In this highly networked world in which the word “friend” has become synonymous with a passing acquaintance you met through Twitter, how do you know when you have found the real deal? What’s the distinguishing marker of true friendship?
W.B. Yeats provides a useful model for friendship in his open-hearted tough-talking poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” Just look at the title, and you see that the poet is a friend who will tell you where the dog died. I like that in a friend.
Imagine being the recipient of this poem, the one whose work has come to nothing. Maybe you’ve been there, having worked months, maybe years, on something that meant the world to you. And after all that effort, it’s gone in a microsecond. Many acquaintances may be inclined to sugar coat your reality. “Oh, it’s not so bad, don’t worry. Something good will come of all your hard work. You’ll see.” But that’s not how you’re feeling after a major loss, after working so hard and seeing what a waste it all was. You realize as you hear it that these so-called friends just want you to be over feeling bad so that they can get back to easier banter.
But not Yeats. No. He just comes out and says it: Your work has come to nothing. And you breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, someone who gets it. Not only does he get it, but at your point of greatest failure he has come beside you.
Of course, he doesn’t stop there, at the title. He goes on to tell you, the aggrieved one, more of what you already know, but in a way perhaps you hadn’t thought of before. You know you were cheated out of the reward of your labors by one who had no shame. But your friend, Yeats, holds up a mirror and shows you an honorable person (“honor bred”) who cannot compete with one who lies and does not play by the rules.
He also reminds you of your strength (“Bred to a harder thing / than Triumph”) and advises you to “turn away… be secret and exult.” He’s telling you to walk away, that you are above this. You are the bigger person. He knows how hard it is to do this, to turn away and exult in secret – ending with this very thought (“Because of all things known / that is the most difficult”) – but gives you the greatest honor as a friend by believing with all his heart that you will do this most difficult of things.
Measure your truest friends by the marks of Yeats: Do they stand beside you in failure? Do they give you the truth straight, even when it hurts? Do they hold up a mirror to your strengths? Do they give wise counsel? Do they honor what is honorable in you?
If you can say yes to all of those questions about even one person, you are blessed indeed.