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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.)

Five myths about friendship today

Tuesday December 2 2014

Five myths about friendship today

Last week I wrote about imaginary friends, and this week I’m continuing the friendship theme. The Washington Post has a wonderful “five myths” series: Five Myths about Ebola, Five Myths about Billionaries, etc. So I wrote a similar post based on what I learned in dozens of interviews of people age 12 to 85 for my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual Age.

Myth: The biggest friendship challenges of our time come from the many impersonal ways to communicate.

I heard three major friendship challenges expressed over and over in interviews: mobility, busyness and new ways to communicate. Many people see the new ways to communicate as helpful aids in the light of all the mobility and busyness, even while being concerned about them.

Myth: Younger people don’t value face-to-face contact with their friends.

Almost everyone I interviewed, across the span of ages, affirmed that they prefer to see their friends face-to-face. Many people said they view electronic communication as a way to stay in touch with friends, so that in face-to-face encounters, they can begin from a point of connection rather than having to catch up on all the details of life.

Myth: Younger people are oblivious to the way they are impacted by the new communication technologies.

Teenagers and young adults talked to me about going on Facebook fasts and leaving online gaming communities. They talked about their longing that their relationships not be impersonal and technology-driven, and about not wanting to be mindless consumers of information about people. They talked about all the things they do to try to be faithful to their friends. The careful thinking about healthy relationships I heard was inspiring and uplifting.

Myth: Facebook always nurtures impersonal friendships.

Teenagers talked about staying in constant contact with their friends on Facebook as a way to show love. People of all ages talked about reconnecting with old friends through Facebook, being able to pray for friends because of news posted on Facebook and being able to give and receive support through Facebook. Others talked about their frustrations with Facebook, saying that it’s too easy to be superficial in your relationships if you rely on Facebook too much. I heard about a wide variety of friendship experiences from people who use Facebook, and some of those patterns seemed to have many healthy components.

Myth: Your age will determine the forms of communication you are comfortable with.

I did hear generational patterns in the way people talked about communication with friends, but I was also surprised by the variation within generations. For example, consider two people in their mid-thirties. One of them told me that she loves to write and receive long emails from friends. The other thirty-something won’t read more than the first three sentences of an email. People ranging in age from teenagers to sixties use Facebook and texting enthusiastically, and other people across that same age range told me they hate Facebook and texting (yes, including teenagers!). One real challenge with friendships today is that in any circle of friends at any age, there will be wide variation in the forms of communication people use. I think this is one of the biggest friendship challenges of our time that is not being discussed very much.

(If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column of this webpage under “subscribe.” This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Imaginary friends

Sunday November 23 2014

Imaginary friends

When I was three years old we lived in a neighborhood with very few children, so I created my own friend. My imaginary friend played with me and my Raggedy Andy doll every day. We drank tea together at the little table my parents bought for me. My imaginary friend got me through that year. When I was four and we moved to a new place, I jumped into friendships with real life children.

Characters in well loved novels function like imaginary friends in my life today. After a busy work day, I like nothing better than to curl up with a familiar novel. It feels like being with friends in a non-demanding way. I know what the characters will say and do. I enjoy spending time with them.

I truly believe I don’t use novels as a way to escape from real relationships. When I’m tired, I simply don’t have the energy to meet up with friends, phone them, write them an email or check on Facebook to find out what they’ve been doing. The familiar characters in novels meet some of the same needs that would be met by getting together with a friend.

I was wondering if this was a little bit crazy when I heard some people talking about the television show West Wing.

“Those people are like my friends,” one person said. “I love to play a DVD of the show before I go to bed at night to have a little time with those people.”

Someone else said, “After that show was cancelled, I found I missed spending time with those characters.”

A few weeks later, I was reading A Memoir of Jane Austen, written in 1870 by her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leigh. He writes about some of the favorite characters in the Jane Austen novels, “who have been admitted as familiar guests to the firesides of so many families, and are known there as individually and intimately as if they were living neighbours.”

There’s a lot of black and white thinking about friendships these days, perhaps precipitated by the rise in social networking. I am continually amazed at the polarized views about Facebook that I hear. People seem to view it as all bad or all good. Why can’t we have a more nuanced approach?

The same applies, in a smaller way, to the question of imaginary friends. Some people will probably read the first six paragraphs of this post and decide that I must be wildly neurotic. And they may wonder if I have any real-life friends at all.

If I spent all my free time with familiar characters in novels, I would worry. If I expected all my real-life friendships to mirror the friendships in the TV show Friends or the friendships in novels, I would be treating my friends unfairly. But I don’t. I spend time with familiar characters in novels when I’m too tired to communicate with living human beings. Sometimes I learn things about friendship from novels, which is a nice bonus. And when I’m not reading, I do my best to love my real-life friends as much as I can and as often as I can.

When I did the interviews for my book on friendship, Friending, I heard so many polarized views about friendship today. In the book I have advocated for friendship practices centered on the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13, which mirrors the character of Jesus. Whether we’re talking about imaginary friends or Facebook use, our criteria for evaluation ought to be the characteristics of love modeled after Jesus Christ which requires some careful reflection, analysis and prayer. 

(If you'd like to get an email notice when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on The Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)