Guard against aging with strong relationships
As we pass into our forties, dip into our fifties or even experience the sixties, the body inevitably loses looks and vitality, so it is important to have forces at work that support who we truly are. One of these is the power of relationships.
"Grow old along with me," says Robert Browning, "The best is yet to be: The last for which the first was meant to be."
But how do relationships help us? Should we have the same kinds of friends all our life? When it is time to end a particular relationship? Here are five practical strategies to keep in mind.
1. To a friend, age doesn't really matter:
They relate to something deeper, so having close friends helps us grow old more gracefully. More than that, a friend buffers the harsh winds that necessarily will blow through our life. Painful experience will always hurt, but friends who stand by us can shield us from the impact of loss, humiliation, and pain; in their company, we can find a place of peace and love.
I have often asked myself, why does my friend from high school -- whom I have known over 40 years -- not mind that my hair is getting thin and that I am not the dashingly handsome blond weightlifter I was when we first chased girls together? Why am I always welcome at his gracious and friendly home, for as long as I want to stay? And when, after a foolish mistake, I was deserted by most of those I called friends, how could this man say, "He is my friend, no matter what he may do?"
Surely it's because something in friendship touches the eternal in us. A true friend relates to what will always be you, no matter what reverses time or circumstances may bring. Being with such a friend is like looking in a real mirror, not the one in the bathroom that shows the wrinkles in your face and the sagging of your abdomen. This allows a glimpse into the inner peace of our soul, which "cannot be wounded or burnt, wetted or dried -- ever and everywhere, immovable and everlasting." This self is, as the Bhagavad Gita says here, what a true friend sees in us and loves.
2. The need for acceptance:
The older we get, the more tolerant we need to be that people are not perfect. Most people are not saints, and we cannot expect the perfect friend. When we were young, friendship filled us and defined us; I have these particular friends, so this is who I am. We might even have looked to friends to perform almost miraculous rescues, as we also would save them when they were dumped by a sweetheart or tossed out of a job.
But as we grow out of our childhood self, friendship is less about being Peter Pan or superwoman and more about sharing. The older we get, the more we learn to tolerate the less than perfect. Sometimes friends can't be there for us when we truly want them, because of their own urgent needs; we, too, have had times when we were so absorbed in our own problems that we could not help them. I saw the video "Don Juan" again the other night, and marveled when Marlon Brando said to his wife, played by Faye Dunaway, "What are your hopes and dreams that got lost along the way, when I was thinking of myself?"
When we can own our weaknesses and forgive those that our friend or partner also has, we embrace the human, which is ageless and not subject to changes in our body and appearance.
3. When to end a friendship:
As we grow older, we need people who will really be there, so it's important to take a good, hard look at our friendships. Sometimes we are not aware how one sided they can be. I had a friend, a bohemian-type artist and writer who would talk a lot, and I would listen intently. But whenever I spoke about my life, he never responded. Instead, I heard more about his adventures on a camel in the desert, or of his days baking at a world class Paris pastry place.
For him, the relationship was about feeding his narcissism, nothing else. This taught me the importance of weeding out all but the most quality friendships. It does take courage enough to end friendships that are not mutually beneficial; even a marriage must be looked at with the question, are the burdens and joys equally shared (and fortunately, there is always therapy to try, when they are not)?
It is crucial as we age to have friends and partners with common interests who can see, hear, and support us, as we do them.
4. Whether in strength or weakness, be mindful that life will test your friendships:
We should also be prepared for tragic disappointments. When I turned 40, one friend told me, "Stephen, you really had something special when you were young, a real spark. You have lost that now." I should not have been surprised that, when I experienced a life meltdown, the gravity did not suit this person. She had loved my more carefree youth that was gone, and when trouble came, she was quickly on to other things. But another friend called me with great alarm and said, "I can't stand what has happened. What can I do?"
So don't gamble everything on one particular relationship, because that may be the very one that does not endure. Feel to your very depths, stand by who you really are, and you will find true friends who also will stand by you, even in the worst scenarios.
5. Try to relate from strength, not from neediness:
Everyone loves the person whose life is full enough to give out of abundance. Whether in your friendships or your activities, fill your life full of what counts most, make decisions rooted in your truth, and you will become the kind of person whose happiness is infectious. For the stronger and more confident we feel as we age, the less we depend on others and can simply enjoy their company. That confidence comes from an earnest search for our inner center, a quest for an awakened view of who we are and what we want. And that will earn us the best and most enduring friend we can ever have -- ourselves.