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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Lessons from two periods of loneliness

Lynne Baab • Wednesday October 25 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Lessons from two periods of loneliness

Twice I have experienced extended periods of loneliness. Both times I learned something important.

The first period was in high school (tenth through twelfth grade in those days). We had moved 11 times in my first 15 years because my dad was in the military, and I attended five schools between kindergarten and ninth grade. I learned to make friends easily among the girls in my various neighborhoods and classes. When we moved from Virginia to Washington State, and I started high school, I decided to try an experiment. I decided to act like I’d been a popular girl in junior high. As I started in yet one more school, I adopted a mysterious air and pretended to be more socially competent than I actually was.

My strategy worked well with respect to interest from boys. I had two boyfriends in tenth grade (not simultaneously!) and one serious boyfriend in eleventh grade. The few girls I befriended never got the chance to know the real me, and I actually had little in common with them. When the serious boyfriend broke up with me in my second year in Washington, I had no local friends to comfort me. The last few months of eleventh grade, and for all of twelfth grade, I was desperately lonely.

When I headed off to college at 18, I was determined to be totally myself. Those old friend-making skills came back into play, and I had a wonderful circle of female friends throughout college. Lesson learned: be myself in relationships with girls/women who might become friends.

The second period of loneliness was in the first few years we lived in New Zealand. We moved there in 2007 for me to take up a teaching position (an endowed chair!) in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago. I tried to be my authentic self, but all those handy friendship skills didn’t seem to work. I wondered if my friendship skills didn’t translate across cultures. I also wondered if other women were somehow in awe of me because I’d been hired to fill an endowed chair, and I was an ordained Presbyterian minister with a Ph.D. Too many credentials to be approachable! I still stayed in touch with friends in Seattle, and I had my precious friendship with my husband. I tried to take comfort in the acceptance and encouragement I felt from Dave and Seattle friends, but I was used to having a circle of women friends close by.

After a few years in New Zealand, I began pondering exactly what I love in friendships with women. I realized that for me, friendships involve having interesting conversations and the freedom to talk about what I am thinking and feeling about life. I noticed I was having really interesting conversations two or three times a month with various unexpected people, including visiting researchers at work, colleagues (who were mostly male), and people at church during coffee hour. I learned to thank God for the interesting conversations, despite the fact that they were not with people I would call close friends. The conversations filled part of the friendship hole inside me, and I felt less lonely when I identified that. We lived in New Zealand ten years, and in the second half of that time, I developed some precious friendships. I also continued to identify and thank God for every stimulating conversation with anyone. Lesson learned: identify what I want from friendships and be grateful when I receive any part of it in any setting.

I was surprised in those lonely years how much I blamed myself. When we’re experiencing loneliness, it is easy to feel that we have done something wrong. I wrote a few weeks ago about the randomness of friendships. Some people have deep, meaningful friendships, and a friend dies or something else comes along that ruptures the friendship. Some people never get traction in relationships in a certain workplace, neighborhood, church, or other community. A lack of friends can come from circumstances beyond our control. One of the places to begin in prayer is to ask God to free us from self-blame when we feel lonely.

Another focus of prayer can be to ask God for the eyes to see the aspects of our lives that fill the friendship hole, even if the person filling the hole isn’t a deep or on-going friend. After my New Zealand friendship lesson, I am much more able to thank God for every interesting conversation, no matter where and how it happens.

God who calls us Beloved, thank you for the people who give us companionship in our lives. Help us grow in being our authentic selves as much as possible. Help us see the gifts that human (and sometimes animal) companionship brings, wherever and however we experience it. Free us from shame and guilt in those times when we feel lonely, and help us draw near to you in companionship every day.  

(Next week: the different kinds of reflecting, a listening skill. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Manapouri, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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