Am I Your Friend, I Ask…

“What a contrast between us! You live a warm and glowing life, surrounded by loved ones whom you care for and who care for you; you are anchored in contentment. I drift about without rudder or compass, a wreck on the sea of life; I have… no friends for the wholesome development of my affects, or enemies for my malice.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, in a letter to his sister-in-law

I was recovering from an attack of viral hepatitis. Home bound. Room bound. Going slowly crazy.

All day – and most of the night – I played TV video games until my thumb got swollen from punching the ‘Fire’ button! One evening, the phone rang. It was a friend calling with some exciting news.

“Did you know that X and Y got married? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Both X and Y were our classmates. Over the five years of med school, we spent time together almost every day. Attended the same clinics. Went to the same lectures and classes.

And as our internship wended its way to a close and we prepared to chart our own paths into the future as doctors, we were at the same flurry of farewell parties. Just 6 weeks before, Y spent the day at my place along with 6 or 7 other mates… and didn’t mention a word about the wedding.

Sure, many of us were aware something was brewing – and that there were some conflicts within the families about a proposed union. But it still came as a surprise.

“No, I didn’t know. When did it happen?”

“Five days ago.”

The words would stick in my mind for a long time. I was at a phase when I was doing quite a lot of heavy, deep thinking. About many different things.

  • It was the time I was forced to watch, impotent and helpless, as my 8 year-old niece succumbed to a deadly kidney ailment.
  • I had recently held a 19 year-old boy’s hand as his life slipped away on the medical unit where I was the intern on duty.
  • It was shortly after two incidents where I was responsible for surgical patients nearly dying (I share the stories in my book, ‘Heart, Guts & Steel: The Making of an Indian Surgeon‘).
  • It was when a far off relative, not much older than me, was diagnosed with serious mental illness.
  • Closer to home, there were a few other emotional stressors that were acting up.
  • I was also struggling to make sense of complex issues like religion, ethics and values, to evolve my worldview, one which would guide me over the decades ahead.

All in all, these were confusing, stressful and intense times.

And this incident was just more grist to my thinking mill.

I pondered over it for a few days. Had several impassioned internal debates over what it all meant. At the heart of my self-exploration was this question: Why didn’t they tell me even five days later?

I could rationalize away the need for keeping things under wraps until the event. And even being unable to let friends know for a couple of days later. But five days? Nah!

There had to be another explanation. And I had to find it.

In the end, this meditation led me to some powerful insights that have stayed constant now for over 30 years. Among the most helpful was this realization:

A friend isn’t someone you think is your friend. A friend is someone who also believes YOU are his/her friend.

Everything else stems from this.

Whether a friend…

  • Shares confidences with you; seeks you out for support or advice; will stand up for you or lend a shoulder to cry on; or simply be there for you – no matter what.
  • Feels sad when you’re hurting; rejoices in your successes and achievements; shares in your happiness; encourages and inspires you when you’re feeling low; and cuts you down to size when you’re getting uppity!
  • Is willing to forego comfort and convenience to help you out; change something about themselves simply because you’re not comfortable with it; and push you to become a better person in many ways.

All of this depends on whether or not s/he thinks you’re a friend!

For that powerful lesson, I will always be deeply grateful to both X and Y – because it transformed my personal relationships completely, forever.

I still ask my wife, from time to time, “Am I still your friend?”

She goes, “Dude, we’ve been married for over 20 years!”

And I reply, “Yeah, but I didn’t ask if you’re my wife.”

We’re married. And unless we divorce or die, she will continue to be my wife. But I want to know if we’re still friends!

Because that relationship isn’t sealed by a legal contract or deal. It’s a personal feeling… one that’s always in flux.

Why did this topic come up today?

Well, a few days ago, on one of our evening walks, my daughter asked: “Do you really need friends?”

Which brought my old, rambling thought-arguments about friendship back to the fore once more.

I told my daughter how my thoughts on friendship had evolved over time. That even though both of us, by nature, aren’t the kind to lean on a friend for support or advice about most issues, I still believe it is important to have friends.

But there’s a twist to why I think so… and it’s this.

