On friendship

On the sunny terrace of a conference centre, a young girl is sitting next to me, engrossed in reading a book with words by Khalil Gibran.

On friendship

I asked her if she would like to read to me any particular part she liked, and she spontaneously chose the following:
“He who does not understand his friend unconditionally will never understand him.”

I asked myself:

can we ever understand another person unconditionally –
even if they are close to our hearts, and we think we know them well?
Don’t our friends, like all of us, have their own secrets?

Almost as much has been discussed and written about friendship, its prerequisites, conditions, and complexities, as has been about love, for are that not similar?

Have I actually agreed to write an article on this topic?  I am almost frightened by the audacity of such an undertaking!  At the same time, I am exhilarated by the opportunity: my reading friend has reminded me that this task is waiting to be realised.  I leave her to her own train of thoughts.

In the library of the conference centre, I look up Mikhail Naimy, a close friend of Khalil Gibran, and what he has to say about friendship in his book, ‘The Book of Mirdad’.  The wise Mirdad admonishes two friends who have completely fallen out over something: “You have no friends as long as you consider a single person an enemy.  How can a heart in which enmity dwells be a safe harbour for friendship?”

 Have not all of us experienced disappointment and estrangement when a friendship or relationship ends?  With some insight and some struggles, we have come to realise that what has ended, has in truth been an attachment to a particular form of relatedness, but not connectedness in the great Oneness of all things!  Sooner or later, we have to be able to silently bless a loved one who disappears from our sight, and let them go their way in peace.

Can the value of an encounter be measured by its duration?  Does belonging mean that something or someone ‘belongs’ to us?  Or does it become more important for us at some point in our lives, to be a friend, rather than having a friend?

We can be sceptical of such a possibility as a mature and realistic personality who has lived through and suffered many experiences.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Parable of the Porcupines, and the Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life, paints a bleak picture of the human need for closeness, when he talks about friendship as follows: “True, genuine friendship presupposes a strong, purely objective and completely disinterested  participation in the weal and woe of the other (…). The egoism of human nature is so opposed to this that true friendship is one of those things of which, as of colossal sea serpents, one does not know whether they are fabulous or exist somewhere.

 So is friendship merely wishful thinking; an ultimate illusion?  A self-deception without which the cold, cruel world would be simply unbearable?  An illusion which must sooner or later, shatter on the rocks of a harsh reality?

It is not possible for the judging mind of our ego-personality to understand a friend unconditionally.   A responsive and loving heart that has opened itself for the Light of the Universal Christ-radiation, on the other hand, is absolutely able to do so.  For what we have in common and what connects us at all times is the essence of the Original Source.

It can be safely assumed that we can greatly refine our capacity to develop friendships.  For instance, by being attentive to our fellow human beings, by learning to listen, by deepening our capacity for empathy, and by developing our sensitivity to the energetic laws of connecting with others, are just some beneficial components of friendly interaction with others that we can strengthen.

And it is obvious that we will only be a good friend to others to the extent that we have learned to be a good friend to ourselves.  Long before the insights of modern psychology, Aristotle pointed out that the feelings we have towards our friends, mirror the feelings we have towards ourselves.

But beyond mutual sympathy and harmony of views and interests, another ingredient seems to me to be of great importance for true friendship to flourish: a mutual “knowing” of each other from the depths of the soul, the shared vision of a path towards the true destiny of being human, the absolute willingness to be each other’s trusted and trustworthy companion.

The term Anam Cara, which comes from the Celtic culture, means “soul friend”, but it also has extended connotations such as ‘companion’, ‘spiritual teacher’, or ‘fellow brother or sister’.  The attempt to realise a spiritual ideal only on the level of the earthly, however, inevitably leads to falsehood and disappointment.

Plato’s Symposium speaks of divine human beings who were cut in two by the gods, and have been constantly searching for their lost other half ever since.  Driven by this primordial longing over many earthly lives, we repeatedly nurture the hope of finding in one person or another our “soul mate”, who will finally provide all that we have been missing.  But this is a tragic error that prevents us from recognising that this other one can only be found in our own being, in our souls’ core that has been severed from the original divine order.

No other person, not even our closest and dearest friend, is in this world to satisfy our longings.  Once we truly understand this, we are freed from the constricting bonds of false expectations, and we set others free.

Khalil Gibran again says: “Leave space between you.  And let the winds of heaven dance between you.”  Then, the role-playing that we put on ourselves and our friends, will stop.  Then, we can begin to turn to truly creative and light-filled tasks together.

On our spiritual path, which may not always be safe and easy, we can offer each other invaluable help: support, succour in adversity, comfort and encouragement, depending on what the situation requires.   This may at times be the mutual mirroring of unwelcome truths – aren’t we all mirrors to each other, all of the time?  Is it not love that accepts the weaknesses and less luminous sides of our friends.  This help can also be the ability to walk any dark, or frightening passages of the path, together with another person.

I think in this context of the small, seemingly insignificant Frodo from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Without the support of his companions, and especially without the unwavering loyalty of his friend Sam, the valiant hobbit would never have been able to complete his enormous task of delivering the Ring of Power to the Fire.

Occasionally we experience our path, our mission in life, as lonely and difficult to bear.  Then there is the great temptation to seek distraction and diversion, with all kinds of socialising and addictive activities, such as digital social networking.  Without the admiration and affirmation of others, we might feel insignificant, empty, as if dead during such phases.  Friendship can become an addictive drug with the help of which we hope to escape loneliness or the unpleasant confrontation with ourselves.

Only those who have learned to be comfortable being alone with themselves, or seek the silence of inner contemplation like the presence of a comforting friend, can be a really good friend to others.

If the young reader on the sun terrace had asked me what statement about friendship I particularly liked, I might have spontaneously chosen the third verse of the lyrics to a song written by the German poet Hermann Hesse

May every new day
show me new friends, new brothers
till I can praise, without sorrow, all powers,
and of all stars be guest and friend
and of all stars be guest and friend.


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Date: April 23, 2023
Author: Isabel Lehnen (Germany)
Photo: by Dim Hou on Pixabay CCO

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