— PAUL JUN