Just before the holiday season, Lesley Dormen’s phone rang. The voice at the other end was so frail and frightened she had a hard time recognizing that it was Toni, her former college roommate. Though they had been close in school, they didn’t speak often, nor did they see each other much as both lived in different cities. “What’s wrong?” asked Lesley. “I have cancer,” Toni replied. She was anxious because it was a recurrence of the breast cancer she’d been treated for 10 years earlier, and it had now spread to her stomach and ribs. Unmarried and living alone, Toni had recently experienced her first three rounds of chemotherapy. Extremely weary and discouraged, she phoned her college friend who listened compassionately. When the conversation was over, Lesley immediately called an airline and made a reservation. Next, she phoned her husband at work to let him know they would have to cancel their weekend plans. Finally, she called Toni back saying, “I am coming over this very weekend.”
During that time, they cooked and ate together, selected a wig to cover Toni’s balding head, looked through piles of old photographs, and laughed together. As the weekend drew to an end, Toni said to Lesley, “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.” Because of the magnificent way Lesley extended friendship, Toni’s spirits were raised significantly.
Friends are the most important ingredient in the recipe called “life.” Good friends help us not only deal with traumas and trials, but guide us in our relationships, pilot us through our careers, motivate us when our spirit is weak, and help us adjust to life’s many changes and challenges. “Friendship is one of the sweetest joys of life. Many might have failed beneath the bitterness of their trial had they not found a friend,” observed minister and author Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Similarly, the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe noted, “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers, and cities, but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, makes the earth a garden.” Friendship is vital for a meaningful, satisfying life. Here are seven ways to be a better friend.
Cultivate friendship attitudes.
Being a better friend means cultivating the attitudes that nurture and grow a relationship. The mindset for friendship includes encouragement, support, positive reinforcement, and showing and speaking your love and appreciation. In his book, “The Fine Art of Friendship,” Ted W. Engstrom says deep friendships are forged on praise and seeing the good in another. To further those goals, he invites people to consider these questions: “Why is it often so difficult for us to say an encouraging word to those we love the most? Why do we tend to overlook the obvious good and dwell instead on the negative? What are the reasons for the roadblocks we set up that keep us from truly being a friend to those we love the most? What can we do to change our attitudes and behavior?”
When your friend is in crisis, show up.
Let your friendship be a sheltering tree from the blistering sun of adversity. Show up for your friend whenever he or she experiences a crisis. Go to the funeral when a friend’s loved one has died. Visit your friend when he or she is hospitalized. Offer your unconditional support, your undivided attention, your shoulder to lean on. When Vivian’s husband ended his life by suicide, she called her friend, Jonathan, who immediately came to her home. He helped Vivian with funeral arrangements, fielded phone calls, stayed at her side during the entire funeral visitation, sat beside her in the chapel during the service, and accompanied her to the cemetery. “It was the saddest period in my life. I don’t know how I could have endured it all without Jonathan’s constant presence at my side,” she says.
Stand by your friends.
By your words and actions, demonstrate that you value and appreciate the important people in your life. A good model was Lady Bird Johnson. When she died, members of Johnson’s Secret Service detail were devastated saying, “It’s like losing a member of your own family.” Many of those agents worked closely with Johnson for decades and remained close to her even after they retired. The reason for their loyalty was the way she befriended Secret Service agents, and treated them like friends rather than employees. Jim Hardin, one of her agents, recalled that Johnson, an avid traveler, got private tours of museums and historical sites from curators all over the world. While touring, she would ask many questions, making sure her guards could hear the answers, Hardin said. Before they left each site, she asked the agents if they’d like more time to look around, and she always took the entire detail out for an elegant dinner to end each trip and express appreciation for their work.
Walk in your friends’ shoes.
Do this especially when you find yourself questioning some action your friend has taken. Doing so will prevent you from making careless, friendship-destroying judgments. Consider this wisdom from Florence Isaacs, author of “Toxic Friends; True Friends”: “Not everyone feels the same way about a situation. To understand why people do the crazy things they sometimes do, put yourself in their place and try to understand their point of view.”
