When I was a little boy, I often visited with my grandparents in Chicago. These trips were fun, as my grandparents always had something new to teach me from our Greek culture and traditions. On one such occasion, my grandmother turned to me in her caring and deliberate manner, her big eyes wide open, her voice serious counseling me in her thick Greek accent, “Always be nice to everyone; one of these people may become a true friend. If you find one true friend in your whole life, you will be very blessed. True friends are very hard to find.”
At the time, I could not understand her advice. I had many “friends.” I thought that she may have been lonely, and I felt sorry for her. As time passed, however, and what I perceived as friendships came and went, I learned limitations in the expectations and trust I shared with others. I began to realize that you cannot be friends with everyone, and that a true friendship requires responsibility, personal investment, and commitment—qualities not easy to come by.
When I entered college, I felt socially comfortable, my eyes opening up to the qualities that define meaningful relationships. Nonetheless, at times the people I most wished to be with did not share the same desire to be close to me; at other times, I was the one pulling away from others who sought out a connection with me. It was becoming even more clear, trusting and caring friendships were very special experiences.
One upperclassman brought me under his wing, helping me to get settled in Boston, my new college home, navigate social challenges, and remain disciplined in my studies. More than that, he became the big brother I never had: he visited my home in Chicago, joining on family trips, and celebrating important family and life events: he was a true friend.
Indebted to him, as my big brother, I always felt that he was the initiator of our friendship and felt real guilt for not putting as much into the friendship. He recognized this and simply said that he was very happy to be part of my world. Over time, I understood the profound nature of this friendship. At 20 years old, while on retreat at the Spencer Abbey, a monastery of Cistercian Roman Catholic monks, a plaque hanging on the wall, captured in simple and powerful images and terms the essence of my true friend. The plague presented two circles overlapping equally with one another, and, beneath this image, one circle divided in two.
The plaque read: “A friend doubles your joys and divides your sorrows.”
I never forgot this image as it became my litmus test of friendship—if I was a true friend or if I had a true friend. This simple plaque provided clear, concrete criteria to recognize true friendship and to know if you impart it.
This plaque also confirmed that I had been Blessed, experiencing the powerful relationship of true friendship. I have never since been without that friend in my life, through decades, though he lives far from me and my family; his actions manifest the definition of a true friend and define my challenge for friendships that I establish.
Close relationships help us to see ourself as we are and our impact on others. Friendships are invitations to re-examine ourself and to grow.
Over the course of time, our friendship deepened and developed reciprocally. Later I asked him why he bothered investing in me when I wasn’t giving equally to him. He said, “You can’t always develop by getting the same things that you give.” I learned that my friend’s connection to his True Self empowered him to give feely, permitting me to be who I was and encouraging me to be who I could become. His spiritual connection fueled him to see and accept himself and others as the are. I now understood the meaning of the Nigerian proverb, “Hold a true friend with both hands.”
While we may want to speak of everyone as our brother and sister or friend and revel in belonging to the family of the world, our limitations and individual complexities make that impossible. At the same time, discovering and investing in others make the opportunity and the potential in true friendship accessible and life most meaningful.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com.