“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”―
A few years ago, I wrote a post about Why My Friendships Last So Long. I talked about how my friendships are lifelong and I cling to those who I allow to get close to me. Since then, I’ve lost a few friendships, and very recently one more, and my world feels smaller. I’m still happy and still feel loved, but it’s never easy to lose someone you care about.
I’ve been saying the words, “my world seems smaller” a lot to my boyfriend lately, who has been saddened and been wanting to make it better. The truth is that I know my life is pretty full. I have a great place that makes me happy, I’m writing a lot, I have great friends and a supportive family. Oh, and a great boyfriend. Aside from not being where I want to be in my career, not much is missing. But to go from having too many friends where there was no room for new ones, to not quite enough is still hard.
I acknowledge how blessed I am, and I’m so thankful. However, people are not replaceable, and though I’ve grown enough to learn how to let people go, it still doesn’t mean I want to. So, what does having a full life look like? Abraham Maslow would’ve probably said it’s when all your needs are met. You go to bed with a full tummy in a nice warm bed. You live somewhere that feels safe. You have close relationships that make you feel loved. You feel accomplished and like you're achieving your potential.
That’s all probably a lot, and I’d say the majority of us can’t cross off everything on that list. Yet, I believe a life can be full simply from the people that are in your life. There are lots of studies about the fact that we need community. Isolation and loneliness can literally kill us, and at the least decreases our health and well-being. It’s also been shown that it’s not about the quantity of people you have in your life, but the quality. In the Ted Talk, “What makes agood life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” Robert Waldinger explains the most important lessons they found. He says, “The clearest message that we get from this 75 year study is this: good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”
I am an introvert, and my sister is more so. She’s 11 now and I often like to make fun of her for the single friend she has (though now it’s three). She just started middle school, but while she was still in elementary, she had one friend, and she was perfectly okay with that. She was not lonely and she did have other friends to play with, but if you ever asked her how many friends she had, she’d say one, and that person was her best friend. I used to tease about what she would do if her single friend didn’t come to school. Without any worry, she said it has happened and that she went to the library to read. At age 9 and 10, her life was full with one single friend.
Now when I ask her how many friends she has, her answer is, “Three best friends and one back up best friend.” I’d like to point out that she doesn’t use the word “friend.” Instead she calls all of them her best friends, because that’s how close she feels to them. That back up best friend cracks me up a little bit though. Alongside school, random classmates to play with or talk to, and her family, her life is full with these 3 ½ close friends when it used to be one. I’m assuming that now if she were to lose any of those friends, having the one wouldn’t be enough anymore, because it now takes three to fill her life.
When I think about when I was my sister’s age, I wasn’t so different. I only ever needed a few good close friends to be happy. But I think as we get older and grow more complex, we need more people to fill in those extra spaces within ourselves that we are creating. I understand my sister’s friendship needs completely, because not too long ago my life felt too full to invest in any new friends. It was simply too time consuming and too much effort. Keeping up with the friends I already had in my life was already a full time job and more than enough for me. But the important thing to clarify is that it has nothing to do with the number.
In Waldinger’s Ted Talk, he says, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.” What made the most difference in terms of health, memory, and overall well-being was having someone in your life who you felt you could depend on. It didn’t matter how much bickering there was, just as long as you knew this person would be there when you needed them. In contrast, having a relationship that was unsafe or toxic and not feeling like you could rely on the other contributed to a decline in health.
When I think about relationships in these terms – those I could rely on and those I couldn’t – it puts into perspective the friendships that continue to last and the ones that haven’t. And it works both ways. For my friendship that most recently ended, I think it’s perhaps because I was no longer a person he could rely on or go to, and he also stopped being that person for me. When I think about other friendships that ended, it was either because they wanted to stop being the person I relied on, or they were simply not dependable.
I take comfort in knowing that even though I mourn the loss of those few friendships, perhaps it’s better to stay invested in the ones who are still going to be there for me and the ones I continue to be there for.
Nearly all of my friends have constantly made fun of the fact that I have a hierarchy of friends, but I maintain that everyone has one and I’m just honest about mine. I have a hierarchy for a reason. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more I depend on that person and the more they know they can depend on me. That’s what it’s always come down to. With each of my friends I ask myself, “Will they be there for me when I need them no matter what?” And that determines where they land and how close they are to me.
Despite the fact that my friends vary in closeness, each one is valued and irreplaceable. Each contributes something to my life that can’t be replicated by someone new. Each contribution makes my life full. I have a writing friend who is my greatest cheerleader. I have one best friend that won’t go away no matter what I do, and one that I consider my soulmate. I have a wise friend who I can laugh with while having the deepest conversations. I have a friend who is always down to have fun and always has her heart in the right place.
I have been told on more than one occasion that I have a lot of needs. No one single person can satisfy them, which is why I’ve had so many different people to fill me up. Though I am deeply sad for the friends I’ve lost, I can at least look forward to the new friends I now have room for.
More importantly I think about the friends that have still chosen to be in my life and how I can further invest our friendships. Waldinger says, “Relationships are messy and they’re complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends is not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong, it never ends.”
What Makes a Good life?