Let people know they are loved.
One who is skilled in this is country singer Wynonna Judd. She reaches out with friendship and love not only to friends, but even to strangers. Judd explains, “When people talk about making a difference, they usually think about grand, sweeping acts of generosity. But what really makes a difference in my life are the very small, simple moments in which I connect with strangers.” One night she walked out of a movie theater and says she was drawn to a man sweeping the parking lot. “Something told me, ‘Go. You need to talk with this guy.’ It turned out that besides being a huge fan of my family, The Judds, he had just been diagnosed with hepatitis C, which my mother, Naomi, has battled for years.” So, she ended up speaking with the man at length in the parking lot. “Of course, he thought he was getting a big zap of energy from Wynonna, but I’m the one who was transformed,” she says. Apply her principle of reaching out with love to your cherished friends. Your friendships will deepen and grow even closer.
Celebrate important events together.
The headline in the local newspaper at McMinnville, Ore., read: “One prom. One boy. Seven dates.” One prom date is usually a major event in the life of a teenager, but Luke Buchheit, 17, pulled off an incredible feat by bringing seven young ladies to the prom. As the big day approached, Buchheit didn’t know who to invite, so he asked his cousin how many girls still had no date for the big dance. “I might have been half joking at first when I said I’d take them all, but then I thought, this might be kind of cool,” he said. So in the weeks before the May 2 prom, Luke made seven phone calls. Then he ordered seven corsages and a boutonniere with seven rhinestones. He also worked to raise $500 to buy eight prom tickets, his tux, and an eight-person dinner. Seated at the head of the table, flanked by two rows of glittering females, Luke couldn’t help but feel it was worth it. Men stopped to pat him on the back. An elderly woman worked up the nerve to ask what everyone else was wondering: “Does one of you have a date and the rest are going alone?” she asked. “No,” the girls said. “We’re all going with Luke.” Though the girls joked about “Luke’s harem,” friendship overruled romance. Many of the teens have known each other since kindergarten. The lesson: Being a better friend involves celebrating important events together, whether it’s a prom, a graduation, a promotion, a birth, etc.
Keep your sense of humor.
Friendships profit from a sense of humor. Author Leo Buscaglia laments the loss of laughter and humor in relationships. In his book, “Born for Love,” he observes, “We have become too serious about everything, too tense, too stressed. We equate maturity with seriousness, and believe that wisdom comes to us only through sober reflection and long-considered judgments. When did gathering with friends become occasions solely for sounding the bell of doom? Our straight laces do, indeed, need some serious loosening from time to time, for our own sake and for the sake of those who love us. The weight of the world is a terrible thing to be saddled with. We should refuse to carry it if it is at the expense of the lighter load of laughter and lightheartedness.”
Friendships are deepened and developed when humor is injected. One woman’s trauma after a miscarriage was lightened considerably when she returned home from the hospital. The same day, her doorbell rang. Opening it, she found her best friend standing there with a takeout restaurant meal, DVDs for her two preschoolers, and a stack of magazines. Smiling, her friend said, “Don’t worry. I’m here to feed you, not poison you. I promise, I didn’t make this. It’s from a restaurant.” The woman who miscarried says, “I had my first laugh in days and it felt so good.”
Always remember this: Though friendship may not remove a person’s troubles and difficulties, it softens the blow and strengthens the will. Lesley Dormen summarizes her weekend visit with Toni this way: “Did I restore her thick, wavy hair? Did I beat back her cancer? No. I simply gave what was in my power to give—some small measure of comfort.” In our daily living, the simple act of extending friendship diminishes grief and increases joy.
Victor M. Parachin lives in and writes from Oklahoma. He is the author of a dozen books, most recently, “Sit a Bit: Five-Minute Meditations for Greater Health, Harmony, and Happiness.”
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