What are some important lessons you’ve learnt from your friendships?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What are some important lessons you’ve learnt from your friendships?

Thank you for this very thoughtful question. Here are two very important lessons on friendship that I have learnt since I graduated:

(1) The nature of your friendships will change over time and that’s not always a bad thing. Your friends will get attached and they will spend less time with you; they will transition to working life and they will have less time to spare; their experiences at work and with love will also transform them for better or for worse, etc.

Just because you hang out less or talk less to each other doesn’t mean that you aren’t friends anymore or that the friendship has ceased to exist. The friendship is still there and they will be there for you when you need it most. I have close friends who, when I say I’m going through a difficult moment, will not hesitate to drop all their commitments and travel all the way from East to West just to be with me when I need them most. We used to hangout and talk a lot every day when we were students. These days, not so much because of our commitments. But the close bond still exists.

In fact, I have friends who, though we haven’t spoken to each in years, we’re still able to talk to intimately and intensely as if we just picked up from where we left years ago. Of course, I have lost friends because we change and our values change greatly, and so we don’t see eye to eye on critical matters. But that’s ok. It happens. Don’t blame yourself. It happens.

The point is that don’t regard the change in the nature of your friendships as a bad thing. It just happens as a fact of life. They are still friends. Those years of shared experiences you’ve had, those moments of fun, and heart-to-heart discussions. These have contributed in forging friendships that will last after graduation.

(2) Being vulnerable is very important to developing close friendships. How close you are to your friends depends heavily on how vulnerable you are willing to be with them. Most of us are stuck in some kind of deadlock with each other, unsure of whether to be risk being vulnerable to the other. But if you play the waiting game and invest little or nothing, your knowledge and bond with that friend remains superficial.

If you want a way to gauge how superficial or deep your friendships are, ask yourself: How many friends do you know well enough to know about their sad/tragic chapter of their lives? Everyone has a sad/tragic chapter of their lives that defines them (who they are) and how they behave now. If everyone around you seems to be living very happy peaceful lives, then you haven’t grown close to them to know their dark stories. These are just friends whom you hang out with, but you’ve not grown close enough to discover their vulnerable side, the sad/tragic story of their lives that they’re often too ashamed to reveal.

If you initiate by being vulnerable yourself, they will reciprocate and be vulnerable too (assuming they are good friends to begin with). That’s when you know your friendship has begun to deepen.

Now, I know it can be very hard, especially if you’ve been through a lot of hurt and pain in the past. It feels awful to be betrayed or hurt by someone we care so much for, and from someone we call a friend. But I think it’s important that we try again and again to risk that vulnerability. If you think about it, if we fell from a bicycle and hurt ourselves, we don’t usually say, “I will never ever cycle again.” We’d pick ourselves up and continue cycling. So why do we behave so differently when we are hurt by people close to us? Is it really very different? Should we treat these hurts any differently?

So let me end with a quote that someone shared with me recently: “The decision to love (friends or a partner) is the decision to risk hurting yourself.”

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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