“FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses, as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.
A friend knows our difficulties and shadows, and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.
In the course of the years, a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves; to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties, and even their sins, and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.
Through the eyes of a real friendship an individual is larger than their everyday actions, and through the eyes of another we receive a greater sense of our own personhood, one we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding, not only of the self and the other but also of a possible and as yet unlived future.
Friendship is the great hidden transmuter of all relationships: it can transform a troubled marriage, make honourable a professional rivalry, make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love, and become the newly discovered ground for a mature parent–child relationship.
The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life. A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armoured personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.
Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation. Boredom is the second great killer of friendship.
Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognise the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation, independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter, and in that faithfulness take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going.
Friendship transcends disappearance: an enduring friendship goes on after death, the exchange only transmuted by absence, the relationship advancing and maturing in a silent internal conversational way, even after one half of the bond has passed on.
But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long, close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self: the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.“
—David Whyte, “Friendship,” Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (2020)
The topic of friendship has been resonating with me strongly in recent years. This is partially inspired by my trips back to the country of my birth and somewhat influenced by this chapter in my life where I find myself single and free from parental and wifely commitments. I feel blessed to have been on this rich path of self-discovery, which was catalyzed by my divorce in 2004.
In my life’s journey, I’ve encountered other humans, each of whom has taught me something about myself, about them, and about the precious life we lead. Some of these friendships have endured longer than others; some have been deeper, while some remained more surface-level. Yet, each of them has gifted me with valuable lessons and served as mirrors reflecting different facets of my existence. Some friends I’ve realized cannot hold certain parts of me, as their views on right and wrong clash with my own. This discord is challenging both for me and for them. It’s in moments like these that I learn to soften, surrender, and do the necessary inner work.
Over the past two years, I have visited Malaysia to reconnect with my family and friends. My mother, now 89 years old, has seen most of her friends pass away, including her dearest friend, my aunty Polly, who left us on October 17, 2023.
During these visits, I’ve deliberately captured moments and posed poignant questions. These questions may not always lead to clear answers for me, but they fuel my curiosity about what shaped the people I care about.
One striking realization from my talks with them was how crucial friendships and community were to them. It was heartwarming to witness their unwavering commitment to each other over the years. They would gather almost every day at each other’s homes to play mahjong and engage in various activities. Their lives were always full of vibrant, shared experiences.
In their later years, as illnesses struck, they continued to support one another. The men, it seems, departed first, leaving most of the widows behind. Nevertheless, these strong friendships endured. They looked after each other, offered companionship, shared laughter, meals, and continued moving to the best of their abilities.
I’m touched by these examples that the older generations have set and am inspired to recreate this for myself.
“Paradoxically, it is friendship that often offers us the real route to the pleasures that Romanticism associates with love. That this sounds surprising is only a reflection of how underdeveloped our day-to-day vision of friendship has become. We associate it with a casual acquaintance we see only once in a while to exchange inconsequential and shallow banter. But real friendship is something altogether more profound and worthy of exultation. It is an arena in which two people can get a sense of each other’s vulnerabilities, appreciate each other’s follies without recrimination, reassure each other as to their value and greet the sorrows and tragedies of existence with wit and warmth. Culturally and collectively, we have made a momentous mistake which has left us both lonelier and more disappointed than we ever needed to be. In a better world, our most serious goal would be not to locate one special lover with whom to replace all other humans but to put our intelligence and energy into identifying and nurturing a circle of true friends.”
~ Alain de Botton