If YOU are the kind of person who can attract and retain friends, the guy or gal that others will want to look upon as THEIR friend, then you feel a deep sense of satisfaction. It boosts your confidence and self-esteem in a way that’s hard to describe – but easy to know when you experience.

While I can argue that it isn’t objectively “better” to have many (or even any) friends, I will say that it’s nice to be a person who others can consider their real friend.

That I have around fifty people in my life who are my friends in this sense is my greatest joy and accomplishment!

Not the money I make. Not the awards I win. Not even the patients I treat.

The friends I’ve met, known and grown with – the friends I love, cherish and respect – the friends who consider me THEIR friends… they are my treasure.

What if you don’t have any like that? What if you don’t want them?

It’s cool.

Just different. But nothing wrong about that, especially if you’re the ‘strong and silent’ kind who won’t go looking for a shoulder to cry on, or doesn’t need to consult a dozen people before taking tough decisions.

What’s wrong is trying hard to delude yourself about having “friends” – when those people wouldn’t describe you in the same way!

Still, if part of the reason for not having friends is something about your attitude, thinking or worldview that pushes or holds others away, it’s easy to work on that (if you want to) – and fix it, so that you’ll have (at least) a few special pals.

Dale Carnegie‘s book “How To Win Friends & Influence People” is a great primer on preparing yourself to be a good friend.

But how can you be friends with people you no longer meet that often?” she asked.

Here’s the thing.

Friendship is a meeting of hearts, and souls. At least, that’s what I believe.

And for that reason, one can become – and remain – a dear friend… even without having met in person at all!

That’s especially true in today’s world of global digital communication. Some of my dear friends like Declan Dunn, Willie Crawford, Ken McArthur, Barb Ling and Randy Smith are folks I’ve never met in person. And others like Mark Joyner and Kevin Riley, I’ve only met face to face a couple of times.

But that didn’t have any untoward effect upon our friendship… because we continue to stay in touch, even if only in remote/digital ways.

It’s hard, though, to keep even such a relationship going without communication for a long time. So if you lose touch with a friend for extended periods, it’s rare to retain that pristine connection – except in very special cases.

What happens then if I move to a different place or phase in my life, and leave my friends behind?” my daughter asked.

“It’s what happens naturally,” I replied.

Because as you grow, you change – and so do your friends.

If the change happens in sync, if you both move along similar trajectories, and continue to find common ground, you’ll continue to be friends.

If not, your paths diverge – and you’re no longer such good friends.

And that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t take away from what you once had, shared, enjoyed. True friendship.

Like everything else that’s precious, friendship isn’t eternal.

But when a friend stays your friend for years and years and years… wow, there’s nothing quite as special as that, now, is there?

That’s rare. Really, really rare.

Because life isn’t static. Neither are you. Or s/he.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” said Heraclitus in 544 BC.

So prepare for change.

To lose old friends. To make new ones. To relish the process.

And be ready to keep asking: “Are you (still) my friend?”

Or you could choose to forego friendship in toto… and have more casual engagements with folks in your universe – without feeling that it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’.

It’s not.

Friendship is a choice.

Giving it. And accepting it.

Two days ago, our med school batch had its annual reunion. I couldn’t attend, even though some 80+ of my colleagues gathered together.

It might have saddened me – except that when I took a closer look at the list of attendees, one thing stands out.

There were two kinds of people in the group.

  • Some were friends – and all but 3 of them were folks I meet and/or talk to regularly, just like I’ve done for the past 30 years!
  • The rest were batchmates. We shared a classroom, and a few other experiences. But little else.

If I could ask them that critical question: “Am I your friend?” – I’m not sure what the answer would be!

So I don’t feel really sad at missing the event. Except about not getting to meet those three friends after a long time. (Maybe I still will, before they leave town!)

“It’s an insane world but in it there is one sanity, the loyalty of old friends.

– Ben Hur

And so it’s nice that we celebrate International Friendship Day, or just ‘Friendship Day‘, all over the world on August 4th. It’s a refreshing chance to celebrate one of the nicest relationships us humans can have in our lives.

A chance to reach out to the ones you’ve not been as communicative with as you should, and tell them, individually,

‘Thank you for being my friend!’

Like I’m doing with this post 🙂

I’ll end this with a question of my own:

“Am I (still) YOUR friend?”