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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to give affection extravagantly

Lynne Baab • Tuesday January 2 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to give affection extravagantly

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)

Have you ever given a small gift to a friend or family member, they thank you at the time, but then you never see or hear anything about the gift again? “What a waste,” you might think. Have you ever sent someone an email or text message to say you’re thinking about them, and you get no reply? Have you ever met someone who you think might be a friend, but every overture you make toward them gets no response?

I came across the quotation from Longfellow when I was a teenager, and it seemed relevant for making friends and nurturing friendships. A good number of the actions we take to show affection in friendships just don’t seem to land. They seem like wasted effort. But at the very least they shape and bless us — "That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain."

I’ve mentioned before that we moved 12 times in my first 15 years, and making friends became an essential skill. My mother was an expert in making and keeping friends, so I had a good model. I watched her reach out, invite people over, make time for friends, buy small gifts, send Christmas cards, and make phone calls. (Those were the days before email and text messages.) I know she would say affection is never wasted. We don’t know who will respond to our affection, but someone will. She would say having friends requires a lot of initiative (which I wrote about a month ago).

This past week, for the first time, I charted my life pattern after I read the Longfellow quotation. I had never realized that after living three years in the same place during high school (hurrah!), I moved nine times between ages 18 and 34. After every one of those moves, I made new friends. I know the Longfellow quotation made a difference in all those friendship efforts. Knowing that affection is never wasted helped me reach out and care, over and over, to build new friendships.

Affection overlaps with initiative, but they are not identical. We might initiate with someone in a spirit of exploration — might this person grow to be a friend? — before we feel any affection. Most initiative, though, has a component of affection to it. But affection can also include words of gratitude for small and large things, as well as statements like, “I appreciate this time we’ve had together” and “What a great conversation! I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.” Those actions could be considered as initiative, because they involve a choice and action on our part. However, examining the ways we express affection can be helpful, while perhaps viewing those actions as a subset of initiative. 

Affection might involve a light touch on the shoulder or a warm smile. Affection might include a text message, gift, card, or response on social media. I like to give and receive hugs, but I am aware that not everyone likes hugs. We probably get stuck in ruts in our patterns of showing affection, so I bet you can think of many additional forms of affection that are not a part of my affection repertoire.

On my 34th birthday, my husband Dave and I returned to Seattle after a year in Sweden, and my pattern of frequent moves slowed down. I was committed to the idea that affection is never wasted and that all forms of affection and initiative help us gain friends, even if any specific action of initiative or affection has no impact. Only a few years later, I came across an article by Gary Chapman about love languages. The ideas from his book, The Five Love Languages, were laid out clearly in that early article. (Frankly, I deeply appreciate his idea about love languages, but I don’t like the book very much. It feels overly simplistic and occasionally misogynistic. I can’t find that old article online, but here’s a fun research study about the five love languages.)

Chapman’s five love languages helped me understand that affection sometimes feels wasted because we show our appreciation for people in ways that don’t feel loving to them. A recent example for me is the gift of a plate of cookies, given to me right after I noticed I’d been eating too much sugar. I had begun to take steps to cut back. This gift — not my love language anyway — undermined my efforts to reduce sugar. Yes, I should have the discipline to pass up cookies that are in front of me, but I don’t. This person showed affection to me in a way that didn’t feel like affection.

At church recently, I received a precious hug from a six-year-old with whom I often chat. I squeezed her gently and then bent down to kiss the top of her head. She jumped back and threw herself on the floor. Her mom told me that she loves hugs but hates kisses. Good to know. Her response illustrates the challenges of showing affection with physical touch. Six-year-olds who dislike kisses are not the only people who have specific tastes regarding physical affection.

The fear of showing affection inappropriately can keep us from showing it at all. In some ways, I was better off between 18 and 34 when I believed all affection was good for others and for me, even if it felt wasted. I see now that we need God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we can express affection in ways that don't damage our relationships. We can pray for God's help in the area of affection. In a world of caution and feelings of scarcity, we can also pray to express the abundance of God’s love through an appropriate abundance of affection.

Light of the World, the sun you created shines so much more light on us than we can ever receive. Empower us to reflect your abundance as we show affection to others. Guide us into wise and helpful ways to express affection to those we care about. Give us joy and freedom as we consider how to show that we care.

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In this series of blog posts called “Friendship, loneliness, and prayer,” I am alternating posts about praying for friendships with posts about praying about listening skills. Next week I’ll return to the topic of listening skills: "holy listening." Illustration by Dave Baab: sunset over Lake Steilacoom, Lakewood, Washington, the view from my mother's kitchen window. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

Previous posts about abundance and goodness:

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