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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.)

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

Tuesday June 27 2017

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

I wrote last week about initiative in friendships. One of my favorite friendship stories in the Bible reveals an easy-to-miss act of initiative. Luke 1 and 2 describes the miracle pregnancies of two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and the friendship that grows between them.

Elizabeth and her husband were getting on in years, and they had no child. In a series of dramatic events, God reveals to Elizabeth’s husband that they will have a child who will have a significant role in God’s plan. That son will be John the Baptist.

Mary is also pregnant with a miracle baby, Jesus. The angel Gabriel gives Mary the news that she will bear a son who will be called “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). After Mary asks how this can happen, given that she is a virgin, Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will make it possible. Then Gabriel says, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).

Immediately after the conversation with the angel, Mary sets out on a visit to her cousin. She stays with Elizabeth three months, and we can only imagine the comfort these two women gave to each other. They undoubtedly talked over the miraculous events surrounding the conception of their babies. They probably shared their fears about the life their sons would lead and the impact of God’s call on each of them. According to Luke, Mary is in Elizabeth’s presence when she says the famous prayer often called the Magnificat, a prayer beloved by Christians for two thousand years (see Luke 1:46-55).

What we so easily miss is the fact that the angel did not tell Mary to visit Elizabeth. Gabriel simply announced that Elizabeth was pregnant after waiting so long. Mary chose to go visit. Her willingness to take initiative in this way nurtured the friendship between her and Elizabeth and benefitted both of them.

I can imagine another scenario that could very easily have happened if Mary hadn’t taken that initiative. In my alternative story, Mary stays home. The angel tells her that Elizabeth is pregnant, and Mary is happy to hear it. She tells her mother about it, and maybe local female cousins as well, and they spend a lot of time talking about how wonderful it is for Elizabeth to be pregnant. They tell each other stories of women they knew who struggled with infertility. They talk about women who became pregnant after giving up hope. Perhaps they refer to Abraham and Sarah from the Bible, or maybe they remember Hannah, another biblical character who became pregnant after waiting a long time. Pregnancy after infertility is a wonderful gift, and, just like today, probably everyone in Mary’s village had a story to tell about it.

But Elizabeth’s pregnancy had additional significance beyond the gift of a baby after a long period of infertility. Elizabeth’s son would grow up to be “great in the sight of the Lord” and would speak and minister “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:15, 17). If Mary hadn’t taken the initiative to visit Elizabeth, she would have missed talking with the one woman who had some inkling of the amazing thing that had happened to her and the high calling of her son.

After Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary present him in the temple. A faithful man named Simeon recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. He says a beautiful prayer in response to seeing Jesus, and then turns to Mary and tells her what he sees about Jesus’ ministry. His final words to Mary are sobering: “A sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35).

Mary’s conversations with Elizabeth may very well have given her the foundation for the kind of strength and resilience she would need in order to live with that sword piercing her heart. Because of her visit with Elizabeth, she entered into her role as mother of the Son of God, knowing she was not alone in bearing a miracle baby who would be called to do extraordinary things.

We have no record of Elizabeth and Mary meeting again. When horrible things happened to John the Bapist and then later to Jesus, the memory of those three months with Elizabeth must have given Mary comfort. Mary would have rejoiced in her friendship with one other woman called by God to bear a child who would change history and who would bring tears and great sadness to his mother.

Next week: Obstacles in taking initiative. 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.)

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

Tuesday June 20 2017

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

I often think of friendship as a verb, and when I think of actions that shape friendship, what comes to mind first and foremost is the willingness to take initiative. Over and over.

Initiative means making some kind of response after a friend has surgery. Perhaps a card, a meal, a gift, a phone call or a visit. Initiative means creating opportunities to listen when a friend is going through a crisis—suggesting a conversation over coffee, making time for a phone call or sending an email with specific questions about the situation. Initiative means checking in with friends when you haven’t heard from them for a while. Initiative means remembering to pray for a friend’s needs.

I know that initiative is so important to me because I had to navigate eleven moves in my first fifteen years. As I look back on my childhood, I can see clearly that if I hadn’t taken initiative over and over to reach out to potential new friends, I would have been desperately lonely.

The emphasis I place on initiating in friendship also comes from conversations I’ve had with both men and women over the years. “I have trouble initiating,” many people have told me as they talk about feeling isolated and wanting more friends.

Serena, a librarian in her fifties, expressed two important beliefs when I interviewed her: “friendship takes time” and “to be friends requires intentionality; it rarely ‘happens.’” She noted that people so often say, “Let’s get together,” but find it hard to follow through. “I wouldn’t have either,” she said, “had I not scribbled notes to myself on my calendar or scraps of paper in my car to ‘call this person’ or ‘invite that person over for dinner.’”

Serena has nurtured the habit over the years of having people over for tea or dinner, either individually or in groups, and in this way has developed friendships with neighbors, coworkers and church members.

Tabitha, in her eighties, has reflected a lot about initiative in friendships. She takes frequent initiative with friends, but is always grateful when someone else jumps in and makes connection with her. She reflected: “Good friends are caring, loyal and understanding. They’re strong, so you can lean on them. They have integrity, so you know that what you tell them won’t go any further. They have time for you, and they make connection with you at least sometimes, so it’s not always you who has to take initiative.”

Initiative in friendships today takes many forms, and in this series of blog posts I’ll describe a variety of kinds of initiative. I’ll also explore some of the obstacles to initiating. I’ll close with a lovely quotation from Orlando A. Battista (1917–1995):

The greatest weakness of most humans is their hesitancy to tell others how much they love them while they’re still alive.

(Next week: “What Mary might have missed.” 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: "Walking at Greenlake." This post excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

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