Friendship is about warmth and laughter and spontaneity, about staying in touch with our feelings and sharing them, about caring both when it is easy and when things are difficult. It's about expressing our anger and irritation and knowing that it's safe to do so, and it's about a thousand and one things, both great and small, that are part of strengthening the bonds between us.
For some people the first few months at university can be quite a scary time. Knowing how long it took to make friends at school, it can be daunting and a bit despairing to be surrounded by so many new faces. It can feel really awkward to sit at breakfast alongside a complete stranger, and be stuck for conversation. It can be a worry when you are unsure about how to write an essay or lab report and feel you have no one in whom to confide. You may start to dread those long weekends when everything seems so quiet.
Compared to school the structure of university life is deliberately loose and flexible, centred on a core of mandatory formal work of perhaps fifteen to twenty hours. There is time and the opportunity for making friends in the residences, in flats, in sports and leisure activities and in social situations. Ironically, for those who are feeling quite lonely, there may never be another time when there are so many potential friendships around and the time to indulge them.
Physical attraction can be overwhelming - it's a big part of relationships and we wouldn't survive without it! Sometimes it's all that's going for a relationship, and sometimes it's all we want, but usually we're looking for other things as well... a sense of humour, kindness, generosity... the list is endless! And it's reassuring to know that - however it's dressed up - a good relationship often feels more like a pair of old slippers, than something smart or sexy or elegant... just familiar and comfortable.
So much of our time at university is spent in a flurry of activity which - to be honest - doesn't really do much for relationships.
Moving from mutual attraction to developing a genuine liking can be quite a slow process - it takes time before we're ready to trust and confide in others, time also to test what kinds of potential hurt or distress might be lurking in the shadows.
To know another person is to share many different experiences, it is to learn something of the depth and colour of another's feelings - the humour, joy, sadness, humility, anger, patience, shame - and of those basic attitudes to life that inform his or her personality. It's a process whose gentle momentum runs counter to a culture in which the common expectation is that most things can be made to happen quickly. But emotional intimacy is a strange thing: for though it can often arise in abrupt and unexpected moments, and often has little to do with sex, yet it thrives both in conditions of gentle nurture and frank avowal or outspokenness.
It's been said that a good test of a relationship is to convince two friends that they spend time in a remote bothy in the Highlands with the minimum of conveniences. A few days of discomfort - as the adversity of the situation becomes apparent - is usually sufficient for each to see the other as he or she really is. So many of our relationships develop in sheltered, contrived situations, that living under difficult conditions for a short period - no electricity and no plumbing - can quickly bring out both the best and the worst in us! It's good to know that a friend can be relied upon to be considerate and patient... it's also useful to know what makes a friend feel grumpy or embarrassed and angry.
Warmth, understanding and acceptance seem to be at the core of friendship... creating conditions where the other person feels safe, respected and appreciated. Safety is about your friend knowing that he or she will not feel diminished or abused or harassed; respect involves being aware of your friend's feelings, needs and boundaries; appreciation means celebrating your friendship openly both in word and action. So often, when we look back on relationships, we regret all the good things that were left unsaid and undone.
Friendship can become very intense and committed, with two people totally absorbed in each other's company to the exclusion of their previous friends. It's a heady experience and fine while it lasts! But at the end of the day we need our wider circle of friends, to share the good times and to keep alive all those aspects of ourselves that they alone can nourish.
We go through the first half of our lives at school, then university, then chasing jobs, moving every few years, to become familiar with relationships that are transient. It`s a part of adapting for a short time to new surroundings. At the same time we also build up a small group of more lasting friends - those we've learned to trust and want to keep. Most of us can think of friends that we see only rarely, and yet - when we meet - it's as though we were never parted.
Towards the end of our lives when we are sitting in the proverbial rocking chair and casting back over our relationships it would be nice if each one of us could name at least four or five people who we've truly and deeply loved. Sometimes they'll be relatives, often they'll be friends. Sometimes we meet them early in our lives, but often later, when we've finished with formal education.
But if it remains true that the circle of our love and intimacy must always remain circumscribed by the limits that deep affections place on us, the wings of friendship are many and glorious, and can take us to the most unexpected and inspiring of landfalls. It is in friendships that we look after those aspects of ourselves that are often neglected. And it is the breadth and depth of our friendships that we can learn to share what it is that we have in our hearts to give.