Celebrating Friendships

The Rev. Alison Cornish

April 3, 2005 – 

For all the difficulties I know families with children who have genetic disorders must face, when I read stories like the one about Cassie, I find myself smiling in gratefulness.

Grateful for the wisdom that comes, unexpectedly, from an eight-year. In just a moment, a turning of the phrase, ‘Are you a stranger?’ becomes, ‘Now we’re friends!’”

As frustrating as it must be for a parent trying to teach “stranger-awareness” to a vulnerable child, most of us are more in need of growing our “friend-awareness” – and this eight-year old is not at all a bad mentor. Cassie’s story reminds us, again, of the words we spoke earlier in lighting our chalice – when we welcome the stranger, we open our hearts to the making of a friend. And it leads to these questions, at the heart of today’s service: just how do we forge our way through the waters from stranger to friend? And, once there, how might we tend to our friendships that anchor us in the storm-tossed seas of life?

So, first, how do we get from here to there, from stranger to friend? When we are young, participating in the regular institutions and rituals of growing up – schools, churches, synagogues, neighborhoods, sports teams, dance classes – we meet new people, potential friends, regularly. Even if we are shy, or reticent, there are people around us – parents, teachers, coaches – who smooth the way for us, inviting a new playmate into our lives, matching us with a new science lab partner, a buddy for practice. As we explore the world around us, finding our own interests and passions, we meet others who share our budding notions of how the world is – or might be.

Growing up and making friends go hand-in-hand, and if we are fortunate, some of those friendships cast early on will follow us, and sustain us, through the rest of our lives – through cross-country or global moves, changes in our families and careers.

As we grow older, with our lives more settled into a routine, our families and old friends clustered about us, we can easily find ourselves becoming more “stranger-aware” than “friend-aware.” Our beloved patterns of living limit the newness we encounter in our lives. Imagining starting over again, telling our life story, again, letting ourselves be open to the new, and different, again – well, all this can be daunting. And if we’re not pushed in to it by a significant life event – a move to a new home, the death of a life partner – it’s hard to make ourselves see the value of moving beyond our old circle. In fact, sometimes it feels to me that the most I can manage is to stay in touch with those old friends. But new friends? How would I begin?

We are introduced to many of characteristics of friendship as children – loyalty, joy in sharing life in common, help, a confiding ear. But first and foremost, friendships teach us that no one moves through life alone, despite the fierce aura of independence in which we often cloak ourselves. In contemplating our sense of separateness, Albert Einstein said: “[our own sense of separateness is] a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. It’s a delusion that limits our caring because it restricts us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.” What Einstein portrays – caring limited by the illusion of separateness – is the exact opposite of what I saw in Wallace. He demonstrated that, in fact, interdependence knows no bounds. By casting his net wide, Wallace was rejuvenated by the renewed sense of I am not alone, over and over again. In widening his circle of friendship, he widened the horizons of caring.

Here’s a story about the power of friendship that taught me well the lessons of a circle of caring. Many years back I was a member of a congregation that had a large and vibrant group of young people in their religious education program. As sometimes happens, one age group “clicked” and bonded, and so they stayed a sizable group as they progressed through the years. It came time for this large group of kids to begin the UU curriculum, “About Your Sexuality,” taught to 7th and 8th graders. Not surprisingly, the specter of this class raises lots of emotions from kids – those who want to appear cool, like they know it already, and those who are nervous about having these conversations with their peers while adult leaders are present. So a lot of them lobby to opt out.

In the midst of all of this was Scott. Scott was one of the gang. Scott had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 8 years old. He had already endured large doses of radiation and chemotherapy. In all my time at that congregation, I never saw Scott with hair. When it came time to sign up for the course, Scott declared he wouldn’t participate. He didn’t see the point of it. From his perspective, he wasn’t going to live long enough to enter into an intimate sexual relationship with another person. Why bother? he said. Why make myself even more depressed?

Scott was unprepared for the response from his peers. When they heard about his decision, they all, as one, declared that if Scott didn’t take the class, they wouldn’t either. Scott – and the rest of us – were completely taken aback. Scott rebutted: “But you – you all have a future. You need to learn this stuff.” The kids stood their ground. No Scott, no class.

Eventually, Scott relented. He signed up for the course. And everyone else did, too.

They had an incredible, memorable, time together. Scott cracked jokes about everything and everyone, including himself. Everyone laughed, a lot. And later that spring, at the age of 14, Scott died.

