When I returned from working in India, I brought back a saying with me: “When once you have been bitten by a snake, you become cautious even of a rope.”
That proverb comes back to me whenever I think of friendship. We can probably all recall instances when we have been psychologically hurt by those who are close to us personally or professionally. This may naturally make us wary of friendship. If we are honest with ourselves, we may also admit that we have occasionally offended or let loved ones down. Receiving or offering friendship can sometimes be a dangerous or precarious proposition.
Yet, an even more important saying that also comes back to mind for me is: "A friend knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you whenever you have forgotten how it goes."
Bottom line: Even though being part of a true circle of friends can be tough, friendship is a crucial element of a meaningful, resilient life—especially when it becomes dark as it does for us all at times.
I have seen this again and again in the more than 30 years I have served in an unusual role—as therapist, mentor, consultant, and supervisor to those in the helping professions themselves. Physicians, nurses, educators, social workers, counselors, clinical psychologists, relief workers/NGOs, psychiatrists, or persons in ministry need to be resilient not simply for their own sake, but also for those who turn to them for help. Because this is so critical, I have been called upon to work with them given my primary specialty, secondary stress (the pressures experienced in reaching out to others).
In lectures, individual and group sessions, and consultations, one of the most important topics eventually covered is always friendship. The general question that arises is: “I know I need a solid interpersonal network, but can you offer more specific guidance on exactly what voices are necessary for me to have in order to achieve or maintain a healthy sense of perspective and sound resilience, especially when life turns dark for me personally or professionally?”
Considering this over the years, I think we need four types of friends for balance, encouragement, appropriate challenge, and inspiration:
1. The prophet.
This person calls us to look at who is pulling our strings in life. Prophets help us realize that none of us are free from our past influences, or the current cultural influences that may pull us in one direction or another. The question the prophet challenges us with is: “What voices are guiding you to think, feel, or behave a particular way?” In response, we must look at ourselves clearly; there is no hiding.
2. The cheerleader.
This is the supportive, sympathetic, calming voice that we love to hear over the phone when the day has been a disaster. Furthermore, the cheerleader is a great partner and bookend to the prophet; we need both. If we just have prophets, we will burn out. On the other hand, if we simply have cheerleaders, we won’t grow or challenge ourselves appropriately.
3. The harasser.
This person has a great sense of humor and helps up regain perspective when we have begun to take ourselves too seriously. This is easy to do, especially when we face challenges as a family member, at the office, or in some aspect of our lives. When we cannot laugh at ourselves, we run the danger of becoming rigid and breaking when the winds of change blow. This may turn out to be a problem for us and those around us who suffer for our lack of ease and flexibility.
4. The inspirational or spiritual friend.
This person calls on us to be all that we can be without embarrassing us that we are where we are at this point. What a dull life it would be without such a voice calling us to go further and deeper in life.
Reviewing our circle of friends to see where these voices are is not only important, it can be fun. Enjoy the search for the voices of challenge, support, perspective, and inspiration in your present situation and raise the need to fill the gaps if you find one of them missing. Friendship is not easy, but mining our interpersonal network for those who might be in a position to make our life better is worth the effort.