Fostering Friends - Making the Best of an Essential Relationship
By Candice Russell / August, 2011

To have a good friend in one's corner is a beautiful thing. A friend is a confidant, a secret-keeper, and a truth teller, even in the most difficult circumstances. There is trust between friends and a feeling of being truly oneself. Laughing, without condescension, at each other's flaws and failings can open up pathways of new understanding. It can also clear the air of tension.

In honor of August being National Friendship Month, one has to wonder about the definition of friendship in the social media age. If a person has 5,000 friends on Facebook without ever having met or spoken with a single one of them, are they really friends? Following someone or being followed on Twitter falls into the same category of glorified acquaintanceship, rather than genuine friendship. Digital contacts hardly fall into the same category as Aristotle's statement: "What is a friend? A single soul, dwelling in two bodies."

A friend is someone who takes a 14-hour flight from Chile to Fort Lauderdale to hold another person's hand during cancer surgery. A friend walks with you through the depths of grief over a divorce or a death and doesn't ask you to hurry up the grieving process.

Terry Kost, a North Carolina resident and former owner of the RaZoo Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, has his own definition of friendship, "It's mutual concern, understanding and compassion. There is enough honesty and intimacy so that you can tell someone when he or she is making a big mistake. With luck, there is reciprocity in the friendship so that not one side is doing all the pontification. A comfort level between friends is involved."

Taking risks is part of friendship. "With good friends, you don't necessarily tell people what they want to hear," says Kost. "You don't want to feed into something wrong-minded."

Diana Schmitt, who recently moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Las Vegas, Nevada, says, "Good friends have mutual respect and loyalty. Each accepts the other for who he/she is, faults included. A good friend is there for a person, whether that person makes a right or wrong decision, in your opinion. One thing I've learned is that you can't befriend someone you feel sorry for. I've done it before and every time it has blown up in my face.

"My father once said that I would be lucky to have one friend in a lifetime. I'm lucky because I have had many friends. For women, friends are crucial because their relationships are more intimate and more emotional than their marriages. American men speak two languages - English and sports."

The ease and flow of talking about anything and everything is also part of this unique relationship. Friends separated by thousands of miles and many years of in-person contact can verbally pick up where they left off by re-visiting favorite topics relating to gossip, politics, movies, and celebrities.

Kost describes it well, "Friends practice the art of the dangling conversation. It may be days, weeks or months old and be as consequential as choosing a marriage partner or moving to another city for a job or as inconsequential as a preference for baked or fried fish. There is no preamble to the conversation. Sometimes you use your friend for probing certain ideas to get a response before committing to something."

But the concept of a group of friends, all equally invested and impassioned about the other's personal business, doesn't resonate with him. "Buddy movies, Sex and the City and Friends are as alien to me as Martians," says Kost. "I prefer a smaller circle. I can count the number of my friends on one hand with fingers left over."

Schmitt faced the challenge of starting over when moving across the country ten months ago. While she still keeps in touch by email with friends she knew for seventeen years in the Midwest, she had to make new friends in Nevada. Through, she started a book group, "Twenty people showed up," Schmitt says. "Some people fit in, others didn't. Now we have a close group of ten who meet in each other's homes.

"I am a really out-going, active person. The women I've met here are all from different backgrounds, places and points of view. But we're all in the same boat, in that we just moved here and we are trying to get along. It's kind of the story of the American spirit."

As close as friendships can be and as important as they are to a person's peace of mind, they can deteriorate due to a change in circumstance, such as a new marriage or the meeting of a new friend with whom one has more in common. Other factors, such as the onset of a serious illness, can spell the souring of a friendship that lasted ten years or more because some people cannot cope with the hard side of life.

When Kost's first wife was diagnosed with cancer, things shifted. "You figure out fast who your friends are and who your acquaintances are," he says. "Some people cannot take it. I had friends who stayed with me through adversity when I was angry, mean and unfriendly. They stayed friends with me despite myself. A friend is with you in good times, but especially in bad times."

Both Kost and Schmitt, who have strong marriages, have friends in whom they confide with information they don't or can't share with their spouses. A friend in dire times allows the other person to vent, disclose, or try to figure things out.

The wonderful thing is that a friend doesn't have to be your race, religion, nationality or age. Can you imagine the world without friends?

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