Relationships - Friends: Sanctuary for the Soul
by Aparna Jacob
Pal PanaceaFriendship and love are the greatest and perhaps the cheapest healing therapy. Solid scientific evidence has shown that friendships help us live longer and better.
Studies have proved
Stay Connectedo Email, instant messaging and phones help you stay in touch.
o Meet for morning walks, a workout at the gym or a swim.
o Try and schedule short meetings over morning coffee or a train ride
Returning early one Friday afternoon, I found my mother and her best friend Sara, sprawled on the couch, watching TV and giggling like schoolgirls. Just catching up, they wave, by way of explanation, before returning to their conversation.
It occurs to me that Sara and my mother have known each other forever. As young students they trained together at nursing school, they worked in the same hospital and shared a room in the hostel. They did most things together: they loved, married and even had babies at the same time. Soon after, my mother chose to stay home while Sara continued as a nurse at Nair hospital, Mumbai. Husbands' work and children's schooling necessitated moving to different parts of the city. Life took them separate ways and contact waned for a while.
A few years ago they found each other again when Sara's family moved close by. My mother and her best friend, both now a little grey and diabetic, didn't lose any time, picking up where they left off, unearthing laughter and tears from their old days, swapping recipes and notes on children and grandchildren.
My mother wears her friends like badges of honor. She cultivates them as attentively as she tends her roses. Over the years, her friendships have only matured and ripened like the wine in her kitchen shelf.
"True friends are most precious," she'd tell my brother and me, "when you find them, keep them". Her sentiments echo Polonius's advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet: "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried/ Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel". Time and change haven't weathered my mother's friendships for she so determinedly has clung to them. To Sara, in particular.
"To Sara, I can bare myself," my mother says of her soul sister. "I can take any of my troubles to her, assured of her patience and concern. She knows me like no one else."
So it was Sara who knew my mother's longing for avial (a vegetable curry from Kerala) when she was pregnant with me and each evening cooked and brought across a tiffinfull of it. It was Sara who spent hours soothing prenatal cramps, massaging my mother's feet with coconut oil. And it is Sara, these days, who keeps a check on my mother's sugar levels and blood pressure. But more than all this, Sara provides emotional succor and strength to my mother and has always been there for her.
Being there is perhaps the first rule in a friend's book. And this I learnt from my own dear friend Sharmi.
I'll be There
A cold autumn morning recently, I woke up with a leaden heart, my mouth haunted with the taste of tears. I picked up my phone to dial my SOS - Sharmishta.
"I got dumped yesterday," I begin, not bothering to keep the hurt from my voice. "I think my heart's broken."
"Shit!" says Sharmi and I have to appreciate her reaction. "Hang in there. I'm sending you some energy. You're going to be okay…"
My friend Sharmishta is always fixing my heart and rescuing me from pain. "Sometimes I'm convinced I would have died if it weren't for your intervention and I'm very grateful," I wrote to her a few days later when there were no signs of the pain resurfacing and I continued to feel surprisingly peaceful, even buoyant.
"That's what friends do," she wrote back. "They take care of and stand by each other. At my lowest moments I think of you, Apoo, and I feel immediately better."
How honored I am to be the recipient of such trust, affection and steadfast loyalty. How full of gratitude I feel for this profound connection I have been blessed with, that I can draw strength from, that keeps my spirit from breaking. Sometimes, it amazes me that one so self-centered as I, can bend so much for another human, go to such lengths to reciprocate all the goodness I receive. My friend, by inspiring the very best in me, constantly makes me realize my worth. Thanks to her I am today, a confident human being.
Best of You
Babychen Mathew, editor of dancewithshadows.com, will ever be grateful to the friend who helped him discover himself.
"Shy and diffident," Mathew describes the old him, "I shrank from drawing any attention to myself or even accepting credit for things I did. This once occasioned discord between a colleague and me. At that point, my friend stepped in. Get out of automobile journalism and try something else, he urged." Mathew reluctantly ventured out of his comfort zone to explore other options. To his surprise and delight he found he was good at great many things.
"My confidence soared," says Mathew. "What I am today is largely thanks to the shove my friend gave me then."
Friends can teach us things about ourselves we never imagined possible. I do agree with author Anais Nin when she says: "Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive."
We know ourselves through our friends. In that, true friends are mirrors to our greatest faults as well as our subtlest virtues. With friends, criticism stems from concern. And those of us lacking in self-awareness - what would we be, but for the sterling honesty of our dear friends, who gently bring to light our shortcomings and add to our self-knowledge?
"The soul environs itself with friends," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson, "that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude." A friend is one with whom you can dare to be yourself. Your soul can go naked with him. He seems to ask you to put on nothing, only to be what you really are. Our minds, souls and spirits find the freedom to be genuine without hesitation, knowing that there are no dire consequences for our candour or our silences.
By virtue of being mirrors, friends are best equipped to shed light on our situation, to see it for how good or bad it really is.
Mithu Basu, group head for corporate communications at the Leela Palaces and Resorts, remembers the time a close friend was considering separation from her husband. Mithu had long known both the friend and her husband, and was well-acquainted with their relationship. "I saw that the marriage had just gone off course, nothing a new perspective couldn't bring back on track. As a friend I thought it my duty to suggest she stick around a little longer." Today, Mithu congratulates herself on the fact that the couple are still together, raising a child and going strong.
