A Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Initiative in friendships: Some options, including vulnerability

Thursday July 27 2017

Initiative in friendships: Some options, including vulnerability

My mother, an expert in friendship, takes initiative to reach out in some form to one or more friends almost every day of her life. Initiative however takes many forms, and we need to think creatively about it.

When I think of taking initiative in friendships, I think first of asking people to do things with me: have a meal at a restaurant or at my home, have coffee and talk, go to a movie, go for a walk. I also think of forms of initiative that involve communication: picking up the phone to make a call, sending an email or a Facebook message, or writing a card.

When I asked Clare, eighteen, what she believed to be the best advice about nurturing friendships, she said, “Stay in close touch. Stay connected.” She talked about all the acts of initiative she engages in with her friends. She tries to send frequent text messages, and she interacts often on Facebook by posting comments about her friends’ photos, links and updates. She views those acts of connection as the foundation for good conversations when she sees her friends face-to-face.

Roberta, in her forties, brought up another form of initiative: “I have trouble talking honestly about what I’m thinking and feeling. I know it has had a significant impact on my ability to make friends. I always appreciate it when others show vulnerability in a conversation, because it helps me get over the hurdle of talking honestly.”

I’ve noticed that if I share some small vulnerability with someone I’d like to get to know better, they often respond by sharing something that matters to them as well. I might talk about something that’s making me sad, something that’s worrying me or something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I save my deep feelings of sadness or worry for my husband or my close friends, who I know I can trust to listen with sensitivity to what I’m feeling. With people who I don’t know as well, I share feelings that are real but not particularly deep.

Part of that sharing is a bit of a test. I watch to see how they will respond. If they are able to enter into what I feel, and perhaps later share feelings of their own, I have some optimism that we might become deeper friends. I also see that sharing as an act of love, giving them the unspoken message that I’d be happy to listen to them talk about what they’re thinking and feeling. They may not want me to listen to their inner concerns in that moment, but my openness extends an invitation for later conversations.

Have you ever thought about vulnerability about your own life as a form of initiative? It would be worth spending some time pondering the patterns of vulnerability in conversations that you have observed in your own life:

  • What kinds of vulnerability in conversations did you see modeled in your childhood by your parents and extended family members?
  • Do you think you tend to be too vulnerable or not vulnerable enough in conversations?

(Next week: a story of a time I took initiative with a friend, and the amazing thing that happened. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

Previous posts in this series:

      Initiative in friendships   
      What Mary might have missed   
      Obstacles in taking initiative       
      Overcoming fear         
      Different ways of initiating          

Here's article you might enjoy where I wrote about the ways our own agendas can impede our listening, something that impeded vulnerability:
      Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others

Initiative in friendships: Different ways of initiating

Wednesday July 19 2017

Initiative in friendships: Different ways of initiating

Imagine that your friend has been studying part time for several years to get a particular academic degree. Graduation is coming up in a few months, and you want to do something to congratulate your friend for the hard work and strategic juggling that has resulted in this achievement.

Should you buy a gift? Send a card? Offer to take photos at the graduation ceremony? Invite your friend over for a meal? Offer to host a party? Offer to take your friend out to a favorite restaurant to celebrate? Invite your friend out for coffee and offer to be a sounding board for the next steps in his or her life?

What is the best way to initiate? Sometimes our ability to initiate is limited by our circumstances. If you are on a limited budget, you can’t buy a lavish present or invite your friend out to a glitzy restaurant. If you live in a tiny apartment, you can’t offer to host a party in your home. If you’ve listened to your friend talk endlessly about the future, and you’re so fed up with listening that you’ll scream if you do it one minute more, you probably shouldn’t invite your friend out for coffee and another listening session.

Joanne, a hospital human services manager in her forties, believes that observing her friends’ love languages has helped her show love in appropriate and effective ways. She is referring to the many books by Gary D. Chapman about the five love languages. (His first book was The Five Love Languages.) Chapman believes that most of us have favorite ways to give and receive love, and he calls them “love languages.” He identifies five of those languages: gifts, touch, undivided attention, words of affirmation and actions.

