Friendship and Vulnerability
I have been thinking about solitude and friendship, and how they are very much bound up with each other. Solitude means essentially getting in touch with, being at home with all parts of ourselves, both our strengths and limitations, both our light and shadow. At the same time, it means holding on to an underlying conviction of our sacred worth, even if often we cannot feel that worth of we find it threatened. One way of putting this lived awareness is to say that we become vulnerable to ourselves.
I recall that, many years ago, someone very dear to me said: “I don’t want advice or answers, I just want you to listen.” I think that we are drawn to maintain walls before another when we sense that letting them down can open ourselves to invasion by the judgment of another whose impulse to fix us can override their desire to care for us. We may ourselves also push another to feel the need for defensive walls against us.
Henry Nouwen has said that the real friend is not the person with the answers but the person who sticks it out with you when there are no answers. We might add that the real friend does not need to give answers but to be present to us in a way that helps us and perhaps even challenges us to discover our own answers, or at least our own path from within, and who sustains us to follow that path. Along similar lines, I have said before that we cannot talk someone into anything, into our viewpoint, but we can listen someone into their own truth. I recall giving a talk one time when the people present were really listening, and the thought came to me: “I hope what I am saying is really true, I owe it to the quality of their listening.”
Years ago, I came across a striking article on friendship by a William Sadler, He sees friendship as a form of love that, if genuine, involves sharing one’s life, in the sense of one’s inner aliveness, especially through intimate conversation. But it is a sharing that does not absorb another, but that affirms and sustains the unique identity, integrity, and growth of each person.
I would add that friendship involves sharing our story with another, not only the outer events, but how they are lived and felt from inside. It involves gradually telling and sharing our inner story, our strength and vulnerability. It involves listening to the story of another, receiving their joy and sorrow, with an openness and a depth that reaches deeper than any pain and encompasses that pain in caring hands.
Out of this experience comes the conviction, felt with an undercurrent of gratitude, that it is good to be alive, to be here, to be with you. In this process I discover myself, I discover you, and I glimpse the truth that a similar depth and beauty is present in every human being, no matter how masked or even betrayed. Hence friendship pushes toward solitude as the sinking in of life experience, and towards compassion and social justice as the recognition and honouring of the sacredness of every human being.
May you come always ever closer to being at home with yourself and with others, in such a way that a sense of worth and gratitude may gently envelop any sorrow that burdens your life.
Norman King, January 18, 2021