When at an airport and given the choice between taking a cab or the airport shuttle—if time permits—take the shuttle. Whereas a cab might get you there quicker, it is a lonesome ride, unless you get a chatty cab driver. A shuttle thrusts you into the lives of other travelers, who, often as not, are willing to share the tales of their travels, and sometimes insight into their lives. I made the choice to take the latter on my recent trip to San Antonio. On my inbound trip, I struck up a lively conversation with a Canadian physicist who developed a brain-monitoring apparatus, similar to a CSAT but providing more precision for mapping the brain. (Doubt I would have gotten into that type of conversation with the average cab driver.) And then, upon my return, I shared a delightful ride from my downtown hotel with a lively gang of six 60-something women.
They had been friends for years and were enjoying a reunion trip in San Antonio. They boarded the shuttle with shopping bags and laughter overflowing, and their banter continued as we traversed the city. They reminded me of my good girlfriends. They were silly and astute and they obviously loved each other dearly despite their differences and the fact that they were all strewn across the country. When I asked them how they became friends, they explained they had worked together for a time at a consignment shop owned by one of the women. They didn’t mind at all my asking. It seemed only polite to ask—that is, to marvel at their bond. As they answered me in tandem, each woman adding her piece of their story, I thought of how they had surely supported each other over the years, through good times and bad. How odds were, they had been buoyed each other up through health problems and losses, and celebrated the births of grandchildren and remissions and other answered prayers, their lives forever intertwined.
During my Crisis, my friends became my bedrock. But it didn’t happen automatically. The friendships had to be reignited. At my lowest point, I felt utterly alone, and that is a horrible, desperate place to be. I had a lot of friends, yes, but over the years I lost touch with many of them. Luckily, I had only to pick up the phone, send an email, or do some sleuthing on Facebook, to reconnect with my Life Lines out there. There were some friends with whom I hadn’t spoken in 15 years, but once I reached out to them, we were right back in the thick of it, as if no time had passed at all. That’s the measure of a true friend. And I realize now with my Buddhist perspective that these relationships, these fluid, lovely, non-demanding, abiding relationships are exactly of the nature of Buddhist detachment. My friends and I love each other, would do anything for each other, and yet, we have no expectations of each other. We rarely, if ever, place attachments on each other and, therefore, we can never be disappointed. Perhaps it wasn’t that way in college or in our early career days when we were all so hypersensitive to any perceived slight—being left out being the ultimate insult, even if it was not intentional. But thankfully we have all grown to appreciate how very precious our relationships are. I am very fortunate to have so many good friends in my life.
Now my question is this: Is it possible to exist without that one special relationship? Can you cobble together enough friendships to fill the hole in your heart when romantic relationships fail? And yes, that would still leave one undeniable role that no “friend” can truly fill because it involves acts that cross the line from friendship into the realm of sex—and that can get quite complicated, if not downright messy. Attachments form and suddenly the lovely man who was my friend now is a beast because he didn't call, or failed to live up to some assumption. And yet, as difficult as romantic relationships can become, I’m can't get around that need for physical intimacy, and I'm not just talking about sex, although, yes, that's a requirement, but I don't think I can live without even the lovely feeling of holding hands and walking down the street, or curling up together at the end of the day. As humans, we crave physical intimacy beyond the biology of procreation. We are alone among mammals in this respect. And if I could definitively answer the question of why we so desire and strive for this deeper sense of intimacy with one special person, then I would probably win a Noble Prize.
How do the Buddhists do it? Yes, people who practice Buddhism get married. It's a tricky business, of course, to keep from placing attachment and expectation on one's spouse, but perhaps Buddhism does offer an answer. I suspect it has a lot to do with being quite happy with yourself—not needing too much from your mate. And I also suspect is has a lot do with with knowing yourself well enough to understand the attributes you require in a spouse or partner—and what emotional needs can be fulfilled by friends and family. (One person should never shoulder the entire burden of another's happiness.) Buddhism teaches us to be self-aware, and how could you possibly make a commitment to love and honor someone else, when you don't really know what to honor and love about yourself? Yet, many people do it. I've done it myself—twice. For now, I am content in the company of my very good friends—that is, until I will discover what it is that I need to know about myself before crossing that line again.