At other times, friends can help us count our blessings. For instance, when Sharmishta came into my life, my relationship with my parents was at its lowest. Within me I carried a morbid teenage angst that I thought was quite becoming. Sharmi, on the other hand, came from a family seemingly destined for heartbreak, braving depression and constant instability. I saw how graciously she bore her troubles and it shamed me. Enough to make me appreciate what I had and be grateful for a peaceful home and a loving family.
Sharmishta found her 'pack' outside home, friends with whom she resonated spiritually and emotionally. The shared laughter and evenings of conversations let her face, even help, the situation at home. In my case, the love and acceptance I found in the hearts of friends, helped me learn to love my family.
A cousin recently commented on how loving friends is different from loving family: "Friendships are voluntary, we choose our friends. There isn't the imminent sense of obligation that tints the love we feel for our family - the kind that makes us take them for granted. Friendship is a more liberating brand of affection."
Friends, by their merits and utility, earn our affection and respect. Herein lies their worth. It makes them very precious to us and makes us want to treasure and cherish them. Being blessed with such friends, makes one feel truly wealthy.
Growing up I had no friends, only a shaky sense of self. Indeed, I felt bankrupt at heart. I never ventured into an alliance with another person, being uncertain about what I brought to a relationship. I constantly worried about dissipating my sense of self by mingling with others.
I now realize that my own insecurities had stopped me from trusting and making friends, from approaching another with, in Emerson's words, "an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations." What I was in dire need of then was a friend who would value me, instill faith in myself, not judge but let me remember how to love myself just as I am. In retrospect, I feel, had I allowed myself friends, I would have gained rather than lost, grown rather than diminished in self-worth.
Seasons of the Heart
The friends one keeps are the best indication of a person's nature. The friends we have at certain times in our lives are reflections of who we are just then. Some friends last only a season and we outgrow relationships when we have no more to gain from them.
Mathew remembers the gang in Kerala he spent his college years with. After he moved to Mumbai, a distance crept in between him and his friends. "After eight years in Mumbai, my outlook has changed, my interests are different. Sadly, their horizons haven't moved at all," he explains. Having to make an effort to bridge the chasm, is the first indication of a strained friendship, suggesting perhaps, it's time to move on.
But sometimes, there's no pain in separation when friends who walked together a while, part ways believing, if so destined, their paths will cross again. Then they would be glad for this time apart when each had time to grow and learn. It is arrogant, however, to dispense of friends assuming they have nothing to impart to us, nothing to share because they are so different from us. Once sure of oneself, befriending all kinds of people no more appears a threatening possibility.
But friendships wax and wane. Sometimes you feel close, other times less close. Most consider themselves lucky if at the end of their life they can count their friends on the fingers of one hand. Along life's hairpin bends, some friends drift away, others get inexplicably misplaced.
As we get older we start subjecting our friendships to rigorous cost-benefit analyzes and performance evaluations. Life sieves our relationships and only those that endure the fiercest emotional trials remain.
Sharmishta and her friend Sheba Varghese share an intimacy I'm not privy to. Their affection for each other can only be matched in intensity by the fierceness and frequency of their bickering. "Emotionally batter one another, that's what we do," laughs Sheba. "But it is through our disagreements, the crying, then laughing, that we've grown so close."
Friendships, says Emerson, shouldn't be treated daintily, but with roughest courage. Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart.
The relationship between Sheba and Sharmi reminds me that friendships, when they are real, are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know. "No matter what," Sheba says of Sharmi, "I know I can always talk to her."
At our darkest moments, friends come like sunbeams, piercing through the heart of gloom. They become the trellis we lean on and clamber onto. Amid chaos, friends provide sanctuary; they make themselves an oasis of serenity.
Magazine journalist Neena Aggarwal (name changed), recalls the harrowing time when her sister went through an extended and severe illness that required several hospitalizations. The endless trips to the hospital, long vigils by her sister's bedside, the oily canteen food. "My friends wrapped me in a circle of love and support. I would never have survived without them," she says. "I still remember the time when I spoke to a friend about pining for simple rice and curds, and behold, there arrived a basket full of wholesome homecooked food, lovingly and meticulously packed. It was the love behind the gesture that made my heart sing."
Other friends rallied around, listening while she cribbed and cried, and relieving her from the hospital vigil whenever they could. One friend of her sister came all the way from Canada to love her and support her. The crisis, she says, soldered her bonds with her friends at a deep and enduring level.
Only our truest friends seek us out in our times of strife, lend us their trusty shoulder to lean on, to sob on.
Cinematographer Danish Huzruk, recently abandoned by his love of five years, speaks of how grateful he is to his friends who kept him from falling apart: "Every hour, I had someone calling me up to check on me. They'd take me out, keep me company, and watch over me.
"Without my friends," he says, "I would have lost my sanity."
Heart and Soul
Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed, writes Emerson.
I wake up most mornings and my heart warms at the thought of my friends. By what slender chance have we found each other in this life? How miraculous that with our failings and gifts, we fit each other snug as two pieces of jigsaw perfecting each other!
Friendships, I believe, are the pinnacle of perfection that calls for us to be our absolute best. It is an education; it draws you out of yourself and all that is selfish and ignoble, and leads you to life's highest levels of altruism and sacrifice.
Our friends replenish our soul. Our friends make us great-hearted. Thank God for our friends with whom we can share the ludicrous laughter that comes from enduring the ordinary events of everyday existence, and the taste of tears we dare not let others see.
How blessed was that moment we found each other, that moment of striking gold.
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