Big Friendship: The Long Haul
You don’t want a big friendship to be resilient just so it endures. You want a big, resilient friendship so you, as a human, can be resilient when you’re presented with the horrible shit that life will most definitely throw your way. We think of Big Friendship as a way to deepen and diversify the community of support that will see us through the hard times. If you prioritize only your romantic relationships, who is going to hold your hand through a breakup? Relying on your spouse to be your everything will definitely undo your marriage. No one human can meet your every single emotional need. If you only prioritize your kids, what happens when they’re grown and living far away, wrapped up in their own lives? Or if you only prioritize work? Wow, that’s too sad to even contemplate.
Friendship can definitely survive, simmering on the back burner, in a way that some other relationships can’t. But not indefinitely. What’s in it for your friend if you are not equally invested? If you tune into the friendship again only after a divorce or once your kid is in preschool? Absence might not make the heart grow fonder. You run the risk of realizing that there’s not as much there as you remembered.
We give relationships meaning by the amount of attention and work we put into them. Just as we can choose to leave our friendships unattended and hope they stay warm, we can also choose to elevate our most important friendships to a status equal to marriage, family, and career. We can choose to keep them active, to keep investing in them.
There are big rewards if we do. Friendships become more important as people age, according to a 2017 study—so much so that even the researchers were shocked. “I went into the research sort of agnostic to the role of friendship,” the study’s author, the psychology professor William Chopik, told Time magazine. “But the really surprising thing was that, in a lot of ways, relationships with friends had a similar effect as those with family—and in others, they surpassed them.” He noted that, by old age, superficial and circumstantial friendships have faded away. The friendships that last till the end tend to be “the really influential ones”—the Big Friendships.
At the very end, whenever it comes, we will definitely want our friends there. Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded their dying epiphanies and published a book about it. One of the patients’ top five regrets was that they hadn’t stayed in touch with their friends. “Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks, and it was not always possible to track them down,” Ware writes. “Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
Are you crying? We’re crying.
Most of us are going to need the support of a friend long before we find ourselves on our deathbed. “When the universe gives you a crash course in vulnerability, you will discover how crucial and life-preserving good friendship is,” the psychologist Harriet Lerner told the New York Times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lerner is the author of The Dance of Connection, a book about how inti- mate relationships can survive a communication breakdown, that we definitely noticed on our therapist’s shelf.
Ann has been bracing for her crash course in vulnerability for years now. In several decades on this planet, she has never experienced the death of a close loved one, true financial precarity, a serious illness, deep emotional trauma, or family estrangement.
For her, this absence of pain only underscores the importance of friendship. It’s because of her friends’ experiences that she knows just how harrowing life can get, and why she is committed to investing in the people she knows will see her through it. Ann knows the pain is coming for her someday. And when that day comes, she is really going to need her friends.
Aminatou, no stranger to grief and major illness, has had her friends step up for her again and again. They’ve rushed to ERs on both coasts, stayed by her side, taken notes when doctors were giving instructions Aminatou couldn’t quite process, and advocated for her when she needed them. Over the years, her chronic illness symptoms worsened. New ones also appeared, and it was hard to tell if they were connected to each other. She was poring over medical textbooks, looking for answers.
When her new ob-gyn confirmed she had cancer, it was definitely a blow, but she wasn’t surprised. In some ways it was a relief to have a name for this collection of symptoms she had been feeling for years. Knowing it was endometrial cancer now meant she could focus on making a plan, and that plan would involve asking for help while she underwent treatment and surgery. She leaned on Shani especially hard. Shani would be the person keeping the friendweb updated and was also the person who would take Aminatou to and from surgeries. When Aminatou came to the recovery room after a long surgery to remove her tumor, the only words she remembers the surgeon saying were “Do you want me to bring Shani in? She’s been here the whole time.”
Aminatou asked Ann to organize a schedule for friends to drop off food during her surgery-recovery period, and Ann was glad to take the assignment. It was then that Ann felt a new level of gratitude for the hours we had spent in therapy together. She couldn’t imagine trying to support Aminatou if the two of us were still emotionally estranged. Even as it was happening, she realized that this was one of those big stretches that she and Aminatou had to experience together, otherwise the relationship would never recover. Still, when Aminatou told her not to fly out to be there in person when she was recovering from surgery, Ann couldn’t help but wonder if it was because she wasn’t as close to Aminatou as she had once been. But she channeled her energy into doing what she could to support her friend from a distance. And with the help of a few of Aminatou’s other friends, she organized solidarity blood drives in several cities. Giving blood to help other patients was one thing Aminatou had specifically asked people to do, and Ann wanted to make sure everyone followed through.
Friendship is a real-deal insurance policy against the hurricanes of life—and there’s social-science evidence that the hard stuff seems less difficult with a good friend by your side. In one study, participants were asked to assess how steep a hill was. Those who participated with a friend said the hill seemed less daunting than people who participated alone. A Big Friendship can hold you when you’re worried that everything else is falling apart. It can be a space of validation when you feel alone in the world. It can provide the relief of feeling seen without having to explain yourself in too many words. And it offers the security of knowing that you won’t have to go through life’s inevitable challenges alone.
This is an excerpt from BIG FRIENDSHIP: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Copyright © 2020 by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
This excerpt was featured in the October 18, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.