Existential Reflections on Friendship
My travels across China always spur reflections on relationships and, in particular, friendship. My most recent trip earlier in June was no different. One night, my good friend Mark Yang and I, had dinner with some friends in China. One of our colleagues from China witnessed Mark and I presenting together several times over several years. She commented on how evident our friendship was when presenting together, noting this added something to the presentation. This prompted me to once again reflect upon the role that friendships have played in my life. Although friendship has been essential in each phase of my life in different ways, in this piece I am going to reflect upon three potent periods of friendship in my life.
Graduate School: The Discovery of Depth
In graduate school, I was blessed to be part of a close group of friends who navigated the program together. Beginning in our first days, we formed a study group. While the studying was important, it was the friendships that really sustained us and helped me survive graduate school. With these friends, I first began recognizing the potential depths of friendship. In regards to my professional development, I often have said that I learned more sitting on the decks of our homes on the evenings and weekends than I did in the classroom. It was there, as we discussed what we were taught, that the lessons were learned and became real. Friendship and dialogue transformed knowledge into meaning.
During those years of graduate school, we experienced marriage, divorce, the death of a spouse, deep disappointments, and many celebrations in our personal lives. Our lives were forever changed in these vulnerable and emotional moments. Until graduate school, I had never experienced such depth of acceptance in my friendships before. Even when I exposed things I was ashamed about, I was accepted. During my period of brokenness, their friendship was even more evident. This allowed me, for the first time, to begin to discover myself on a deeper level.
Many similarities exist between deep friendships and therapy, and if everyone were able to find and maintain such relationships, psychotherapy would be much less necessary in our world today. For me, it was these early relationships where I was able to be seen and begin to see and know myself. When I see these friends today, much has changed, especially the frequency of contact, but the depth of friendship has not.
The Early Professional Years: Transformation
Shortly after graduate school, I experienced a number of challenges in my life. It was also the richest period of friendship in my life thus far. As I reflect back, I am quite aware that with many of the difficult challenges I faced, I most likely would have retreated into the poor choices had it not been for some close friends.
In this period, the friendships not only helped me continue to see myself more clearly, but they also helped me grow in my confidence and courage to be myself. I started to recognize the ways I had been who I was expected to be instead of following my own values. My friends helped me to become a more centered person. It is no mystery that during this period I also began to develop my voice. I began writing and believing that what I wrote really mattered. I wrote professionally, and I wrote personally. And I began teaching, teaching with confidence.
Since this period, I have often felt that if not for two of my friends, in particular, I may have not found my voice. Writing now is quite central to who I am as a person, and I frequently think I owe these two friends a thank you for everything I write. Without them, the words may have never had to courage to find their way to expression.
The China Years
For seven years, I have been traveling to China, focusing on the psychology of religion and, in particular, existential psychology. My good friends Mark and Xuefu have been part of all I have done in China with existential psychology. I am proud of what we have accomplished. We have introduced existential psychology to thousands of people. I have said many times that I feel that, with the exception of my family, I make more of a positive impact on the world during my two weeks in China each year than I make the other 50 weeks. Each year, I find evidence of this reality that continues to draw me back.
When I look back at what we have accomplished, I am thankful that we have always placed the relationships and, in particular, our friendships as our top priority. In facing many challenges, it is the friendships that have helped me persevere with the work. After two successful conferences, countless presentations, a book, and much more, I realize that little of this would have happened on our own. Had each of us been working individually, we might have had an impact, but surely nothing close to the impact we have had. Furthermore, had we only been working as colleagues, I doubt our impact would be nearly as great. The friendship is the most essential ingredient.
While much of what Mark, Xuefu, and I have focused on is relevant to existential psychology and our professional lives, these friendships have impacted my life much more deeply than just the professional level. When I have encountered challenges, these two friends are consistently among those who I count on for support, encouragement, and advice.
It is hard for me to conclude this blog. In part, I feel I have not done justice honoring the depths of the friends to whom I have referred. Also, I feel bad that I have not acknowledged some other very important friends in my life. However, this is not because of the lack of impact these other friends have had on my life, but because I focused on three important periods in my life where friendship played a particularly important role.
Relationships, including friendships, are often hard, too. During a recent interview in China, the interviewer noted that there must have been conflicts in the years Mark and I worked together and then asked how we worked through them. She is correct. Any relationship of substantive depth has challenges. But when I look back at how these relationships have served me well, it is evident that any challenge related to these friendships is worth it. Thanks to our openness and honesty with each other, the challenges for Mark and I have been quickly worked through.
To conclude, I want to share a few lines from one of my favorite songs, My Friends, by Dar Williams.
Sometimes I see myself fine
Sometimes I need a witness
And I like the whole truth,
But there are nights I only need forgiveness.
Sometimes they say,
I don’t know who you are
But let me walk with you some
And I say, “I am alone, that’s all
You can save me from all the wrong I’ve done,”
But they are waiting all the same
With their flashlights and their semaphores,
And I’ll act like I have faith
And like that faith never ends
But I really just have friends.
-- Louis Hoffman