friend·ship – noun \ˈfren(d)-ˌship\

: the state of being friends : the relationship between friends
: a friendly feeling or attitude : kindness or help given to someone


I woke up yesterday morning heavy hearted, thinking of many friends who are struggling under weighty circumstances: health struggles, marriage crises, parenting difficulties, financial strain. And me, at a loss for how to help them.

From there, I began to think of friends whose life struggles I don’t even know about because we don’t talk much anymore. Friends I’ve known from my previous church, from my old job, from other cities where I have lived, earlier churches, earlier jobs, college, high school. So many people in my life have come and gone as I have matured, moved, married. Names and faces flashed through my mind in the dreamy almost-wakefulness of the early morning.

Then it struck me. “I’m a horrible friend.” I thought of phone calls not made, visits never planned, birthdays not remembered, letters never written. People I’d welcomed into my life with the warm embrace of friendship now relinquished to the demands of life, the reality of distance, the daily urgency of my own needs. I panicked.

In college, as my four years were coming to an end and friends from around the world were preparing to scatter, I felt the same sense of desperation, the same sense of loss over what was about to happen.

“People replace people,” my friend Jim had told me matter-of-factly as I confessed the need to latch on and not let friends go.

“That’s horrible,” I told him. “No one could ever replace you or the others.” I was horrified at the thought; I hated what he was saying. People might come and go, but they will never replace each other, I had assured myself earnestly.

But his words played like a soundtrack as I dreamed of the people I have loved who are no longer part of my life, some whose names I can’t even remember. Emerging from the last minutes of fitful sleep, I prayed for friends whose struggles are known to me, and I prayed for friends whose struggles are not. And once again, I released them all into the hands of the one Friend who never leaves us.

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In the book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters, Amy Andrews writes to a friend about a conversation she had with her husband on the matter of friendship.

“Aristotle, he tells me, describes three types of friendship: friendship based on utility, on pleasure, and on virtue (or pursuit of the good). The third type is the highest and most stable form.”

Reading this, I thought about all the friends who have come and gone from my life and considered whether these categories apply to those relationships. Friendship based on utility encompasses those relationships born of circumstance or convenience, shared activities, common geography. These friendships make for great workplaces, efficient committee meetings, and welcoming neighborhoods. When the job ends or the committee disbands or any of us move away, however, we may try to keep the friendship going for a while. But if its only basis was utility, then soon enough there will be new work, new homes, new meetings to attend. And friends to be made in each.

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Friendships based on pleasure form around community theater productions, traveling sports teams, even local pubs where friends gather to watch a favorite band or an anticipated game. As long as the pleasure persists, so does the friendship. But as interests change, or difficulty dampens the enjoyment, the friendship suffers, too.

The highest friendships, says Aristotle, the ones based on virtue, “require time and familiarity; for, as the proverb says, it is impossible for men to know each other well until they have consumed much salt, nor can they accept each other and be friends till each has shown himself dear and trustworthy to the other.”

If it’s true at all that people replace people, let it be so in the first two categories of friendship. We all understand that shared circumstances and interests make for fast friends, but these relationships can’t all survive the changing seasons of life.

Occasionally, though, even a friendship born of convenience, or chance, transforms into something greater through the salt of life: salt shaken to season, enhance, or preserve. But also salt used to heal and clean and protect.

“I am not sure what it means to eat much salt,” Andrews writes to her friend, Jess, “but it doesn’t sound pleasant. It makes me think of tears rolling down our faces into our mouths. And Lord knows that lately there have been many tears.”

These friends, even though we can’t always take them with us, never leave us, never get replaced. These friends are a gift, a blessing, a safety net. These friends are worth driving for and sitting with and crying over. These friends forgive and encourage and hope. If we are lucky, we get a few friends like this throughout our lives.

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I’ve been known to overthink things occasionally. Just last night, as my husband and I were going for a run, some of our neighbors passed by in their car and I spent a several minutes wondering where they were going, where they had been, how they were doing, whether or not they are happy.

When it comes to friendship, yesterday was not the first time I woke up in a panic about being a bad friend. It probably won’t be the last time either. Some of my earliest memories spring from my desire to have a best friend, to be part of a group of friends. Most of the difficult moments of my life have been shared with friends. Occasionally friends have pushed me down; usually, friends help me up when I fall. And it’s not just a dream-like delusion that I am not always a good friend. Unfortunately, it’s true.

But If there’s anything I’d rather spend my time on, it’s reflecting on the importance of having and being a good friend, even though the miracle of it all seems quite impossible.

“It is a good thing to be rich, and it is a good thing to be strong, but it is a better thing to be loved of many friends.” ~Euripides

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Photo by Trina Alexander, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

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