When I was four years old I met a little girl who had as much fun riding stick horses as I did. Half an hour after I met her I ven tured what seemed to me a very natural question. "Do you want to be friends?" She didn't throw me any strange glances or run out of the room. She simply said, "Yes," and that was that.
It didn't matter to me where she was from, whether she was smarter than I, whether she could run faster than I could, or whether she had more brothers and sisters than I did. Those were the incidental things we would find out later, but the basis of our friendship was a mutual recognition of something likable in one another, something that went beyong the memorization of personal histories. My initial judgment was a good one, and our friendship is still a delight.
As I reached my early teens, I found there were variations on this theme. The question remained the same, but the wording was changed. It was no longer acceptable to say, "Do you want to be friends?" But it was OK to say, "A bunch of us are going to the show on Saturday. Want to come?" And the other person knew what it was you meant, and they would come.
It seems, though, as children grow into adulthood the procedure becomes more involved, more subtle, more strategic. Maintaining friendships in a world filled with mobility and change is a difficult enough chore, but establishing new ones becomes a monumental task. One of the problems stems from the fact that friendship is no longer limited to the simple prerequisite of "liking" one another. Through the years we tend to develop mental checklists; lists that categorize, analyze and judge another before we will consider any commitment at all. Also, we have come to view potential friendships with one question foremost in thought: Do not rewards outweigh the risks?
As the human mind becomes more complex, so do its defenses, and as the years bring disappointment and hurt we learn to shield ourselves from situations that may bring these hurts. We also, inadvertently, learn to shield ourselves from one of life's greatest delights -- the discovery of another human being. I began to see that this process of growing complexity was limiting my own actions and attitudes toward acquaintances as well as my closest friends, for while I wanted to develop open and sincere relationships, I was at a loss as to the way to go about it. I wondered within what framework we as adults could find the courage to advance beyond society's unnecessary restrictions as well as our own long-held fears, and find effective ways of establishing progressive, affectionate and secure relationships with others.
I first decided to trust my intuition -- to trust it enough to act on it. Then I asked myself: Just what am I looking for in my friendships? While in the sixth grade it was the quantity of friends that was important, that was no longer my foremost concern; quantity had become far less important than quality. I wanted to be able now to share all that I was -- my real self -- and in turn to discover what others had to share. I tried going about this process of discovery free of preconceptions, free of judgment, and this view allowed me to see not only what we were offering one another, but all that we could be offering -- what our potential for giving really was.
Case in point. Some time ago I met someone whom I wanted to know better. It was a situation similar to that with my four-year old-friend: I knew nothing about this woman's personal history and whether or not we had anything in common , but there was an intuitive liking on my part. It was evident, however, that this intuitive liking was definitely one-sided! In fact, she seemed to have no interest at all in developing any sort of friendship. Up until this point in my life that fact would have been more than enough to keep me from proceeding, but I gathered enough courage to trust my intuition and to act on it. What was so scary about this? Was I afraid of not getting something in return? It was then I realized that I didn't want anything in return, I only wanted to offer my friendship. An unconditionalm friendship? Was I crazy? Where were my sophistication and pride? Where, oh where, was my instinct for survival? Somehow these questions seemed secondary to the desire to be true -- if only this one time in my life -- to the Challenge of loving free of conditions and complexities. It wasn't easy.
Through it all I began to see that while our desires may be simple, there is some need for complexity in the communications of those desires. The four-year-old's query, "Do you want to be friends?" can be frightening to those accustomed to the subtle intricacies of the adult world. Gentle people -- as I believe most of us are in matters of the heart -- need gentle solicitations. Just as gardens need cultivation through the most patient kind of love, so, in the same manner, the human spirit needs to be nurtured.
I also found that offering myself without discretion (which was what I had done) had been something like sending this person a preassembled addition to her house. Now this addition may be useful, and the motive behind it may be a loving and unselfish one, but with a voluminous gift one must give some thought to the recipient's need, and I had failed to do that. What I should have done was send the pieces to the addition gradually. That way the owner could assemble them as she saw fit, taking what she wanted and disposing of any unnecessary clutter. She could then construct an addition that would offer the most gracious blending of old and new, resulting in a comfortable and secure home that had found its own form of expression.
It took me some time to understand it all, but once I did I found the answer to the question "do the rewards outweigh the risks?" The answer is yes -- always -- even though the rewards may be in the area of personal growth rather than in the establishment of a new friendship. I this case I was doubly rewarded; I found a delightful new friend and I learned some important lessons in the process.
The four-year-olds understand the basic premise quite well: that it is the desire to love and be loved that is calling forth our response. Perhaps we must come full circle and learn again to acknowledge that calling. Going further, we can build on this acknowledgment and use what we have learned in the full-circled journey through our growing up years: discernment, discretion and courage. It seems to me that the world is in need of people with such gifts.