What are friends for? I'm a little stumped here, which is a feeling I often get when I have something important, but a bit prickly, to say. This morning, laying in bed, I was mulling over the couples-therapy demo video I streamed last night. (Yes, this is a real occupational hazard of being a counseling student.) Anyway, the session featured a method for which I have great respect – and yet, I could not get over my sense of uneasiness. WTF are you doing, good people? There is no way to solve what is transpiring between you, without first solving what is happening inside each of you. Also, WTF, good people? That man needs to fucking mow the lawn, and that is that.
What I was feeling is how very definitely I conceive of change as an individual pursuit, whose pleasant side effects include improved interpersonal relationships. I don't, in other words, believe in Doing It for the Marriage, or Doing It for the Family. I believe, in part, that friends are for reminding you that the work of getting on with your life is yours alone. They can’t do it for you, and they can’t even tell you what it is.
This orientation is I think a direct descendent of the family and social dynamics I grew up with. I learned quickly that if I depended on friends, parents, teachers, or family members, to tell me what to do, I pretty quickly wound up in roles and situations that did not feel right. I wound up with some kid's acne-face in mine, his nail-bitten fingers in my underpants. I wound up at a debate tournament every weekend, speed-snarking my way through arguments about Manuel Noriega and Integrated Pest Management. I wound up clearing the table, while my male relatives sat on their duffs. I wound up, in other words, unhappy.
It took me a long time to completely absorb the implications of this discovery. If friends, family, teachers, and the world in general aren’t there to tell you what to do, then why do they insist on telling you the opposite? Why are they so fucking upset, when you decline?
Most people are scared of doing the against-the-stream work of figuring out what they actually think, are, and should be doing. And if you start declining their invitations to go along with the stream, it begins to point out, rather uncomfortably, that something else is possible.
So then, what are friends for? Something like: one bird grawks somewhere in the forest, and another one cascade-tweets. A third sussurates, just under the note of the breeze in the pine boughs, and now we have a triangle that marks space. Now we have an echo of the unobstructed space that permeates our experience – inner and outer, upper and lower, and all around. Friends are for bearing witness to the truths that come pouring out of us like an uninterrupted stream of black ink on white ruled pages, or like a finger writing on the surface of the ocean.
I remember listening to an interview between Tami Simon, who founded the publishing company Sounds True, and her teacher, Reggie Ray. "So," she said, "you call yourself a Vajra Master. That's kind of a big title. What does it mean to you?" And he answered, “A Vajra Master is someone who, when you come at them wanting to give away your power, won’t take it.” So that’s another thing friends are for. When you show up really looking for someone to be your victim/ persecutor/ rescuer, your friend does a Melania hand-flick (only nicer, hopefully) and puts you right back in the saddle. What do you already know about this? Why are you shying away from knowing what you know?
Friends are for opening up possibilities that you might not otherwise make space for. My friend Stephanie, in developing brain cancer at age 30, opened the world of accelerated mortality much sooner than either of us thought we would be meeting it. She stepped right into the worlds of intracranial surgery, American Cancer Society lodges, and being actually told by a doctor that if you don't feel like it, flossing isn’t such a pressing concern. She opened the space of residential hospice care, and the way people call the ambulance anyway, just in case.
Friends are for making parts of our shared landscape visible in ways that it wouldn't otherwise be. Sure, I heard about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the flat ways that the radio could broadcast it for me, but it wasn't until I had a student who was a recent veteran that the whole thing began to seem real to me, in terms that could map onto my own experience of being human. This sweet man, with his angel drawings and utter devotion to his mother, was out there. Same goes for the refugee crisis: one thing when it’s a global catastrophe, and another when it’s your friend, fighting for her life with her life.
The Buddha described friendship with the image of two acrobats. The first one’s job is to walk holding a tall pole, and the second one’s job is to balance up there. How do we help each other, they asked? And the Buddha said, The best way to help each other is by doing everything you each can do, to do your own job well. He didn't say, What a stupid job. Why don’t you consider doing something a bit less precarious? Maybe that was in the second session, after the acrobats had sorted their codependency issues a bit more.
Anyway, that image strikes me as a kind of ur-myth for my own marriage and friendships. I spend very little time indeed trying to solve my friends’ problems, or asking them to solve mine. Instead, I focus on trying to do the best I can, maintaining moment-to-moment balance, and asking myself about whatever it is I’m trying to do. Am I feeling miserable and wobbly because the role I am trying to inhabit was invented by some ancient Indian acrobat-part, dwelling deep inside me? If so, re-assess. What would be a more fitting way to walk down this road? Whom have I asked to carry me on a pole, and how can I let them know they don’t have to? Whom am I carrying? How do I put them down?
Friends are for learning the limits of my strength and the boundaries I keep in the world. Friends are for laughing like hyenas when I come in, dusty and exhausted from another round of acrobatting on the open road. Friends are for savoring the moments of joy, truth, grief, and focus that arise spontaneously from letting go of stories and distractions.
Friends are for falling in love with, in the maybe-safe laboratory of unfolding stories that intersect and diverge. They are the catbird calling out from the edge of the garden, the beloved silhouette glimpsed just ahead in the parking lot, the mystery of how we arise and cease, for ourselves as for one another.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.