Friends are the new family

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That which is most personal is most universal. This I heard on a Steve Covey audio book and it made a lot of sense to me. I also once heard a Nigerian preacher say that all the most meaningful things we do in life are done in the dark. Naturally my imagination ran wild when I heard this, as I am sure yours is doing now!

While the two thoughts are not necessarily saying the same thing, they do point to the universality of human experience. And the reason why friends can become family.

Think about it next time you are at an event that is very personal. Say, a birthday party, not so much a wedding, because those are fraught with all kinds of deadly variables, but perhaps a kitchen tea or a baby shower, or a funeral. When you look around at the people picking up the debris after such an event, you will more often than not find that those people are friends.

The Bible speaks of a friend who sticks closer than a brother and it is these sort of friends who prop us up when we are failing, who give strength when we are weak, and who walk beside us as we celebrate our achievements, mark our milestones, mourn our misfortunes and reset our hopes.

Some friends have been a part of our lives for so long that we can hardly remember a time when they were not there. Others have been with us a short time only, but we feel like weve known them for years.

I have always thought that friendship should be a measure not in years, but rather in depth.

In Africa weve always understood the value of community. When we say that it takes a village to raise a child, we really mean it.

Everyones child is everyones child and no adult feels the least reluctance to scold any misbehaviour because they feel completely at ease with having jurisdiction over all and any youngsters in the community.

But with changes in the constitution of families and communities, this social awareness of the value of friendship is growing, even in the West. A survey conducted in England by the Cornwall Tourist Board in 2003 among young adults revealed that:

Two-thirds turn to friends before family for help and advice.

They spend 10 hours more a week on average with friends than with family.

70% would rather take friends than family on a short break (www.prnewswire.com).

What is family for after all if not for spending time and sharing important things with.

In Zimbabwe the exodus of many citizens into the Diaspora left many families with gaps which could only be filled by friends. Where the aunt could have been relied upon to counsel the young girl, she was often living and working far out in the Diaspora.

Where the uncle was looking for the young man in order to advise him about life, he would find no audience for his words of wisdom.

Where in the past one could look for companions for ageing or ailing relatives from the pool of young relatives available, today for many families there is no such pool and the companions are often found in paid employees who later become friends.

One can never underestimate the value of family. Amy Chua, author of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, says that the purpose of parenting is to prepare children for the future.

In the same way I suppose, the purpose of family is to help you deal with the present. To give you a reference point and an axis around which you can negotiate your own values and plot your own path through life. Family is the principal institution for the socialisation of children, followed by school and church.

In later years, though it seems that fanily becomes less critical as people get older. According to about.com, friends are more important than family in increasing longevity. Heres an excerpt from their website:

Most of us know from experience that having good friends can make our lives richer, but research now shows that our friends may also increase our longevity.

The same isnt true for our relatives. In a 10-year longevity study of people aged 70 and older, researchers at the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, concluded that a network of good friends is more likely than close family relationships to increase longevity in older people.

Close relationships with children and relatives had little effect on longevity rates for older people during the 10-year study.

People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%.

The positive effects of friendships on longevity continued throughout the decade, regardless of other profound life changes such as the death of a spouse or other close family members.

While the study in no way suggests that family ties are unimportant to older people, it does suggest that they are less critical than social networks for longevity.

When you think about it really, who wants to live longer if there is no one close to share that experience with? So whether its friends or family, the important thing is to have a network of people you can depend on to walk the walk of life with.

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw.
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