Friendship sustains us, gives us strength, erodes loneliness

In hospital last month, tied to a drip, slipping in and out of short, drugged sleeps, a concerned photographer shot a picture of me lying handsomely with my mouth open and then mailed it around to much laughter. Yes, this is my friend. And I am very lucky to have him.

He was one of the vague, indistinct shapes that stood at the foot of my bed every day like some protective Roman phalanx. No, I wasn't seriously ill, just being sliced by a surgeon, but since I have no family in Singapore, this band was my transporters (one insisted on taking me to hospital), my messengers (texts to parents, brothers, daughter in faraway lands) and my entertainers (bad jokes about how surgery had not improved my looks).

One couple took me home for five days of recuperation. Another travelled across the city to bring me food. One buddy filled his laptop with movies and left it with me. It was kindness without measure and even my mother, who obviously thinks I am a splendid man, wondered how I deserved such "good" friends. Always, of course, we must preface the word "friend" with something for mateship must be classified. Old friend, school friend, best friend, as if to clarify they are not just any other friend.

In the month since, I have read on friendship and contemplated on the truth that we reflect so little on it. We compile encyclopaedias on parenting and almanacs on romantic love, but friendship, well, it's just there, rarely dwelled upon, even as it sustains so many of us, in the truth it tells us, the loneliness it erodes, the strength it offers. I found reference to a study where a hill was seen to be less steep when the participant stood next to a friend and it roughly translates to how I feel.

One morning last week I spent a delightful hour discussing friendship with Professor Chong Siow Ann, a psychiatrist and Vice-Chairman, Medical Board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health. Among the many things he pointed out was how, from the beginning, without noticing, friends shape us.

Friendship is an ideal, this continuing bond that stretches and stays, that flattens and rises, that has disagreement and forgiveness, but is always just there.

Alongside them is where we discover sensitivity to another person, where we meet empathy, where we derive self-esteem, where we find love and also learning. In India, I used to take car rides home from work with a Muslim friend, a man whose integrity is his insignia, and he gave me a quiet, uncomplaining insight into a world of subtle intolerance he faced which I did not till then adequately understand.

My friends have always been the chapters of my education and the shapers of my craft. One afternoon at a news magazine in the 1990s, two friends, on their way to lunch, peered at my first paragraph, muttered "crap" and vanished. I squinted at the paragraph again, now uncertain: maybe it was rubbish. So I rewrote it and now, 22 years later - scattered across many cities - we still critique each other's work. We are seeking each other's honesty and also, one presumes, approval.

We may have family who adore us but friends can be a second clan who fold us in, in whose homes we slip off shoes and also pretence, where we need to be heard but learn to listen, where we lie on couches but never in judgment. I can be grumpy, loud, demanding, opinionated but my friends know the bits I am made of which others cannot see. They know how to put me in my place and yet also how to put me back together. As a character says in Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved: "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order."

There are people without friends and where do they go with their vulnerability on their worst days? Or with triumph on their best? Perhaps we do not wonder enough at the privilege of having someone to cry with, confess to, boast with. To have them listen yet again to another tale of a child's accomplishment. To have them say, shaddup, enough.

Friendship is never a single idea for we see intimacy differently, we share differently, we demand of each other differently. But friendship is an ideal, this continuing bond that stretches and stays, that flattens and rises, that has disagreement and forgiveness, but is always just there. As if we're tied by a chord of comfort.

There are days of perfection, just enough days for us to believe in the loveliness of friendship. Some of those days require not a word, just two friends, a Sunday morning, tea drunk, newspapers read, caught in a blissful state of non-verbal connection. Presence is our reassurance.

In older times, relationships were born of patient scribbles. In the well-known book 84, Charing Cross Road, the American writer Helene Hanff recounts her correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co, a London bookshop. It started as business, it ended as friendship, for 20 years they wrote and yet never met.

Technology has brought us new friendships, to be found and made at the click of a mouse but - wondrous as it is - I shrink from Facebook's collective hug. It is a tool which unearths lost friends and for many this is charming. But often, once the delight of discovery is over, we feel around for more connective threads and there is nothing.

Friendship is painful, messy, uneven. It reveals our own inhumanity, in how fast we scuttle a relationship when it is inconvenient, and if we let go the friend in strife, then were we ever friends at all? It is edgy with small slights and heated arguments and "you-didn't-call- back"s and yet, if you know each other long enough, you can ride these tides because you've unconsciously built something so beautifully powerful, so reliably strong, that it resists almost anything.

"Almost" because some things are non-negotiable to us as people and thus unacceptable when it comes to friendship. For me, it is bigotry. A few years ago, I dined with old school buddies after a long while and found them raging against one religion and their sentences loaded with hostility. It was a horrific, sad dinner because it struck me that these men, too, shaped me. Once we were glued together and yet now we had diverged.

I have failed friends, too, I have let them drift, I have not answered mail and I have to remind myself that like anything, like writing, like playing a piano, it takes work. Love is never effortless.

Next month, I go to Goa, India, for four days with friends I first met 22 years ago. We will laugh, tease, argue, advise. We will talk of work, love, family, books. We will, by having given each other time, renew a bond. That is our gesture.

It is like the one made by those who came to stand by my bed and made me feel in middle-age something I had not previously considered. Safe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Friendship sustains us, gives us strength, erodes loneliness'. Print Edition | Subscribe