Friendship is the sunshine of life — the quiet radiance that makes our lives not only livable but worth living. (This is why we must use the utmost care in how we wield the word friend.) In my own life, friendship has been the lifeline for my darkest hours of despair, the magnifying lens for my brightest joys, the quiet pulse-beat beneath the daily task of living. You can glean a great deal about a person from the constellation of friends around the gravitational pull of their personhood. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she contemplated how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship. Her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson — whom she taught to look through a telescope — believed that all true friendship rests on two pillars. In his own life, he put the theory into practice in his friendship with his young protégé Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — a solitary and achingly introverted person himself, who thought deeply and passionately about the rewards and challenges of friendship.
Why should I speak to my friends? for how rarely is it that I am I; and are they, then, they? We will meet, then, far away.
Several months later, just before the Christmas holidays with their cruel magnifying lens of loneliness for the lonely, he rues his inability to connect openheartedly:
My difficulties with my friends are such as no frankness will settle. There is no precept in the New Testament that will assist me. My nature, it may be, is secret. Others can confess and explain; I cannot.
Thoreau finds himself pocked with self-doubt about his ability to connect, his sense of isolation at times swelling into punitive despair:
Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends. I feel what a fool I am.
Over and over, Thoreau anguishes with the extreme shyness and reticence of his nature, longs for a confidante beyond the diary page, longs for companionship beyond the birds and the trees. On a beautiful spring Sunday, he despairs:
I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.
What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.
And yet this openhearted longing is itself the only real raw material of friendship — only by surrendering to it, with all the vulnerability this demands of us, do we become receptive to the longing of others, the mutual yearning for connection that is shared heartbeat of humanity. Thoreau quietly intuits this equivalence, so that when he does connect, when he does feel the warm glow of friendship envelop him, it is nothing less than an exultation:
Ah, my friends, I know you better than you think, and love you better, too.
At only twenty-four, Thoreau had arrived at a foundational fact of living — his own grand unified theory of human connection, which he spent the remainder of his short life trying, often with touching difficulty, to put into practice:
Friends are those twain who feel their interests to be one. Each knows that the other might as well have said what he said. All beauty, all music, all delight springs from apparent dualism but real unity. My friend is my real brother.
Pulsating beneath all of his uneasy reckonings is a deep-thinking, deep-feeling recognition of the essence of friendship:
The field where friends have met is consecrated forever. Man seeks friendship out of the desire to realize a home here… The friend is like wax in the rays that fall from our own hearts. My friend does not take my word for anything, but he takes me. He trusts me as I trust myself. We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.
Syndicated from The Marginalian.Maria Popova is a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, and is the founder and editor in chief of The Marginalian (which offers a free weekly newsletter).
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On Apr 10, 2023NINA wrote:
How beyond wonderful is the life and legacy of the life of this good man mystic & poet
"Friendships nurture all that has been lost in our lives, " Anais Nin. I love this quote because it tells me that friends help us create the bridges to all our possible lives. It is easy to give the heart, not so much to reach out and make a friend. Yet when that connection happens so the world opens and your story becomes more layered.
Who would I be without my friendships? Especially women, but also my male friends. All their stories, all of our shared experiences help me, lead me always to a greater understanding of our commonality. And when a friendship has been lost -and I have lost a few - it is because of a my lack of seeing, of not feeling what they were feeling at their moment of great distress. And of not understanding, until too late, how my response felt to them.