What good, what love, can come from friendship is boundless. When friendships are “birthed” in a congregation, for many of us, it’s the first place we experience love and compassion in the way those 7th and 8th graders demonstrated it. It’s about time we get past the idea that everyone learns well the lessons of love in our primary homes, our families of origin. When I hear people today describe where they are learning about compassion and forgiveness, the setting is as likely to be a 12-step meeting, or a meditation circle, or a congregation, or a women’s or men’s group, or a support group for those who grieve, or have cancer, or are blind. These are places where people find what Unitarian Universalist minister Brian Kiely calls “the mystical cycle,” the circular path of relationship. And while Kiely writes primarily about partnership relationships, I see in his words much that applies to friendships. He reminds us that all relationships travel a cycle that includes ordinary and enjoyable times; times of disagreement and anxiety; creative times that renew us; and times of deepening trust and intimacy. Round and round the cycle we go, pausing at these points along the way, often for days – sometimes for years – but always the cycle continues.

Kiely suggests that this cycle of relationship is best served when we “make our loving into a spiritual discipline” that includes “intentionality, patience, and a willingness to let go of what we want in favor of the gifts we are given.” He identifies four aspects to this spiritual practice: engagement, commitment, individuality, and honesty.

First, engagement – not in the betrothed sense, but in “choosing to be engaged with one another … not looking past the other to the next thing on the agenda.” Friendships need time to prosper, time that sometimes must be carved out from other priorities in life. But engagement doesn’t stop with setting aside time. In Kiely’s words:

Engagement is not always a safe or simple path. It opens issues and attitudes to

shared scrutiny. It means facing our own failings and acts of betrayal. When we

choose to stay engaged [with our friends], we give them permission to tell us what they really feel on any issue without the fear of violence or break-up.

Some of you might be thinking, “with friends like that, why not just cavort with my enemies?” But I understand where Kiely is coming from. Passing through hard times with my own friends has led to a deepening of trust that can come only after we have erred, and have been forgiven, and offered forgiveness.

Second, there’s commitment. If a friendship is basically healthy – without abuse, violence or addiction – and desired, then friends make a commitment to hang in there.

It’s something like the loyalty that we learn as young children, but with the additional faith that a friendship will survive the hard times – that, together, we see something here that is worth our commitment. It’s the commitment that allows us to ask hard questions of one another, to get past the surface of “everything’s fine, just fine,” to know, and to be known. It’s a commitment that endures changes through a friend’s decline in health, or a failed marriage, or joblessness.

And third, there’s individuality. While friendships are about being together, they are also about affirming our individuality, our uniqueness. Can you be thrilled for a friend who has found a new love in his life? Can you applaud with gusto her professional accomplishments? Friendships can become very interesting, and informative, mirrors for us – what’s reflected back? Our delight in their happiness, or our own envy? Our pride in their success, or our own jealousy and pettiness? Friendships offer us lessons about ourselves with the speed and power of a boomerang.

Finally, there’s honesty. As Kiely says, “the final aspect of [this] spiritual practice … is a willingness to be honest [with the other], and, more importantly, with yourself.” This requires that we both speak and listen with honesty. Speaking with honesty means trusting that you can say what you need to say – without fear of the friendship ending. Listening with honesty means that we are willing to try to hear the truth of our friend’s mind and heart – even if we don’t understand it, even if it hurts. Honesty builds empathy, not only for our friends, but for ourselves. As the Buddha said:

See yourself in others

Then whom can you hurt?

What harm can you do?

Kiely concludes by saying that what we stand to gain through a spiritual discipline such as this is wholeness – “there will continue to be good and bad times, as well as creative and neutral times. That is the cycle of things.” But with engagement, commitment, individuality and honesty, intimacy, care, and love will grow.

To his words I would add these – our friendships serve as the nursery for our spiritual growth. What we learn when we tend to one another in friendship serves us well in our encounters with the larger world. Forgiveness learned between two who love one another spills into encounters with neighbors. Compassion for a suffering friend generates new feelings of empathy for oneself – and for others. Turning “stranger-awareness” into “friend-awareness” counters the narratives of fear and isolation that make this world cold and lonely for far too many. Like a pebble tossed into the water, our friendships are the start of the circles that move ever outward, caressing all they touch with care.

Closing Words

(Audrey Hepburn was once asked by a fashion magazine for her beauty tips. This is what she wrote back:)

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.

For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.

For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For poise, walk with the knowledge you never walk alone.

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