Ways of Seeing: Johanna Nichols on Friendship

It is important to have friends. Friends help us to live longer and better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.
When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality.
Friends may do even more — at least, for women — writes Gale Berkowitz. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a flood of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with others. Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger hormones that tell the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible. It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.
Scientists now suspect that being with friends can actually counteract the kind of stress most of us experience on a daily basis. It seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses, it buffers the fight or flight response. It encourages women to tend children and gather with other women instead. It produces a calming effect. Men also release oxytocin, but, due to testosterone, it does not have the same effect. Yet, men can and do choose to bond with friends (www.sciencedaily.com).
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on friendship maintains that there are two great requirements for friends. One is truth; friends must somehow avoid lies and deceptions even when these comfort. The other great requirement, Emerson says, is tenderness. He recognized and insisted on this essentially emotional quality in real relations between friends. Emerson’s friendship was described by Thoreau as “an infusion of love from a great soul.”
Emerson’s essay was about friendships made “of the tough fibre of the human heart.” He wrote: “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine, — a possession for all time. Nor is nature so poor but she gives me this joy several times, and thus we weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations.”
I just lost one of those friends. She was a minister too, younger and not retired. She lived with her cats, Jack and Elvis. When she didn’t show up for church on Sunday morning, it was discovered that she died in her home over the weekend. Sudden death shocks us; it robs us of that important process of saying goodbye. Along with grief, I am left with guilt. I meant to call her to ask about her trip to Italy and where she was going for her next interim ministry. Too late now.
She was a quirky friend with a quick, sharp wit. Emerson wanted his friends to be themselves. “Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.” He believed that true friends would come to recognize and trust the deep identity that unites them beneath their diversities.
The other element of friendship is tenderness. “When a man becomes dear to me,” said Emerson, “I have touched the goal of fortune. It is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution. It keeps company with the sallies of the wit and the trances of religion.”
For decades, I have gathered several times a year with three friends. We are about the same age. We share what we are learning about life, our joys, our sorrows, and our questions. We listen deeply with full attention. One of them puts it this way:
When we share as truthfully as it pours from our heart … And it is witnessed and received … Somehow it makes all the difference in the world. I’m not sure why this is. I only know this has been true for me.
Some friends can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, can tolerate not knowing … not healing, not curing … that is a friend who cares. I have lost such a friend. Do you have a friend who has been on your mind? Pick up the phone and call. “The only way to have a friend is to be one,” Emerson claimed. 
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, a mother, and a retired minister who ponders how to live a meaningful life and who enjoys writing. She hosts a blog at riversidemusings.wordpress.com.

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