Science Fiction Author & Intersectional Pioneer
The Art of Being a True Friend
Some things are so essential to our existence, we take their presence in our lives for granted. Friendship is one of those things.
How often do you sit down and examine special relationships and what they’ve added to your life? How often do you tell those you consider friends that you appreciate them and they give you purpose? How often do you acknowledge we are social beings, pack animals, if you will, who require the support and structure that comes with being a part of something bigger than yourself?
Before we’re old enough to know the difference, connections begin to form and shape not only our present, but our future, as well. Friendships forged in childhood help us develop critical analytical, language, communication, and social skills necessary to do all of the important things in life, like get an education, begin our individual families, and hold down jobs. They teach us about what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of people we don’t. They are the foundation for healthy communities and successful societies.
Through friendships we learn empathy, sympathy, kindness, and compassion. We learn to share, to help, to accept, to forgive, and to love. Our morals, ethics, senses of right and wrong, and basic decency all find their places in our personalities based on the relationships we hold with our families and our friends.
I am an only child. Most of the time, I’m okay with that, and I particularly didn’t mind it when I was growing up. As I get older, I realize I might have liked having contemporaries within my family who shared my basic history. But this singular perspective gave me something I suspect most only children have, and that is the ability to develop deep, all-encompassing friendships very quickly, ones that replace what we instinctually feel we’ve missed because we lack siblings. Now, you don’t get to my age without understanding they’re never going to be quite like having those ties that come with sharing DNA, but there are people in my life who I expect to be there for the long run. Some are family, some are like family, but they remain in my life because I choose them, and they choose me. These are the friends I suspect Octavia Butler was talking about.
Butler was an award winning Science Fiction novelist, the first black woman to claim that title. She came from a working class family, an only child herself, raised by her mother who was widowed when Butler was seven. She was a terribly shy little girl who was also dyslexic, and the combination made socializing and making friends very difficult for her. At 12, she unwittingly discovered her saving grace, writing, and that singular purpose established her in a world that brought fulfillment and success – and people she would come to call ‘friend’.
When Octavia Butler started writing Science Fiction not only were there few women working in the genre, there were very few of anything other than white men. Ironically, that’s exactly who she forged friendships with, among them noted author Harlan Ellison, who was not only a friend, but also a mentor to Butler up until her death. Theirs was a relationship of mutual respect and common interest, born from a shared love of storytelling in the fantasy realm, and one that likely would not have existed but for that connection.
Butler was candid about her goals, in terms of relating to her audience – she wanted to not only impart information about a subject or theme, but also to write in such a way that her readers experienced the story instead of merely being told about it. She was building a connection she felt would make her work more meaningful and memorable to them, and she was exceptionally good at it. So when she made the comment about friendship, she certainly knew what she was talking about – being in tune to each other, as friends, and weathering the ups and downs of life, as they come, together.
And isn’t that what friendship is about? Holding each other steady through the ups and downs and coming out the other side with as strong a bond as ever? Better for the experience because of the support and understanding you either gave, or received? That’s why friendships are crucial to the human experience.
Have you ever thought about the damage people suffer when they don’t have meaningful connections with others? I doubt if anyone is exempt from occasional feelings of loneliness and isolation, but then a friend reaches out and offers you words, time, attention, understanding, commiseration, and, ultimately, a way out of the vortex that tries to suck you under. As solitary as I tend to be, I cannot imagine working through pain and loss without the comfort of my friends, and I know people who lack that closeness with others are affected in such lasting and detrimental ways.
Kind words, thoughtful gestures, meaningful notes, heartfelt encouragement, or even just a place to land while they help me put myself back together, I have had all of these, at one time or another, and they have kept me grounded and grateful for what is in my life, instead of mourning what is not.
For me, the gift of social media has been the ability to connect, reconnect, and maintain friendships, both near and far in ways we never really thought possible. I used to curse Facebook on a regular basis (it hasn’t always been the most user friendly program), but the truth is, it’s allowed me to keep in contact with friends I might not have for no other reason than time, change, and/or distance had brought us to different places. I love being able to maintain that connection with people. It makes the world a little more bearable.
From my first best friend,
through the years,
as they came,
and they went,
or they stayed,
whether we’ve reconnected,
or they’ve been there all along,
whether I’ve known them for a lifetime,
or in a new life,
my world has been richer and more fulfilling for each and every one.
Are there some I would have skipped, in retrospect? Of course! Some people are masters at hiding their toxicity. But sometimes the end of a friendship is brought about by the fact that people grow apart as their life experiences change, and those are the ones you’re grateful for having had, and a little sad for the loss.
So I think about my friendships and the art of timing. I think about the devastation I’ve gone through and those who loved me enough to let me crash, yet were there to make sure I didn’t burn. I think about the unspeakable things friends of mine have endured and the helplessness I felt at having to watch them experiencing the most acute pain possible, yet knowing there was nothing I could do. But I also know the slow and steady healing that comes with time, and how a broad shoulder, a quick call, a sweet note, a hand extended toward mine, an unexpected gift, a request for them that is a favor to me in disguise, a hug, a short text, or a thoughtful comment can remind me that I’m not alone in this journey, whether we share DNA, or not.