“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine. But it’s what we do with it that matters most—making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love.’ That’s what really matters.”
– Fred Rogers
It’s been said that “Good friends are hard to find,” but I think it’s truer to confess that “Good friendships are hard to build.”
They take time and work and diligence. They require patience and forgiveness. There are no shortcuts. They often grow in fits and starts. And though many are interested in experiencing the outcome of that kind of labor, few are interested in the effort.
In other words, many people want a friend. Few want to be a friend.
And that’s resulted in an epidemic of loneliness and dissatisfaction. The children’s poet Shel Silverstein speaks about the way we tend to approach friendships. He writes:
“I’ve discovered a way to stay friends forever
There’s really nothing to it.
I simply tell you what to do
And you do it.”
Shel’s right. Too many of us unknowingly embrace a selfish posture towards friendship. His playful poem captures what I’ll call the “my friends exist for me” approach to friendship. Perhaps you’ve seen it before. It rears its ugly head when folks find themselves believing:
My friends exist so that I have something to do on a Friday night.
My friends exist so that I can try new restaurants and see new movies with someone.
My friends exist so that I won’t feel lonely.
My friends exist for me.
This posture towards friendship is highly misguided. It’s plain bad advice. If you desire deeper, more substantive relationships, here are four habits, advocated by the author of Proverbs, that can help you build better friendships. Friendships that aren’t all about you. Friendships that bring life and yield joy. Friendships that will last.
If you want to build friendships that will last, first, you must cultivate self-awareness.
Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”
What’s going on deep inside us is difficult to analyze or to understand precisely. But those who desire to be good friends take the time to explore their own hearts. They assess their motives and desires, and honestly evaluate what makes them tick. They name old wounds and identify the effects of those wounds. They own up to the good, the bad, and the ugly that shapes their decision-making.
They cultivate self-awareness. And self-awareness is critical to building friendships that can last.
Someone who is self-aware is able to recognize when they’re being unreasonable, when they’re being demanding, and when they’re reacting to a current circumstance out of an old wound. And isn’t that what you want in a friendship?
Those who are self-aware have taken the time to look into their own hearts so that they can respond to and care well for those whom they call “friend.”
Self-awareness can grow in many contexts. Counseling is a helpful tool. So is journaling. Research shows that writing down things we are thankful for and identifying things that frustrate us can help us gain insight into the nooks and crannies of our hearts.
So how do you build friendships that last? First, you cultivate self-awareness.
But becoming a better friend isn’t just about improving the ways we understand ourselves. It’s also about adjusting the postures we adopt when relating to others.
If you want to build friendships that last, you must also commit to radical candor.
What’s radical candor?
Kim Scott, a remarkable business leader in the tech industry, who’s led online sales at AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick and Operations at Google, writes, “Radical candor is the ability to challenge directly and show you care personally at the same time.” It’s the commitment to take a risk and speak the truth to a person who matters to you.
Scott’s definition of radical candor reminds me of Proverbs 27:6, which says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
They also remind me of Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Even though it can be remarkably difficult to tell the truth to those we love, it’s what a good friend does. It’s how we build friendships that last.
Radical candor matters for two reasons:
It’s how we care for our friends.
And it’s how trust grows in our friendships.
A friend says what needs to be said, even if it hurts for a little while, because they desire to keep their friends from greater heartache or harm.
And a friend speaks honestly, risking hurt or misunderstanding, so that their friendships might have opportunities to deepen and grow. Indeed, speaking with radical candor is one of the main ways trust grows between friends. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “A good friend will always stab you in the front.”
Do you give your closest relationships a chance to grow through your commitment to courageous honesty? Are you committed to radical candor?
For healthy relationships to grow, honest, direct speech is necessary. But so is grace.
If you want to build friendships that last, you must make forgiveness a habit.
Proverbs 17:9 instructs, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
Whoever covers an offense—which is a Hebrew way of saying whoever commits to forgiveness—seeks love. But those who repeat the matter—those who ruminate on it, bringing it up again and again—cause separation between friends.
It’s been said the only things that are certain are death and taxes, but you can also count on this: Your friends will let you down. They will break your trust. They will hurt and offend you. It’s inevitable.
But the ability to forgive—the ability to cut some slack and offer understanding—that’s what allows friendship to grow over the long haul.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that we let our friends run all over us or do whatever they please without consequence. Boundaries matter. And there are times that boundaries need to be established and firmly held.
But at the same time, if you want your relationships to flourish, you need to make forgiveness a habit. You must be quick to extend grace and give another chance to those who have offended you.
That’s just part of friendship.
And finally, if you want to build friendships that last, you need to embrace self-sacrifice.
Proverbs 17:17 declares, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
A true friend is one who commits to costly love, who is present in good times and bad times. A true friend doesn’t vanish when things get difficult, they dig in.
What’s funny is many recognize that friendship is valuable. But few seem willing to pay the high price that lasting friendship costs. It cannot be denied: Valuable things come at a high price. And lasting friendship is pricey. There are physical, emotional, financial, and time costs associated with building friendships that last.
But they’re worth it.
Because Fred Rogers is right.
Investing in things like friendship and love—that is what really matters.
Indeed, in a filmed interview, Rogers once remarked,
“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
That’s a gift we’re able to share in the context of friendship.
If you want to build those kind of friendships—friendships that bring joy, friendships that withstand hurts and deepen as years pass, friendships that last—you must cultivate self-awareness, commit to radical candor, make forgiveness a habit, and commit to self-sacrifice.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
And I promise, you’ll be glad you did.
And so will your friends.