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Imaginary friends

Lynne Baab • 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.)

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