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The Benefits of Cultivating Your Friendships Like Spaces

good friends hanging out in the stairwell

Have you ever had a favorite spot—a space in which your body relaxed, your mind felt inspired, and everything fell into place?

As a girl, it was the corner of my attic bedroom; in college, it was the wooded trail next to campus. Throughout my life, I’ve sought out spaces of rest and rejuvenation, spaces that offered both respite and—as Anne of Green Gables would put it—“scope for the imagination.”

These spaces generally contain elements that make them welcoming and relaxing: candles and quilts, say, along with stacks of books or a few favorite pictures. The trail’s brilliantly colored trees, dappled sunlight, and birdsong offered soul-nourishing inspirations. Regardless, such spaces are curated: lovingly kept in a shape and form that encourages our minds and bodies to find peace. 

But lovingly curated spaces are also, often, metaphysical. In many ways, our relationships function as spaces: with their own unique architecture and landscape, their own rhythms and beauties. The fostering of relationships is often similar to the tending of physical spaces. With each unique relationship, we must bring our creativity and talents to bear: nurturing the attributes that make each friendship beautiful, intimate, and inspiring. Relationships, of course, require that both members contribute their talents and services; but in the giving of self, we are often able to achieve peace and rest amid a frantic and crazy world.

Relationships offer us different sorts of rest and inspiration, just as spaces do. My relationship with my father reminds me of a library or a study: cozy and comforting, but also intellectually challenging and insightful. In college, different friendships offered different goods—one rather spontaneous and adventurous friend reminded me of a wooded trail, changing with every bend, exciting at every turn. Another reminded me of a music studio: improvisational and creative, soul-stirring and lovely. Another was like a coffee shop: she always offered space in which to curl up and talk, relax, unwind.

Each of these relationships, however, has required cultivation: virtue becomes the furnishing in our intellectual and relational spaces, time the balm and thread that holds everything together and keeps it flourishing. A neglected space grows unkempt or dusty, dry or deadened. A hostile or careless attitude toward relational spaces can have broken and messy results.

So it’s useful to consider just the sort of attendance and care that—like that required in physical spaces, be it our dorm rooms or our desks—helps cultivate relational spaces that are healthy, happy, and ordered.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a buzzword much used in our culture, one that often implies a sort of mystical peace and sense of well-being. The term often conjures up mental images of yogis in calm silence, still figures against mountainous backdrops.

But in reality, mindfulness merely speaks to an attendance and a focus, a conscientious presence, that is important at every juncture of our relational lives. To be mindful, at its most simple, is to be “in the moment.” And our relationships need such focus, desperately. Sadly, this sort of attention is becoming increasingly difficult in our technological age: according to Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, the mere presence of a smartphone—sitting on a table or desk, resting idly in a person’s hand—can dissuade and hamper conversation. It needn’t be used to impact unconsciously the way we interact and converse with each other.

Just as we seek occasionally to unplug from the world and focus on a project or task, our relationships often require us to unplug and be “all there”: focused on the person across from or next to us, zeroed in on all their problems and hurts and joys and passions. Such attention cultivates trust, empathy, and love. Without it, our friendships languish due to neglect and maltreatment.

I remember a friend whose eyes would lock on me for the duration of any conversation. She never lost focus, never turned away. When I poured out my soul to her, she was all there. She was practicing mindfulness, you could say. That sort of attentive care didn’t just feature in her relationships, however: her room was a beautiful, ordered space. It was welcoming and soothing. There was tea and chocolate, a warm blanket and a hug whenever you might need it. She knew how to give time and attention to both the people and the things in her life, and it showed.

My hope, at this point in my life, is to offer this sort of focus and deference to my husband, daughter, other family members, and friends. But oftentimes such mindfulness requires shutting off (or even hiding away) technological devices: letting the outside world disappear for a while so we can dwell in the moment without interruption or distraction.

Grace

Some people have a natural knack for cultivating a graceful space. My sister is one of those people. Her spaces—from bedroom to dorm room, apartment to home—have always had a whimsy and loveliness about them, an order and a peace that I’ve coveted.

The great thing about sisters, though, is that her gracefulness has also extended to our relationship: goodness knows we’ve fought and disagreed over the years, but she’s always extended forgiveness and fresh starts, kindness and love in the aftermath. Just as she fosters beauty and grace in her home, she extends it to her friends—and gives us the opportunities we need for new beginnings. Graceful friends are the ones who remind us that “tomorrow is fresh, with no mistakes in it.”

