Four Friends You'll Want in Your Life Today
Peig Sayers lived in the Blasket Islands off the coast of Ireland. The winds were so great that even trees couldn't survive and she was asked, "How can you live in a place like this?" To which she responded quite simply, "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live."
Psychology has long emphasized the need for an excellent interpersonal network as a major element of health and happiness. As medical studies have shown us, an absence of at least one significant friend may also even have serious health consequences. So, we know we need friends. The question is what type of friends?
In my work and that which I have done with others in the field, I have found that for our circle of friends to be complete, the presence of at least four "types" or "voices" (since one friend may play more than one beneficial role at different points in our lives) are necessary-especially in today's challenging times. These four types of friends are the prophet, the cheerleader, the harasser, and the guide. By having these "voices" in our lives, we increase our chances of maintaining a sense of perspective, openness, and balance.
The first of these voices which helps us maintain balance and have a sense of openness is the one I shall refer to as the prophet. Contrary to what one might imagine, prophetic friends need not look or behave any differently than other types of persons who are close to us. The true prophet's voice is often quiet and fleeting, but nonetheless strong. She or he is living an honest courageous life guided by truth and compassion.
Having someone prophetic in our lives is never easy. No matter how positive we may believe the ultimate consequences will be for us, many of us still shy away from prophetic messages and would readily agree with Henry Thoreau: "If you see someone coming to do you a good deed, run for your life!" However, to seek comfort in lieu of the truth may mean that in an effort to avoid pain, we will also avoid responding to opportunities of real value, real life. We will merely exist and eventually die without having ever really lived. Prophets point! They point to the fact that it doesn't matter whether pleasure or pain is involved, the only thing that matters is that we seek to see and live "the truth" because only it will set us free.
In doing this, prophets challenge us to look at how we are living our lives, to ask ourselves: "To what voices am I listening when I form my attitudes and take my actions each day?"
Ironically, one of the most controversial suggestions I might make with respect to friendship is to suggest we all need "cheerleaders." Some might say that to encourage this type of friend is to run the risk of narcissism and denial. However, to balance the prophetic voices we also need unabashed, enthusiastic, unconditional acceptance by certain people in our lives. Prophecy can and should instill appropriate guilt to break through the crusts of our denial. But guilt cannot sustain us for long. While guilt will push us to do good things because they are right, love encourages us to do the right thing because it is natural.
We can't go it alone. We need a balance of support. We need encouragement and acceptance as much as we need the criticism and feedback that are difficult to hear. Burnout is always around the corner when we don't have people who are ready to encourage us, see our gifts clearly, and be there for us when our involvement with people, their sometimes unrealistic demands, and our own crazy expectations for ourselves, threaten to pull us down. So, while having buoyantly supportive friends may seem like a luxury, make no mistake about it - it is a necessity that is not to be taken lightly. The "interpersonal roads" over time are strewn with well-meaning helpers who tried to survive without such support. Encouragement is a gift that should be treasured in today's stressful, anxious, complex world because the seeds of involvement and the seeds of burnout are the same. To be involved is to risk. And to risk without the presence of solidly supportive friends is foolhardy and dangerous.
When singer-activist Joan Baez was asked her opinion about contemplative, monk and writer Thomas Merton, one of the things she said was that he was different than many of the phony gurus she had encountered in her travels. She said that although Merton took important things seriously in his life, he didn't take himself too seriously. She indicated that he knew how to laugh at situations and particularly at himself. "Harassers" help us to laugh at ourselves and to avoid the emotional burnout that results from having the unrealistic expectation that people will always follow our guidance or appreciate what we do for them. This type of friend helps us regain and maintain perspective (so we don't unnecessarily waste valuable energy). This is truly a gift for which we can be thankful.
The three types of friends we've looked at thus far are each part of a necessary community. The prophet enhances our sense of single-heartedness. The cheerleader generously showers us with the support we feel we need. The harasser encourages us to maintain a sense of proper perspective. Complementing these three is a cluster that, for lack of a better name, shall be referred to as "guides." Such persons listen to us carefully and don't accept the "manifest content" (what we say and do) as being equal to the "total content" (our actual intentions plus our statements and actions). Instead, they search and look for nuances in what we share with them to help us to uncover some of the "voices" that are unconsciously guiding our lives, especially the ones that make us hesitant, anxious, fearful, and willful.
To determine whether or how these voices are present in our lives, several questions or statements seeking further information about the composition of our circle of friends might be helpful:
Do I have people with whom I can simply be myself?
What type of friends do I value most? Why?
What do I feel are the main qualities of friendship?
List and briefly describe the friends who are now in my life.
Describe ones who are no longer alive or present to me now but who have made an impact on my life. Why do I think they made such a difference in my life?
Among my circle of friends, who are my personal heroes or role models?
Who are the prophets in my life? In other words, who confronts me with the question: To what voices am I responding in life?
Who help me see my relationships, mission in life, and self-image more clearly? How do they accomplish this?
Who encourage me in a genuine way through praise and a nurturing spirit?
Who tease me into gaining a new perspective when I am too preoccupied or tied up in myself?
When and with whom do I play different (prophetic, supportive ...) roles as a friend?
How do people receive such interactions. Having a healthy and balanced circle of friends can aid in stress prevention and personal-professional growth. This is an obvious reality. The important point here is that with some attention to this area, we can immeasurably improve the role that encouraging, challenging, and guiding friendships can have in our lives. In turn, it can also provide an impetus to fill similar roles with others, which can also be a deeply rewarding experience for us-though they are roles that we must take with care as well if we are to remain resilient and passionate and be able to continue to reach out without being pulled down.
Dr. Robert Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland and the author of BOUNCE: Living the Resilient LIfe (Oxford University Press, October 2009).