Sometimes I arrange and rearrange my bridal party. I’m not engaged (or even in a committed relationship), but when I fantasize about my future wedding, I don’t think of cakes, venues, dresses, or even rings. Instead, I mix and match my friends like a fantasy football lineup. I pick the rotating group of women based on devotion, unique skill set, and my mood on the given day. While this is an embarrassing trait, it’s also very telling: When I think of my marriage, I think of friendship as well. When I conjure up the symbolic moment of everlasting love, I think of the women who serve as incubators, shepherding me through the milestones of my life. Friendships are, indeed, a type of marriage, but they don’t get the same respect. We often overlook the commitment involved.
Two days before Thanksgiving, I took myself to dinner. I ducked into a small Thai restaurant and watched the other diners around me—friends gathered to share a meal. I saw groups sharing noodles, digging chopsticks into each other’s plates, and extracting mouthfuls of vegetables, meat dishes, and Pad Thai. As people laughed and toasted one another, it occurred to me that, in two days, many of these people would sit around Thanksgiving dinner tables with their families, but it’s possible that none of this camaraderie would exist. Their actual Thanksgiving meal might not be filled with the same ease that comes from dining with good friends.
While our specific experiences may vary, most of us come from complicated upbringings. Our parents were not the Cleavers, and our good memories are often peppered with unresolved hurts. We remember what we didn’t get enough of: encouragement, home-cooked meals, or emotional support. Even under the best conditions, we often grow up in environments where we’re not fully seen. Families, after all, are groups of regular people struggling to grow old with one another. As a result, most good friendships are a mix of great love and a dash of shared neuroses. All good friendships are spaces where we’re accepted as we are. We tend to look for what our families can’t give us.
My best friend, Trela, and I attended a meditation retreat to celebrate our ten years of friendship. At the beginning of the year, in the comfort of our respective homes, this felt like a wonderful idea: 10 days of silence, without making eye contact, and meditating for up to 10 hours a day. We drove to the retreat center singing 90’s boy band hits at the top of our lungs. We grieved together as we put our cell phones into Ziploc bags and signed waivers that we would not leave early. We huddled close together, our shoulders almost touching, when the meditation staff explained that we’d be in silence for nine days.
And then, when the bell rang, we were enemies.
While we didn’t communicate once during our 10 days together, we calibrated our own progress to our ideas about each other. When Trela switched from sitting on a round cushion to a cushion with back support, I found myself enraged. “Classic Trela,” I thought. “Getting special treatment while the rest of us suffer!” I felt a personal victory when she signed up to talk with the meditation teacher. It was as if she was failing in a way that I had not. It didn’t matter that I discovered her name on the sign-up sheet when I’d walked over to set up my own meeting with the teacher. Trela was struggling, and I was thrilled. And then, right after that fleeting moment of joy, I tortured myself for hours with the guilty realization that, perhaps, I’m not a good friend.
The sad and exciting paradox of life is we’re neither as wonderful nor as horrible as we suspect we are. As a result, our most nourishing friendships aren’t with those who agree with us all the time. Our true friends are those who do not fear us and challenge us to embrace our highest desires for ourselves. They are the fearless friends who will grab us by the shoulders and hold up a mirror to what we are actively avoiding. These friendships are pathways into our true nature.
Standing in silence with the starkness of my shame, I realized that many of the dramas that play out between friends are truly internal struggles. The other character in our play becomes irrelevant; we’re just struggling against old hurts left unresolved. In this case, our friends, and the ways they trigger us, become a blessing in disguise. How lucky we are to have scene partners. How lucky we are that we don’t have to address old hurts alone. Without sound or provocation, I created a narrative about who my best friend was and how her actions slighted me. In truth, she wasn’t even involved. She was busy slaying demons of her own.
When Trela and I were finally able to speak again, we talked about our feelings. As it turns out, she had similar feelings of resentment toward me (she thought my posture was too perfect and was annoyed by my unwavering attendance at 4 a.m. group sitting). Through this confession of our resentments, we bowed to the divinity in each other, and that is the best thing any friendship could hope for. Friendship is not that absence of unpleasant feelings, and it’s not the denial of irritation. Friendship, all soul relationships, is built on the ability to sustain the connective tissue that holds two imperfect people together. Yes, friends are the family you choose, but they work properly only if you continue to keep choosing one another as you both evolve in new and different ways. You continue to sit down at that table and share noodles. You continue to confront life together because a truly wise person knows that, whether with friends, family, or strangers on a train, we’re only ever in the overwhelming presence of the divine.