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who are your best friends?
understanding and accepting progression of a friendship :
I have had requests for a long time to write about friends: making and keeping friends. I felt honored but also wasn’t sure if I could write a whole essay dedicated to the matter until this year. If the first half of this year has taught me anything, that is how friendships can salvage and lift me out of my own self-inflicted doom.
When I was a kid, a friend was someone I talk to frequently, in class or during playtime. I went to their house after school and got invited to their birthday parties. Our parents even know each other.
When I got to high school, the definition is more or less the same except for the beginning of weak ties and social acquaintances. I had friends who did the same extracurricular but we didn’t necessarily know each other well. You “know of” people because so and so date this person or someone is a neighbor of your classmate. A more shallow level of connection was created.
In college, a friend might be someone I talked to twice during orientation week and failed to see for the rest of my college career. They might attend the same conference as I did, which prompted each of us to follow one another on Instagram. With some miraculous power, we managed to be Instagram stories viewers without ever talking in person again.
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In a podcast episode with Trevor Noah on the show On Purpose by Jay Shetty, Trevor talked about how he defines a friend:
A friend is someone who I would understand in most situations.
I have never agreed with anyone more on what a friendship is. Friendship to me is solemn. I refrain from freely labeling anyone as a friend. The working world introduced me to a new order of connection: meeting people from all walks of life. My streak of acquainting new people started: a friend of a friend when I first moved to Austin, people from social media, work acquaintances, meet up buddies, alumni from my high school.
I am good with beginning and the end and I suck at the middle. I am excellent with moving to a new city and thriving off the excitement generated from the newness, only to get confused with how reality unfolded. I went through the same cycle with every new beginning: high school, college, work. The beginning was explosive and wonderful. You can hear me gush about how many new people I am meeting and how many events I am signing up for, just to drop the majority of them a few weeks later. These rounds of meeting and leaving people time and time again teach me to distinguish the fireworks of initial connection from the quality and consistent efforts. I told my friend recently that bad people help me appreciate the good ones.
I love talking about friendships and my mom used to tell me that a friend doesn’t have to be someone you talk to about EVERY topic. She said it is fine to have friends with whom you only discuss school or working out or travelling. My mom is right about a lot of things but I was adamant about not accepting this view. Intuitively, I know a good friend when I see one. I would not settle for a workout buddy as a friend if the only thing we do together is attend yoga classes. In fact, I have “friends” whom I knew from a single context: evening classes, co-workers, living in the same city, and being from Viet Nam, etc. We have one shared aspect and I thought we could be friends. Those connections fizzled out despite my best attempt at resuscitating them. Those people see me as a fellow classmate, city-dweller, and co-worker, nothing more, nothing less. They are acquaintances? yes, but friends? no. At a fundamental level, a good friend is someone who shares similar core values as you and even when there are differences, they can respect those so both parties can grow.
It’s interesting to take a scan of the people you keep in life when three things happen:
you are in a transformation mode
you are at your lowest
I have been in mode three since last winter and now hopefully transitioning to mode two. I was helpless and adamant to be helpless for a long time. I knew I needed to figure things out on my own and not by the advice of anyone. I distanced myself from family, friends, and everyone in between. All I needed was listening ears and encouragement. I didn’t need people troubleshooting my problem, giving me unsolicited advice or telling me what I want to do is foolish.
I volunteer as a crisis counselor and talk to people who are clinically depressed or in life crises on a weekly basis. The most useful things I learn in helping them are asking what they need and giving reinforcement. The act of explicitly inquiring how we can help means that we are putting the other person first. We yield to their needs instead of ours. Sometimes people need help but most need a space to break down and get feelings off their chest. Then they pick the pieces up and keep going.
In mode three, I had to leave behind people who were unable to give me the space I need. At the end of this period, I reflect a lot on what types of friends I want to keep for life. These friends are patient and generous with how long it took me to get back on my feet. They let me be but are there when I need them. I am grateful for the people I met and anyone who has expressed any interest in my well-being. But alas, a connection is a two-way street. The fact that someone has good intentions doesn’t obligate me to make that person a close friend. And please don’t interpret these words as rejecting your personal idea of a good friend. Everyone has a different need to be taken care of. Some people need more validation, some don’t care for that. Some need to see their friends weekly, some don’t talk for months.
To accept a friendship’s progression also means to be at peace with friends drifting from you. This happens as a natural result of people becoming more mature, moving on to new phases of life, switching careers, etc. Sometimes it is nobody’s fault that a friendship fades. Perhaps, it just needs to run its course. I used to be that obstinate person who forced a connection to last. “How could they abandon our connection” was the thought that ran through my head for years. Put simply, life happens and people are not as compatible as they used to be. Nothing is wrong with that.
A good friend is a precious treasure. They might come when we least expect them and also leave just as strangely. Learn to enjoy the good time and let people go when the connections don’t serve either person anymore.
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