October 26, 2016

Lonely for a Friend? Here's One Thing That Might Help

In my early adulthood years, I struggled desperately with loneliness. Around our first wedding anniversary, my husband accepted a church staff position in the town where we'd attended college, so we moved, bought a house, and a few years after that, had the first of our three children. My college friends were scattered, my best friend from high school and her husband had moved across the country, and I was left trying to form adult friendships in the town I'd known only as a college student.

I didn't try very hard, if you want to know the truth.
We lived in that town for seven years and those were some of the loneliest years of my life. I'm not sure that I had a single friend, at least one that I felt comfortable calling to take care of my kids if I came down with anything more serious than a cold. That was my litmus test--Who would I call in an emergency? Who would I call if I needed something? The answer was a shrug, which always elicited a pang in my heart. Friendship--or the lack thereof--became a source of insecurity, pain, and even shame for me.

I now see that a portion of that loneliness was God's work: He allowed those seasons of relational dryness so that I wouldn't put anyone else in His place, so that I would rely on Him to meet my deepest needs. Through loneliness, He forged my dependence on Him.

I also see so clearly now, looking back at those years with matured vision, that I was insecure and nervous and arrogant. I recognize that I actually had seedling friendships during the very times I was in tears over my want. I couldn't name my friends then because I couldn't see them, but I can name them now: Ashley and Jamee and Niki and Kelly. Ashley and I had a raw conversation about our children at the pool one day that swung wide the door for friendship. Jamee and I had a standing playdate. Niki offered me encouragement when I needed it, and Kelly was always so easy to be with. But I wasn't satisfied, to be honest. I wanted something more, while at the same time doing nothing to have more.

I can also now understand why I couldn't see those friendships for the gifts they were--because my vision was blurred by my idealistic standard of that One True Friend to Rule Them All. My own dream, though it seemed beautiful and attainable, was actually piercing me through. My dream by its very nature held prerequisite stipulations: my One True Friend needed to live in my town, attend my church, be married and have children, have a husband whom my husband liked, and be a friend who empathetically understood the demands ministry placed upon us. My friendships were the equivalent of Jerry's dating rotation on Seinfeld: I rejected perfectly good seedling relationships because of ridiculous and petty details such as Man Hands. Or, in my case: age, marital status, or a so-so conversation.

When we hold an ideal of friendship in our minds--who it will be, what they will be like--we hold a standard above the heads of real women God has placed in our lives, and then we wonder why we're constantly disappointed and bitterly lonely.

Are you feeling lonely? I would tell you what I wish someone had told me in my early adulthood years: cross categories. What I mean by that is we must drop the mental picture of what our friends should be like. Why do we assume our friends must be in our same life stage, have the same marital status, and understand all the nuances of our lives? Those categories, if we let them, only serve to cage us in and cultivate our loneliness more.

So why not cross categories? Ask a woman 20 years your junior or senior out for coffee. Strike up a conversation after church with a woman with a different marital status than you. Ask a new mom to come hang out with you and your teenagers. Spend time investing in a teenager. Befriend a woman of a different race.

In order to cross categories, we have to realize it's going to be inherently challenging, therefore we must cross boundaries with compassion instead of standards of expectation. As a married person, I don't understand what life is like for my single friends, and I shouldn't pretend to know or have the answers. As a white woman, I don't understand everything about what life is like for my black friends. But I can ask good questions. One of the best ways to cross categories is to arm yourself with a simple question: "Will you tell me more?" Tell me more about what it's like to parent a child with special needs. Tell me more about what it's like to be in the military. Tell me more about what it's like to be an immigrant.

For those who are willing to cross categories with compassion, there are rich opportunities available for friendship. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I finally did. I no longer seek a One True Friend to Rule Them All; I found that holding a standard above other women's heads only increased my own loneliness and frustration. Those standards were actually acting as blinders to the women standing right in front of me.

If loneliness is an ongoing pattern for you, I wonder what's keeping that pattern in place? Could it be your perspective on who are potential friends? What might happen if you crossed categories with compassion?