The Healing Power of Friendship

By Scott Westerman Listen to an audio version of this message.

Scott’s Maxim: If you want to know who your real friends are, see what they do for you when there is nothing you are able to do for them.

It is impossible to overestimate the healing power of friendship.

The first time Colleen learned she had cancer, we were in the middle of transplanting back to East Lansing. It was the dead of winter and we were fresh from a military brat series of assignments that had taken us across five states in six years. We had great medical support systems but despite some wonderful contributions from some extraordinary people, we felt like it was the two of us against the beast.

This time it was dramatically different. Two and a half years of nesting, making new connections and reestablishing old ones, had grown our circle of concern exponentially. When we learned that Colleen’s cancer had returned, the news spread. People came out of the woodwork with words of support, food, flowers and face time.

In the midst of the battle, we’ve enjoyed quality experiences with some of our closest lifelong friends along with the newer additions; connections who have become cherished confidants, moving towards our inner circle in a time where most people might want to walk away. Each encounter gave us the opportunity to laugh, to cry, to share the anger and doubt that walk hand in hand in a fight like this, and to remember why life itself is worth living.

It can be depressing to witness mortality staring us in the face. And it takes every ounce of strength to fight.

The drugs help. “Better living through chemistry” has gone through several definitive iterations in our lifetime. What used to be a joking reference to recreational experimentation now means composing a concoction that keeps side effects at bay. Once you cross 50, more and more of the people you know admit to a regimen that includes everything from baby aspirin and Motrin to Xanax and Prozac.

We’ve discovered that the real miracle drug isn’t something that’s injected or swallowed. It’s the warm embrace of an empathetic soul, someone who genuinely cares about where you are and what you’re feeling, who listens when you need to vent, brings back  laughter after the tears, and challenges you to stay in circulation, making the most of whatever quality of life you have at that moment.

Sure, there are the professionals. These are the people we pay to hear us out and focus their years of experience and training to help us make sense of the unbearable. They are essential. I like to say that everyone needs a shrink, the hard part is finding the right one.

But more important are those rare individuals who include you in their adventures as they sit by your side while the poison that is supposed to save your life is slowly coursing through your body. These are the friends who not only read the long emails you write but respond in kind, opening their own authentic souls so you realize that you are not alone. They meet your for lunch when you want to talk to someone other than your spouse about what’s hurting. They call you out when you need it. But mostly they just listen, realizing that sometimes the healing happens when your burden spills out in disconnected paragraphs that may go in a dozen divergent directions.

Here’s what we’ve learned about friendship: If you want to know who your real friends are, see what they do for you when there is nothing you are able to do for them. And as you consider how you spend your time, prioritize those relationships above all others. In the press of life, it’s easy to let that go. As Dr. Seuss said, “Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.” True friends always seem to be able to pick up right where they left off, even if a timespan of years stands between them. True friends have seen you at your best -and- at your worst and love you anyway. You will only have a few true friends, They are more precious than a dot.com idea or a winning lotto number.

Treat these rare gems with special care. They are the protagonists in the most joyful chapters of your life story.

We are blessed with many more good friends than we probably deserve. Ours has been a nomadic life where relationships have come and gone in the slipstream of the moving van. But along the way, we have found a few cherished spirits who have stayed with us for the long haul.

These are the people who are healing Colleen and who are helping me find the strength to get her well.. even as I try to earn a paycheck, add value to a team and care for a half million constituents who have their own burdens to bear.

Who are -your- closest friends? If you discovered you had cancer tomorrow, who would be first in line to take care of you? And what are you doing right now to nurture those relationships and add the same value to their lives in return?

We think about our friends every day. We’re more grateful for their friendship then words in a blog can ever properly express. It’s another one of those strange ironies that seem to walk in lockstep with tribulation. When you have true friendships, some of the best times can happen during some of the worst times.

Cancer sucks. But knowing what we now know about the people we care about most has been a gift we’ll get to keep long after Colleen banishes the last of the monster from her being.

Feedback always welcome to [email protected]