I always think of grace as the music floating in the background of our friendships. It’s a beautiful, calming reassurance that puts us at ease: that convinces us we’re safe, at home, and welcome. A graceful friend is one who knows we have baggage, annoying quirks, frustrating habits—and welcomes us in, despite it all.

Peace

Some of the most peaceful spaces I’ve ever encountered are outdoors: still lakes and quiet woods, green meadows and gorgeous parks. These spaces wondrously combine infinite delicacy and detail with larger order and structure. Every petal and pebble entices us on the microscopic scale—but on a larger scale, we’re enamored with the stately architecture of these landscapes. They have a symmetry and method that beckons to us amid a chaotic, frenzied existence.

A peaceful relationship is similar. Friends keep their relationship in order: making sure that hurt feelings are salved, misunderstandings corrected, confusion resolved. They search for potential disorder, then strive to make it right: removing the dust, grime, and clutter that might spoil an interaction (or even a friendship). Without these occasional, methodical check-ins, it’s far too easy for us humans—flawed and selfish as we are—to spoil things: to take comments personally, to hold on to grudges, to pout and sulk when we ought to seek reconciliation or forgiveness. A peaceful relationship is one in which we’ve ordered our space and kept it clean of any grime or angst that might spoil it.

This is something my husband excels at. He resolves every conflict with deliberate care, makes sure to nurture our relationship at both a microscopic level (with flowers and sweet notes) and a macroscopic one (with thoughtful conversations about future goals, cares, and concerns). He makes a point of setting aside time and space for us to be ourselves, and to be frank and honest with each other. These sorts of things make our relationship stronger and cultivate peace in our relationship.

Joy

Joy can manifest itself in a lot of spaces: a concert hall or coffee shop, ballpark or garden. For me, the kitchen has often served as a particularly joyful place—one in which my creative juices find an outlet, in which color, texture, and taste combine to offer unique pleasures. The kitchen offers both comfort and spontaneity, pizzazz and ritual. It’s an artistic space, as well as a satiating and nurturing one.

One friend in particular has offered me these same unique combinations of joy. In college we often shared daily rituals—whether walking to class, eating lunch, or going to a coffee shop to study at the end of a day. But we also had our spontaneous moments—racing out of the dorm after dark for a midnight drive with the windows down, piling up pillows in the wing hallway and watching a TV show on an empty Saturday, or going on a last-minute road trip during fall break. As one might imagine, these are some of the best memories of my college career—and they’re the ones I didn’t plan or expect to happen. The daily and weekly rituals presented us with a comforting undercurrent of friendship and trust—fostering a golden thread that ran through our relationship and kept it constant. But the spontaneous moments were the ones that brought extra happiness and hilarity to what otherwise would have been more of the mere tedium of school and drudgery.

Not all friendships are this way. Some are more staid and ritualistic, and they have their own unique comforts to offer. But I’d argue that we all need a spontaneous and creative friendship—to break up the routine, to offer lasting memories, and to help us break out of the shells we can build for ourselves. After all, as fun as it is to follow recipes, sometimes the best dishes result from improvisation.

Love

Love is a vital ingredient in every space we inhabit. Our rooms need it: a messy and careless room isn’t a pleasant or happy space to inhabit. Our gardens need it: without daily diligence and care, everything will shrivel up and die. Our living rooms and study spaces and cars need it. Love is not just an emotion. It’s a selfless giving—of one’s time, resources, and attention—to better a space.

Relationships often require different sorts of love, but they always need the same time and attention. The same giving of self. My daughter demands of me an attention, diligence, and care that my friends and relations have never required, but that special care and love is part of what makes our relationship unique and beautiful. The rituals we create—tea parties, bedtime stories, chores, mealtimes—are not just meaningless patterns. They’re spaces in which we cultivate love and understanding, a deeper knowledge of each other and greater ability to love one another. As my daughter gets older, our rituals may change, but the intention behind them will not. The patterns and practice create space for love, service, and understanding.

Every relationship I’ve been blessed with has its own unique joys and comforts. But in all of them, I’ve noticed a resilience that results only from intention and deliberate care. The relationships that last are those that start with mindfulness and end in grace: that don’t fluctuate with availability or ease, but that tenaciously hold on despite all difficulties. In this sense, they’re much better than any attic room or wooded trail. Because even when our locations or circumstances change, those relationships offer us rest and peace—no matter what.


Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.


Complement with Gracy Olmstead on why you need to read literature, regardless of your major, R. J. Snell on what a successful college career looks like, and Russell Kirk on the purpose of a liberal arts education


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