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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Reflecting on the series

Lynne Baab • Wednesday March 27 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Reflecting on the series

Empathy is complicated. People often experience shame when they feel lonely. I am not the only person who defaults to advice-giving when trying to listen carefully. The pandemic left us with “learned loneliness.” Hugs are problematic for some people, so we need to ask permission. These are some of the ideas I have written about in the past six months that readers have resonated with and commented on.

Just over six months ago, I began this series. I was motivated to write about friendship and loneliness because of press coverage of post-covid loneliness. Public health researchers hypothesize that many people lost natural connections and never re-established them. You may remember that for the first four months of the series, I alternated posts about friendship with posts about listening. Then, I spent seven weeks writing about empathy. Then, back to friendship for a couple of posts to wrap up the series.

I looked over all the comments I got about this series. I’ll tell you about some of those comments and my thoughts about them.

Something encouraging and challenging. Numerous people resonated with my comment that I easily fall into advice-giving when I am trying to listen. I’m glad I’m not alone in this. If many of us experience this knee-jerk desire to give solutions, then no wonder stopping it is so challenging. I need God’s continual help to let go of my need to give advice. I need the Holy Spirit's power to return over and over to a receptive stance focused on my conversation partner's experiences and feelings.

The complexity of giving affection extravagantly. I love to give and receive hugs. Based on an interchange with a reader, I wonder if I am careful enough to ask people if they actually want to receive a hug. In my post about giving affection extravagantly, I wrote about Gary Chapman’s five love languages. I realize I need to be more persistent in learning what helps people feel loved rather than assuming I know. I need the Holy Spirit’s insight and empowerment to ask at the right time.

The uncertainty of response to our initiative. I got a lot of comments from my post that described four times I initiated with long-lost friends, two of them wonderful and two quite disappointing. Several people told me they needed to hear those four stories. They said we find it so easy to believe that when we finally get the energy and motivation to initiate, we expect we will meet with a loving and enthusiastic response. We need God’s peace and openness to any outcome when we initiate.

The challenges of showing empathy. When I wrote about praying for wisdom in using empathy, I got a lot of responses to a couple of paragraphs in that post. I wrote about a mom who told me she sometimes needs to rein in her use of empathy with her kids. She needs to let them have their own feelings, apart from her response to their emotions. I suspect that many of my readers are already pretty skilled in empathy. While we can always improve, some of that growth must include wisdom for when to use empathy and when not to.

In a post about praying to use empathy with love, I mentioned the idea of weaponizing empathy. A friend commented that the blog post

“helped me to understand more fully some experiences which have been deeply hurtful, and I have not previously been able to unpack why. When we experience empathy, it feels like love, which it usually is. It opens us up to be more trusting and more vulnerable. If we are then hurt by that person, it seems to go deeper — maybe because we have loosened or opened up the self-protective mechanisms around our hearts. This turns empathy into a manipulative weapon. It establishes trust, and then, if hurt is caused, it does deep harm.”

This is frankly terrifying. The more we show love, the more we are able to wound people. We must rely on God over and over to help refrain from hurting people who have given us the honor of being vulnerable with us.

Those comments, and many others, have stimulated a lot of thoughts and prayers for me. Thanks for feedback, beloved readers. I’m sad to end this series that has been so stimulating for me. Thanks for reading!

God of restraint and order, we ask for your wisdom and restraint in our relationships. Help us hold back, at least most of the time, when we want to give advice. Enable us to refrain from showing love in ways that don’t feel like love to the recipient. Help us let go of our expectations when we initiate. Give us wisdom to show empathy when it will genuinely help the other person and not because we want or need to show it. Guide us in our friendships, Holy Spirit, and empower us to love and care.

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Next week: first post in a new series on praying about the miracles of Jesus. Illustration by Dave Baab: Dave (on the left) with friends at Camp Spalding, Davis Lake, north of Spokane, Washington.

Other posts in this series that readers commented on a lot:

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