Dialogue Nights #13: Friendship As Antidote to Despair

| Mitch Bogen
Discussion during the Aug 2019 Dialogue Nights on friendship

The fourth Dialogue Nights event of 2019 was devoted to exploring the meaning of friendship and its power to help us meet and overcome life’s challenges—small and large and in between. Called “Friendship: An Antidote to Despair?”, the August 16th event attracted nearly fifty Boston-area university students and young professionals who were eager to talk sincerely and openly about the role of friendship in their lives.

In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I talked about how Dialogue Nights was born two years ago from the realization that young people don’t have enough “spaces to talk to each other, openly and free of judgment.” This kind of dialogical interaction is especially important at this point in time, when despair seems epidemic. Lillian said that, in all honesty, it isn’t unusual for her to feel despair many times in a week. Aware of and inspired by Daisaku Ikeda’s many statements on the power of friendship to transform our world, Lillian and the Ikeda Center program staff decided to devote an entire Dialogue Nights to the topic, raising and exploring such questions as: What is it about friendship that brings hope and courage to our lives? Is genuine friendship really powerful enough to transform our feelings of despair about the world? In what ways can friendships among young people become a catalyst for social change?

After Lillian’s remarks, everyone engaged in some icebreaker activities. Attendees then broke into small groups to discuss this quote from Daisaku Ikeda, with attention to what they see as the qualities of a good friend:

The magnetic field of friendship can enable the functioning of an inner compass when we have lost our sense of direction and help us right society when it seems to be veering off course. More than anything, there is a joy that resides in conversation with a friend. Friendship makes the exchange of words itself a pleasure and a source of encouragement. It supports us and brings forth the courage to confront the most difficult situations.

Reporting to the whole group on their discussions, participants mentioned a few interrelated qualities of friendship. First, is listening. In friendship, listening doesn’t mean giving advice, though friends do on occasion do that. Rather, in friendship, listening implies patience and the ability to be fully present for the other. Closely related is being comfortable enough to be fully authentic with one another. Finally, friends need to understand each other well enough to be properly responsive—for example, to know when to be fully honest or when to give the other privacy and space.

Two youth Anna and Chloe share their experience during the Aug 2019 Dialogue Nights on friendship

Next, two close friends who are part of the Dialogue Nights community, Chloe McElligott and Anna Kowanko, shared some personal reflections on what their relationship means to them. Some background: Part of their friendship has been nurtured through their participation as activists in Mass Peace Action NextGen working on a range of issues, including nuclear disarmament, which is the cause that first brought them into contact with the Ikeda Center, back in 2018. 

Building on Mr. Ikeda’s reference to friendship as a magnetic field, Chloe said her friendship with Anna has served like a compass for her, keeping her on track and pointed in the right direction. But the key aspect of friendship she wanted to explore was the friend as “soul mate.” Though this phrase is usually used in romantic contexts, Chloe said in her life it has been friends who manifest this reality. Thus, Chloe very much appreciates the Gaelic notion of anam cara, or “soul friends,” especially as discussed by the poet John O’Donohue. Soul friends, she said, are people who lead you back to yourself. Anna added that as her soul friend, Chloe has been someone she could share her dreams with, without fear of dismissiveness or discouragement. And their friendship has helped them stay positive as they work on the big, tough issues like climate change.

Anna’s reflections set up the next small group discussion activity, which focused on this question of despair and how friendship can alleviate and maybe even eliminate it. Their discussion worked from more quotes from Mr. Ikeda, whose faith in the power friendship rests on a crucial distinction: “The world is not simply a collection of states, nor is it composed solely of religions and civilizations. Our living, breathing world is woven of the endeavors of countless human beings who may share particular backgrounds but no two of whom are the same.” He goes on to say that “to view and judge others only through the prism of religion or ethnicity distorts the rich reality we possess as individuals.” Ultimately, Mr. Ikeda argues that “a rising tide of friendship within the younger generation cannot fail to transform society. It is my confident expectation that friendship among youth will powerfully turn back the sullied currents of divisiveness and give birth to a vibrant culture of peace based on profound respect for diversity.”

During their reflections on their small group discussions, group representatives confirmed that destructive climate change is a major source of despair for young people. Given the large scale of the problem, attendees were not entirely sure how friendship alone could change the course of the crisis. But they certainly saw friendship as a good place to start and as the basis for creating the kinds of communities we need to set things on a wiser path. The same principle applies to other large-scale problems that cause despair for many, including racism, forms of inequality, and the many instances of armed conflict around the globe. The thing about despair, added another speaker, is that it is different for each of us. Friends, she added, enable us to express that despair and get it off our chests, no matter what the circumstance is. Wrapping up this discussion, Lillian I said that the power of friendship-based dialogue is that it can keep us from isolating, which is what we are tempted to do when we think we are “the only one” to feel certain forms of despair.

The norm for Dialogue Nights has been for an Ikeda Center staff person to offer closing reflections. For this gathering, however, the event closed with an “open mic” session, led by the Center’s Office and Program Assistant Preandra Noel, in which volunteers could come up on the stage to offer some concluding thoughts on the attributes of true friendship. Here’s what they shared when they “took the mic”:

  • Friends give you that dopamine hit when you’re hanging out and talking.
  • Friends can challenge you in the best way to do better.
  • A true friend will tell you when you’re wrong, but at the same time won’t judge you.
  • Friends give you energy.
  • Friends bring you peace, again, because of that lack of judgment.
  • Friends mean freedom.
  • Friends show you the value of empowering others, and, in turn, one’s entire environment.
Breakout groups during the Aug 2019 Dialogue Nights on friendship

Breakout groups during Dialogue Nights. Photo by Ikeda Center.