Of all the gifts we might desire in life, surely friendship stands near the top of the list.
Those of us who have a close friend or two feel blessed. We share our dreams and secrets with these companions of the heart: our joy and our sadness, our victories and our defeats. And when we goof up in some big-time way, we know that our friend will stand beside us instead of wagging a finger in our face.
Yet making good friends can be a tough proposition, especially when we enter adulthood. The single man whose company transfers him from Boston to Tucson, Arizona, where he knows no one, may keep in touch with his Massachusetts buddies electronically, but it’s not the same as sharing a beer with them after work at the Harvard Gardens on Beacon Hill.
In Harvard Magazine’s “The Loneliness Pandemic,” Jacob Sweet offers a detailed analysis of the causes and consequences of loneliness. Citing a dozen or more experts on this subject, Sweet points out that in addition to the social isolation brought about by COVID-19, a widespread pandemic of loneliness has long afflicted huge numbers of people living both in the United States and abroad. Young and old alike say, “I don’t really feel like anybody knows me.”
And as Sweet reports, this sense of isolation can affect not only our mental health, but also our physical well-being. Some researchers contend that acute loneliness has the same impact on the body as alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others are exploring the relationship between loneliness and the damage done to the body’s immune system.
So what can we do? If we feel shut off from others, how can we break out of this prison and find some friends?
Setting aside time from the frenetic pace of modern life to develop and deepen friendship is crucial. The guy who works from dawn to dusk and then collapses in front of his television, beer in hand, has locked the door on friendship. The working mom—and in my book, all moms are working moms—who becomes so caught up in her job or in child care, or both, may be kissing friendship goodbye. They may not realize it, but both may be missing the delights and strength friendship could bring them.
Finding some common ground can also lead to a more profound relationship. When the young woman knitting in a coffee shop attracts the attention of her waitress, who also knits, she might initiate a conversation that leads beyond needles and yarn and opens the door to fellowship.
And then there’s engagement. If an anxious acquaintance is telling us about her fear of failure at work, and we’re silently wondering whether to make spaghetti or pizza for supper, we’re cutting short the possibility of enhancing that relationship. We need to be all ears, commenting or asking questions, and truly sharing in the moment.
When I was teaching seminars to homeschoolers, a concerned mother approached me to ask why her daughter had no friends in her classes. I gently explained that while the other students talked and horsed around during their breaks, Sarah sat at her desk and read a book. Her mother must have spoken to Sarah, for the very next week I found her in the break room, listening to a small group of girls laughing and talking together.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said long ago, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”