I will always remember this one Shabbat dinner in my tiny studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was wintertime and I had been preparing the meal for three days: shopping for groceries after work, hauling heavy bags up to my fifth-floor walk up, and chopping, slicing and simmering into the wee hours of the night with Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan by my side. I was famous for my Shabbat meals back then and, like most weeks, I was expecting a lot of friends. Twenty-five people staggered in on that particularly snowy night. With big coats and heavy boots left at the door, guests squished together around my table chatting, singing and eating the dishes I had carefully prepared the night before. It was perfect. And then it wasn’t. While everyone was laughing and having a ball between chicken and dessert, I looked around at all of these friends I had made and suddenly realized I felt totally empty and alone. It was a painful, frightening moment for me and I knew something had to change.
We often choose friends who act as a mirror for who we are or who we’d like to become. Friends who share our passions and priorities. Friends who need us as much as we need them. We often hold onto these relationships because they carry a piece of our history, and because it is too scary to step into the next phase of growth alone. But what happens when a friendship stops working?
When I was in my twenties, I had a lot of friends. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these men and women, and I took great pride in supporting them — until I realized that I was so focused on their needs that I had forgotten about myself. I had created a world where everyone was happy and my social calendar was full, but I was nowhere to be found.
In the months after that Shabbat meal, I began experimenting with different spiritual practices that focused on self-awareness and inner-reflection. I started practicing yoga, went on Buddhist meditation retreats, and began working with a healer to remove blocked energy in my body. Later that year I left my job as a development consultant and became a documentary photographer, returning to a passion that brought me in contact with people while demanding a certain solitary quality. I wandered the streets of New York for hours, alone with just my camera in hand, and I felt a certain sense of peace and purpose that I had never felt before. I focused on the few friendships that truly nourished me, met new friends who shared my passions and values, and was lucky enough to meet one of my closest friends — who is now my fiancé.
This phase in my life, which lasted two years, was both precious and simultaneously fraught with guilt and worry. Focusing on my own growth meant letting go of friendships that were emotionally destructive or simply not working. I remember a friend who I met when I first landed in New York; we were besties and spent all of our time together. In between pedicures and cocktails, we fed each other’s insecurities by being sarcastic, judging other people and avoiding our own pain. As I refocused on photography and yoga and spent more time with people who shared these newfound interests, I spent less time with this particular friend. I still remember the day our friendship ended. We sat on a park bench opposite the Natural History Museum; it was early spring and the air was cool and smelled of blooming flowers. There had been tension for weeks over simple things, like where to meet for coffee or how much to tip a waiter. Sitting there in front of the museum, we came to the conclusion that we simply wanted different things from our friendship. We had grown apart and there was nothing that could ‘fix’ it or return us to where we started. I remember leaving our last goodbye feeling sad, somewhat guilty and also incredibly relieved.
At each stage of my life, I have had to choose between stepping into the unknown or holding onto what’s familiar, including all of those unhealthy behaviors, destructive emotional patterns and, yes, some friendships. It is a scary and painful proposition to let go of the familiarity of old friends without knowing who will be waiting on the other side. I may wake up with five friends or maybe just two but this is the process of growing up. All I can do is trust that if I continue to show up, choosing relationships that support my growth and nourishing those that have sustained me, I will be okay.
There were only three people around my Shabbat table last week — me, my fiancé and a friend who was visiting from Oregon. We had a simple meal, no expensive wine or fancy desserts, and no excuses about it being “just the few of us.” The 25-year-old me would be shocked to know that my heart was full and quite happy in this moment.