By Aparna Jacob June 2005 Friends replenish our soul, friends make us great-hearted, they fortify us. One rich in friends is wealthy in the real sense of the term. 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 having strong social ties reduces the risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels. People with strong social networks are shown to boost their chances of surviving life-threatening illnesses, have stronger, more resilient immune systems. Friendships improve their mental health, and help them live longer lives.Isolation can kill and the lack of friends in our lives could be as detrimental to health as smoking or obesity.Having friends can reduce your chances of contracting common viruses like cold. Those with friends are less likely to succumb to depression, dementia, anxiety and other illnesses.How does this work?Primarily because friends watch out for each other and take care of each other, even urge you to go to the doctor. Also, most ills can be seen as the effects of stress on the endocrinal, cardiovascular and immune systems. Simply by keeping stress at bay, friendship effectively rules out a host of ailments.However, unhealthy friendships that drain you rather than nurture, can do more harm than good. Also, more the friends, greater the benefits. But a few good friends should suffice for most of us.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 if you travel to work together.o Keeping track of birthdays, anniversaries helps. It warms a friend's heart to know you remembered.o Try and fix a day at least once in a month when you can meet and resolve to make it. 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.Kindred SpiritsMy 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 ThereA 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 YouBabychen 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.MirrorsBy 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.Precious TiesA 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
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