– st. thomas aquinas
remember that book, “all i ever needed i learned in kindergarten”? sure, some of what we learned when we were five would be helpful to us as grownups. but i’m also going to make a supposition that even by age five, weird friendship stuff may have already seeped in. some boys stop playing so freely with girls. the power dynamics of who rules the playground kick into full swing. cliques form. the weak are often already culled out. it looks different for everyone, and there’s no question we are a lot purer when we are five than when we are 35, but the same fact remains–friendship is hard!
cultivating healthy, strengthening, encouraging, equal friendships is an art, not science. and a very lost art at that.
in fact, i feel quite sure an honest poll would reveal that most people don’t have the kinds of friendships they long for. that most don’t really know how to do them in a way that works long-term. that some feel as inadequate now as we did when we were in junior high, even though they fake it better. that many don’t even know what healthy friendship is supposed to look or feel like. and that it seems there’s never enough time to develop them. i am also going to take a leap and say that in the christian world, it’s even worse. there are countless other weird dynamics at play in christian friendships that even further complicate what’s already complicated.
i know the feeling. i used to stink at real friendship. i’ve always had a lot of friends. i am a loyal person and have always hung on to friends–both male & female–through thick and thin. but it wasn’t until i was in my late 20’s that i started to become comfortable enough in my own skin to actually be the kind of friend i wanted. the kind that receives instead of just giving. the kind that is honest & raw instead of holding back all the time. the kind that makes a really concerted effort to nurture the relationship instead of expecting it to drop out of the sky.
18 years later, I’m still learning. it’s not the easiest thing for me to do. at heart, i like independence, not interdependence.
and real friendship requires interdependence.
a give-and-take. grace. intention. vulnerability. risk.
in church, we are taught a lot about believing, knowing, and worshiping certain things and acting certain ways. even now, with a lot of focus on missional living emerging in many churches, which i think is a good thing, a crucial ingredient is usually often missing– how to just be a friend.
an honest friend.
an equal friend.
a vulnerable friend.
a long-haul friend.
there are a lot of forces working deeply against friendship (not just cross-gender friendship but all forms–men with men, women with women, and across ages & differences, too.)
power. we know how to be under people or above people but rarely do we know how to live beside them. it’s a natural force of our Genesis 3 human-ness. often without thinking, we look for someone to control us or someone to control. if we feel “less than” or “more than” others it messes with real freedom. this is so unconscious for us that we don’t even know we’re doing it.
shame. sometimes we are scared to be fully known because if people really knew us we’re quite sure they wouldn’t want to be friends anymore. we give part of us but not all of us because full honesty is too risky. but honest sharing with a friend who can honor it brings one of the greatest rewards of friendship–the experience of grace. also, some people feel embarrassed that they never learned how to develop healthy friendships and it feels weird & awkward to be trying now. (it’s never too late, i know that for sure!)
independence. many have learned through damaging past experiences that “the only person we can really trust is ourselves.” and even if we don’t trust ourselves, we at least know what to expect. a “trust God and God alone (by yourself)” mentality is especially pervasive in christian circles.
fear. we don’t naturally like to make ourselves vulnerable . we don’t like to get hurt. and somehow we know we will if we get too close to another person. our natural tendency to avoid pain is always at play. i’ve lost a few friends along the way, and it hurts. a lot. but it was still worth it in the end because of what i learned through them. in cross-gender friendships, fear is even higher because for the most part people say it isn’t possible without sexual weirdness.
yikes, those are some strong forces working against us! when i look at this list, though, i have hope. i have seen it up-close-and-personal in my life & many others–healthy friendship is so possible! but much deeper than only my experience, these four things–power, shame, independence, and fear–are what Jesus calls us to break down so we can get to the better thing–love.
humility, grace, trust, and peace are all part of love and antidotes to power, shame, independence, and fear.
that’s really what friendship is–loving another human being more freely, more purely, more honestly, more fully. and being loved by another more freely, more purely, more honestly, more fully. it’s about loving and being loved.
and that, my friends, is scary stuff!
we’d much rather talk about almost anything else. and do most anything else.
and it’s probably why we need to focus on it the most.
i think a task for the body of Christ is to begin actively showing people how to be friends in all kinds of shapes & sizes. men with women, men with men, women with women. to break down systems of power and honor what it means to be equals, created in the image of God. to find ways to really heal from shame instead of just talk like we have and become more free & healthy human beings. to learn what it means to be interdependent instead of independent or codependent. to have courage to push through our inadequacies & fears and stumble & bumble into new ways of living together as friends. friends with God, with others, with ourselves. they are all mixed up together.
oh there are so many beautiful things to learn alongside each other!
what are you learning about friendship these days?
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ps: next post is part two and is a little more practical, but i wanted to get this out while it was swirling around in my head.
pss: my friend dan brennan is an advocate and teacher for sacred friendships. he continues to call people to break down the walls that divide us and bravely engage in deep, intimate friendship with one another. in april the first sacred friendship gathering centered on cross-gender friendships is happening in chicago; i feel privileged to be sharing there and would love for you to come be part of this important conversation! if you can’t attend but would like to help someone else have a chance to go, scholarships are greatly needed so that as many people as possible can be challenged to consider the practice of deeper friendship. also, they are pulling this off as a labor of love on a shoestring budget, so let dan know if you can help!