More than twenty years ago, my husband and I read an article by Chapman, describing the five love languages, several years before his first book came out. The article stimulated a lot of conversation between my husband and me, and among our married friends at the time. It was easy for me to see that undivided attention—being listened to deeply and carefully—is the primary way I feel loved. I’m also very fond of being touched physically. I enjoy giving and receiving gifts, I enjoy receiving compliments and words of praise, and I enjoy being served. But if I don’t feel I’m being listened to, I don’t feel loved, even if I get hugs, gifts, compliments or actions that serve me.

As we talked about these love languages, my husband realized he feels most loved when I do something with him, whether it’s an outing to an art gallery or working alongside him on a home repair. We don’t necessarily need to be talking for him to feel loved in that way, and I don’t really need to do anything other than be there with him. This doesn’t fit into one of Chapman’s five love languages, so we came to believe that companionship, at least in our marriage, is one more language of love.

My friend Joanne believes the love languages are just as relevant to friendship as to marriage. “So much miscommunication comes from not knowing a person’s love language,” she said. She watches her friends, trying to notice the way they give love to her and to others, and she tries to show love to them the same way. “I have a friend whose love language is service. I try to do things for her, help her with household tasks, even though it doesn’t come easily for me.”

I can look back on many friendships and realize that I probably erred by not paying attention to the other person’s love language. I mostly show love to friends by listening to them, because I value being listened to. I can remember someone from back in my thirties who was obviously trying to be my friend. She was always buying me little things, which seemed irrelevant and even a bit pushy to me. I wish I had understood the significance of love languages in friendship back then so that I could have received her kindness and care in the spirit in which it was given. Instead I found myself wishing she would listen to me.

It would have been good if I could have engaged in some reflection like this: Hmmm. She keeps giving me these annoying little gifts of no consequence. I wonder why such a pointless gesture is so captivating to her. Maybe she wishes people would think of her more often when she’s not around? Maybe I should give her a little gift every once in a while, just to show her that she’s in my thoughts.

Or perhaps another kind of initiative would have been appropriate. Hmmm. She seems to miss the point that I want to be paid attention to, but she must like me, because she keeps buying me stuff. Maybe we should have a conversation about this—define the relationship a little more. Taking initiative to ask some questions about patterns of giving and receiving love, and about her hopes for our relationship, would have been a gift to her. I regret that I was not able to give that gift.

(Next week: Vulnerability as initiative. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

Previous posts in this series:

      Initiative in friendships   
      What Mary might have missed   
      Obstacles in taking initiative       
      Overcoming fear         

Here's article you might enjoy where I wrote about obstacles to listening, a relevant topic in friendship:
      Listening past the noise

Initiative in friendships: Overcoming fear

Wednesday July 12 2017

Initiative in friendships: Overcoming fear

The fear of initiating is a significant obstacle in friendship. If I call and invite someone to get together with me, will I be rebuffed? If I ask someone over for dinner, will they hate the food I fix? Will my house be too messy? Will conversation lag?

Isn’t it better just to wait until someone takes initiative with me?

Damon, a nurse in his late forties, has been working on initiating in friendships for the past twenty years. He has come to view it as one of the tasks required for his spiritual growth.

I remember being an adolescent and a teenager. It seemed like there was always something to do. There were plenty of boys in my neighborhood, and we played baseball and basketball all the time. Then I went off to college, and the other guys in the dorm were always up for a movie or a game of tennis. It just seemed to happen. I didn’t have to take action myself in order to have friends.

Then I grew up and got a job. I was the only male nurse, so I was lonely at work. My roommates were busy working, and I didn’t know how to find people to do things with. In my family growing up, the mantra was ‘What will the neighbors say?’ There was a lot of shame and fear. My parents seldom invited people over to our house, because they were worried someone would take offense at the food they served or the way we lived. My dad had friends from work, but my mom was very isolated because of her fear.

When I met my wife, I was so surprised to find that she came from a family where both her parents had a lot of friends. They had people over for meals, they visited friends when they went on vacation, they sent bazillion Christmas cards every year. I watched my wife handle her friendships. She was always taking initiative in some way, sending a card, calling someone up, inviting people over. I realized I had never learned how to do that. So I started trying. I realized that if I wanted to show Christ’s love to the people I knew and if I wanted to have friends, I had to learn to take initiative.

