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Julie Flynn Badal
November 3, 2021

Getting Really Real

A New Book Explores the Transformative Power of Friendship

It’s refreshing to see a personal growth title dedicated to friendship, something we often take for granted.

If the pandemic has carried any lessons in its endless tides of loss, one of them might be the importance of friendship. In the last year and some, good friends have been as essential as water. Without them, studies have shown, we are much more vulnerable to depleting forces and our physical and mental health suffer.

Friends are like maps or mirrors. We navigate unfamiliar territory with them and see our own reflections in them. To be without friendship is to be cast into the harshness and chaos of a world without resonance or warmth. Our friends are bright familiar faces in a crowd of strangers. To be a friend is to put yourself in another’s path and walk in their shoes while reminding them of their strength and goodness.

Radical Friendship, a new book by Kate Johnson explores friendship through the lens of personal growth, social justice, and Buddhist contemplative practice. Johnson, a former dancer for Alvin Ailey, is now a popular meditation teacher and workshop facilitator in dharma circles throughout the U.S. In her book, she sets out to define the qualities that help form solid and lasting friendships, as well as outline the obstacles that hinder our capacity to be close.  

It’s refreshing to see a personal growth title dedicated to friendship, something we often take for granted. When we were younger, new friends might have just fallen in our laps. For many of us, they were a plentiful resource, a low-hanging fruit we could pluck off the tree on a whim. Friendship was about fun and asked very little of us in return. In middle age, authentic friendship feels more like a practice; it requires effort, commitment, and the ability to be vulnerable. It’s also an incredible source of support, camaraderie, and delight.

Johnson’s book chronicles the transformative power of friendships that are seasoned with time, effort, and awareness. The author understands not only how good friends can strengthen our sense of self, but also how they form the bedrock of healthy communities and social movements. When friendships are weak, communities suffer and social movements fizzle or collapse. 

Yet, we don’t often give our friendships the attention and status they merit. We often strive wholeheartedly to be good parents or partners, but it seems we rarely ask ourselves what it means to be a good friend. Johnson tackles this question and explores it through the words of the historical Buddha. She frames Radical Friendship around a teaching called the Pathama Mitta Sutta, that offers seven qualities to look for in a friend..

A friend gives what is hard to give
They do what is hard to do.
They endure what is hard to endure.
They reveal their secrets to you.
They keep your secrets.
When misfortunes strike, they don’t abandon you.
When you’re down and out, they don’t look down on you.

The qualities described in this sutta are not fun, fashionable, or rose-colored. But where did we get the idea that friendship should always be easy? Johnson asks. The Buddha believed authentic friendship should get a bit gritty, even awkward at times, because friendship eventually reveals the places we’ve been hurt and haven’t yet healed. The key is to make a choice to stay with the work of friendship. Can we work through those feelings of discomfort and go deeper rather than avoid or distance ourselves from our friends? For Johnson, radical friendship means we don’t leave at the first glimpse of conflict. It also means we don’t stay in a friendship that requires us to abandon ourselves.

Each chapter of Radical Friendship examines one of the seven qualities of a good friend as described in the sutta. Johnson also offers personal practices for reflection and integration at the end of each section. The author suggests that working with challenges that inevitably emerge between true friends returns us to a fundamental dignity. This is a kind of grace we experience when we relate with reality rather than run from it. It’s the ground from which we can transform the fragile parts of ourselves into sources of resilience, empathy, and generosity. 

Johnson suggests that radical friendship, rather than allyship, is the training ground we need to develop skills that will help us create more equitable and humane systems. Likewise, to enter the work of building a more just and humane world is to be a good friend. Friends can become a source of individual and collective liberation as we take friendships beyond the performative or transactional into deeper and more authentic terrain. We can grow into the best versions of ourselves when we are accountable to one another.

In short, this beautiful book is a call for more generous and expansive friendships where we can make the choice to grow into grace and belonging. Johsnon writes that there may be “more love available in the world than we are currently experiencing and we may have more love inside of us that we have avenues to express it.”

Our job is to clear the paths that lead to one another.

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