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Sitting by a river in Montana, observing the sun set on a beautiful fall evening, I started crying.  The open plains, the silence that comes with sunset, the breeze, and what was left of birds humming all triggered my longing for a sense of home—my home back in Iraq—but I felt the bittersweet pain of knowing that that home was long gone. Destroyed. I sat there with tears in my eyes. You know, it was just one of those moments where pent-up emotions just pour out, as I mourned loss in my life, my family, and my country. In that instance, a young man who was staying in the same compound as me approached me and offered his comfort. I didn’t know this man and although I used to immediately have faith in strangers and welcome sympathy, over the years I have become more reserved and less trusting of strangers.

“No, thank you,” I replied to his offer to sit by me. “I do not know you. And frankly I do not trust any stranger,” I said honestly and clearly.

“But all I want is just to comfort you even if I don’t know what are you crying about,” he assured me.

There were days in which I trusted people’s words—especially when they were loving. Friends often say “I love you” to each other. “You are my dearest friend”—God knows how often I myself said that to so many people. “Oh, don’t you adore so and so,” and so on. Are you familiar with these repeated expressions of affection and niceties that friends share with each other? Well, I often said, and meant, them from the bottom of my heart, and I was one of those who believed people when they expressed companionship through simple and earnest phrases.

However, over the years, I noticed that there is a difference between words and actions. Words are easy and plenty. Actions are hard and require showing up.  Words are fancy. Actions are rugged and demand courage at times.  Words are beautiful. Actions may entail uncomfortable conversations. And after many experiences, I realized that friendships are not about merely sustained by hanging out with each other, going to movies, or sharing meals. These are all fun things we do to stay in touch, but they only deal with the surface of what true friendship really means.

So when the young man offered to comfort my tears, I looked at his words with a complete lack of trust for they were only nice words. And that’s all I heard.  Respecting my decision, the man sat to the side, giving me some space as I continued in my reflections and thoughts.  And suddenly, he reached out again—but without words this time. He took his socks off from his own feet and put the socks on my own bare feet. He noticed that I was shivering from the cold breeze of a Montana evening and without saying another word he simply acted and fulfilled the words he said a few minutes earlier. This time the comfort he brought was not language, but warmth to my feet. It was in that moment that I stopped and looked at him and said, “I trust this act.  I trust what you just did. I still don’t know you and I am not about to pour my heart out to you, but I can trust what you’ve just done.” It was real, tangible, and authentic. The moment was sincere. I was truthful to myself even if I may not sound as grateful as you would expect me to be. You see, I think we miss the true meaning of friendship when we are merely satisfied repeating nice words. Of course, verbal expressions of appreciation are essential, and these words work as long as everything is OK and everyone is having fun. But they’re only part of a friendship—not the cornerstone.

Ask yourself about your ability to have a truly honest conversation with a friend that requires you to fully show up, either for yourself or for your friend, even if that openness may risk you losing the friendship.

Are you able to listen fully to a friend’s grievances about you and assess where you own your part of the story and where you don’t?

Are you able to apologize when you cross a line with a friend?

Are you able to go out of your way just to be on hand for your friend in times of hardship?

Are you able to see your friend for both their goodness and flaws and still love who they are?

Are you able to make choices that your friend may need as a sign of caring about them and your friendship?

Are you able to be generous with your friend without fear or worry of their judgment or projection?

Are you willing to be utterly vulnerable in front of your friend and not only present when everything is going well?

I thought to myself that I was perhaps asking for too much from friends. But then what is life if we cannot be in truth to ourselves, our values, and to each other? Asking friends to act their friendship rather than just say it may result in less friends by definition. But hey, never mess with someone’s hope, and promise only what you can deliver, was something I used to say when working with refugees all over the world. Hope is the most precious thing each person holds onto in times of war. But here I am in a peaceful country and I say never mess with someone’s hope about the true meaning of friendship. Say only what you mean and are willing to do. And be a friend who walks the walk and not only talks the talk.

For years I put the meaning of friendship all in one bucket, which entailed that I liked you and thus I opened my world to you. And over the years some people exhibited integrity, and some people left the meaning of friendship at the service of words. At times that hurt me a lot but over time I’ve come to trust actions of friendship that build the foundation for a relationship—step by step and one sock at a time.

About Zainab Salbi

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