It felt so awkward at first. Twenty years later, I’m still learning. But it comes more easily than it did before, and I have friends now. Good friends. Real friends. And I see that reaching out to people is a part of being a loving person, which has the side effect of nurturing friendships as well. And it brings great joy to me in the process.

About a decade ago, Damon reconnected with his cousins on his father’s side of the family. They live on the other side of the country. In the past ten years, he has seen them in person a few times at family gatherings and funerals, and he has emailed off and on with them, feeling increasingly close to them. Recently his cousin Betsy had a stroke. Damon found out about it through an email Betsy sent to friends and relatives. He emailed back, saying he was praying for her.

One morning, a few weeks after Betsy’s stroke, Damon woke up thinking about her. She stayed on his mind through breakfast and into the morning. He decided those thoughts might be a nudge from God that he should phone her.

She was at home alone and delighted to hear from him. In the first couple of weeks after the stroke, family members and friends from her church had been coming to help her every day, but now she was alone. Damon’s call was a lifeline for her that day, and when they hung up, she said to him, “You’re a sweetheart.”

The words warmed his heart, particularly in the light of his long journey to learn to initiate with friends. Listening to those nudges from God is playing an increasingly significant role for him as he continues to grow in intentionality in friendships.

Damon’s story illustrates the encouraging reality that taking initiative in friendship can be learned. It takes time and effort. Initiating can feel uncomfortable and awkward, but it does become easier with practice. In recent years Damon has experienced increased ease in reaching out to friends and potential friends in a number of ways.

(Next week: Different ways of initiating. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

Previous posts in this series:
      Initiative in friendships   
      What Mary might have missed   
      Obstacles in taking initiative       

An article you might enjoy, that I wrote for the magazine Alive Now, discusses conversation skills, a relevant topic for friendships:
      Growing in loving conversation

Initiative in friendships: Obstacles

Thursday July 6 2017

Initiative in friendships: Obstacles

I wrote last week about Mary taking initiative to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant with a miracle baby. I talked about the fact that Mary could easily have stayed home. Why might Mary have made a decision NOT to go visit Elizabeth?

She might have stayed home if she had wondered if Elizabeth would welcome her. She might have stayed home if she had a lot of fears about what might happen on the journey. She might have felt obligated to help her mother or take care of her younger siblings, and her sense of responsibility might have kept her at home.

In the same way, many people today find it hard to initiate with friends or potential friends because of wondering if the act of initiative will be welcome. Many people have fears about the whole process of taking action. Will something bad or unpleasant happen? And many people are so absorbed with immediate needs—household, family, work—that they find it hard to think about extending a gesture of friendship to someone who is not immediately present.

“Love is kind.” Love “believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7). Part of the solution to the fears of reaching out in friendship comes from considering how to love the people with whom we are friends or with whom we might start a friendship. What would it look like to act in kindness to someone we know? What would it look like to believe and hope that our kindness will be received? Or to believe and hope that kindness is never wasted, that God will bring good things from it whether or not it is received graciously by the person to whom it is given?

When we reach out in kindness toward a friend or potential friend, we are mirroring the love of God that reaches into our lives. When we act in kindness with the hope of a positive response, but with the willingness to show love even if the response is tepid or negative, we are reflecting the character of God. The kind of initiative that builds true friendships is rooted in God’s love, full of kindness and hope, believing the best outcome may be possible.

Love carries its own reward. When we act in love, when we take initiative to show kindness and compassion, we are mirroring the character of God as shown to us in Jesus Christ. Every time we do that, we are participating in God’s work of transformation in us. Even if our act of kindness isn’t received very enthusiastically, we will be blessed if we trust that God’s love is shaping us into the people we were created to be.

One of my favorite poems speaks to initiative in relationships. I have loved this poem since I was a teenager who had moved a dozen times in her first 15 years. The poem affirmed all the effort I had taken to make friends every time we moved, and it encouraged me to continue to try to make friends in every new situation.

Talk not of wasted affection; affection never was wasted.
If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters returning
Back to their springs, like the rain shall fill them full of refreshment;
That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain.
                  (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807–1882)

(Next week: Overcoming fear. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. For a complete list of my books, click here.)