On The Importance Of Friendship

On The Importance Of Friendship
As we ease into the summer, one of the things I appreciate most is having time to catch up with friends. In the working world in the US, there is precious time to make time for one’s own family, let alone friends.

This week I saw one of my closest friends. We were roommates in London almost thirty years ago and have been, like branches, entangled in and out of each other’s lives since then. It made me reflect on how important it is to have people who have known you and understand you over many decades, to be able to share the ups and downs of life – in fact just to be there for each other over time.

My friend is one of the foremost Pakistani research scientists and microbiologists of her generation. When we met, we were both young Pakistani students in London in the mid-1990s. We were very different individuals but realised we were cut from the same cloth. She was working on a demanding PHD program. I was doing a Master’s program in Development Economics. Though I dabbled with the idea of a doctorate, I ended up deferring my PHD and opted for a career in international development.

We both had very supportive and encouraging parents. They were determined to give us equal if not better options than their sons. Gently but firmly, they nudged us into demanding careers and professional achievement. This was not usual. I recall one of my father’s friends cautioning him not to send me abroad for further studies as it would destroy my chances of getting married. In comparison, many of our friends were betrothed and shelved their academic potential for family priorities, if not of their own then of by surrogacy of their in-laws.

Somewhere along the way, we both met men who were supportive of our ambitious careers. With their active nurturing partnership, we have made it to the higher echelons of our professional careers. We worked hard, had children along the way – a girl and boy each. Almost thirty years later, we are still standing strong. We managed to sustain marriages and children and achieve our goals in work – though often it felt like burning the candle at both ends.

Friendships are usually put on the back-burner as we grow older. All too often, we often have to prioritise and make tough choices. Should we use our spare time for our friends, families or for ourselves? Over time, our open conversations have evolved from studying for exams and boys to marriage and families, our parallel careers, and having to navigate through often difficult, trying times. She and I are more than friends – we are a second family to each other. We understand the way we think and can support each other to resolve thorny issues, whether at work or at home. As Michelle Obama wisely noted: “Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses.” To be kind and supportive of each other, rather than competitive, are critical components of that bond.

There are some friends from whom we drift apart as the effort to sustain that relationship is not reciprocal, or others with whom we have nothing in common. Having moved around different cities, I have realised some friends only keep in touch when you live in the same city. Proximity plays a key role. Researchers even refer to the phenomenon as “propinquity” - i.e. that those in regular interaction or in proximity tend to be more friends because they are easily accessible.

It is always sad to lose friends, but it is even harder to hold onto them over decades, particularly when you need them. I have been trying to understand what drives friendship. Basically, it is those we connect with, understand and appreciate. It is those whom we value in our lives. It is those we show up for and we want to show up for.

Some of that puts undue pressure on relationships. People are not necessarily in the same headspace and may not even realise you need them particularly if you don’t articulate it. Then there are those who want something from you or are selfishly transactional. I am sure you can list those people reach out to you only when they need something from you.

As social animals, friendships are critical. Research shows (like hair or teeth) we tend to lose friends as we age. Marisa Franco, a researcher at the University of Maryland confirms that platonic can trump romantic love and was originally intended to reflect Plato’s vision of love so strong that it transcends the physical.

Brain imaging research shows that friendship even affects brain systems associated with rewards, stress and negative emotions. It helps our mental health and well-being. A life without close friends can actually be detrimental. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has linked loneliness with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. This can worse for older women, who face loneliness and social isolation. The incidence of heart disease amongst them can rise by almost 30%.

When reflecting on my own life, I look back at the friendships that have sustained me. My childhood best friend who is like a sister to me, my family friends whose children are like siblings to my own, even though we may not see each other for years. We resume wherever we left off. My friends from school and university or work, and especially those who share my interests, whether reading or cooking or art or music or cultural travel. During Covid, my book club was a lifeline as beyond speaking about books, we openly shared experiences, making better sense of our lives. I feel blessed to have a diverse group of friends – men and women from different walks of life and countries, work friends and home friends, younger and older and those who have been there for me in times of happiness and sadness.

While I have realised that it is important to be there for others, it is equally important to be able to let others in when one is feeling low. Instinctively, we feel we should be strong and self-reliant, particularly when things are not going well. How many do you know who will call you in the middle of night? Or answer if you call them with your emergencies?

Friendships need nourishment and sustained effort. Otherwise like badly-tended plants, they wither away. As Emerson put it: “When friendships are real, they are not glass threads or frost work, but the solidest things we can know.” They are the trees that provide oxygen in our lives.