The Friendship Challenge

“What kind of self-talk goes on in our minds? What lies of Satan do we entertain? . . . . Are we consumed by self-loathing because we don’t seem to fit in anywhere the way others seem to do so easily? Do we believe we are not making a distinct contribution to society?”

“If we pattern our lives after the Trinity, we come to a startling conclusion: We are individuals who exist for and flourish best in community with others. . . . But for those of us shaped by the values of contemporary Western culture, unhealthy independence is a serious threat to our ability to find and cultivate such close friendships.”

— The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life, by J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler

I just finished reading The Lost Virtue of Happiness yesterday. This one has been on my TBR pile for a very long time. I have long acknowledged that I have “joy issues”–that is, I struggle with the concept and experience of joy as a follower of Christ. I tend toward pessimism and often have a difficult time separating temporary trials and challenges from the ultimate security, peace, and joy of salvation. I was hoping that a more philosophical treatment of the concept of happiness would help me sort some of these issues out.

I made a comment in my Goodreads review that I didn’t really care for some of the exercises in the book. In general, I think this is a failing of the way Christian ideas are “sold” these days. You can’t just read theology, philosophy, doctrine, and the like–authors seem to have to put practical exercises with everything in an attempt to guide us in application. This is probably just me, but these kinds of exercise so often just end up feeling like another legalistic “to do” list, and they sometimes rob the joy right out of the book. I feel guilty about not doing them, about just reading for the sake of the ideas, or about ruminating on my own practical application of the concepts.

My usual approach to a book like this one is to read the chapters fairly thoroughly, but to skim or skip the end of chapter questions. If there are exercises within the chapters, I will read them, but I rarely do them. I might sometimes answer a few questions in my head, but I pretty much never write anything down.

So it was that I came first to the chapter on the hiddenness of God and next to the chapter on friendships. And here . . . I think that here I found a very big part of why I have so many joy issues.

I have never, ever been entirely confident that I have anything to contribute to anything in regard to personal relationships. I have been known to say with complete honesty, “I’m really bad at friendship.” And I am–I know this. I cultivate friendships like I cultivate houseplants–poorly. My black thumb knows no bounds.

But I think that Moreland and Issler’s book has helped me clarify what, exactly, my problem is when it comes to friendship. First, as they point out, we use the term friend to encompass too many things. Moreland and Issler categorize our different relationships and clarify that most of them are “happenstance arrangements that fit under the biblical term neighbor.” In that category, they include people we come in contact with at work, school, church, and even extended family. They further categorize people even within our closer friends–those with whom we share common interests, values, or pleasures, those with whom there are mutual benefits or advantages in remaining connected, and those with whom we have a “friendship of character.”

It was the concept of having friendships of character that really convicted me, and it was in this chapter that I paid a lot more attention to the exercises and lists. And I was forced to confront a rather disturbing fact: I have exactly two friends I can count in this category.

Two.

And I’m married to one of them.

This is not to say that I don’t have ANY friends, or that I don’t have friends I enjoy doing things with or chatting with. Indeed, even though I’m an introvert, I can be quite chatty at times, especially when I feel comfortable with people. My fellow leaders at American Heritage Girls can attest to my chattiness! I have a couple of online friends with whom I am able to carry on long, in-depth e-mail exchanges. And while I may complain, I actually do enjoy people in a general sense–largely, perhaps, because I see them all as potential characters in a story (are we not all, after all, the protagonists of our own stories?).

But close, intimate, spiritual friendships? I have two.

I think I need more than that.

I wrote a while back about being in search of friends, but that post was more about looking for a community to replace the one I lost when I quit writing publicly. This post is more about consciously developing a couple more deep, abiding, spiritual connections.

But here’s the problem, and this is what the book helped me figure out: I have no confidence at all in my own ability to be a friend. When I think of people I might like to get to know better or cultivate a friendship with, I automatically assume that they must have enough friends, that they won’t have time for someone like me, that I have nothing I can really contribute to a friendship with those people. I’m not sure where this comes from, because people don’t seem to avoid me . . . But I’m absolutely terrified of intruding on someone’s life or being too needy or dependent. When I look at me, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to cultivate a friendship with me as I don’t see anything particularly unique about myself that would be even remotely enticing to another person.

In general, I wake up most mornings in awe and wonder that my husband is still married to me.

I have no idea where this all comes from. I really don’t. I would not say that I’ve had brutally bad friendship break-ups before. I do acknowledge some trust issues from a childhood trauma, but I’ve (mostly) dealt with those, and I am constantly on the lookout for those issues to crop up so that I can face them and nip them in the bud. But it’s not like people have shamed, shunned, embarrassed, or publicly humiliated me and scared me away from being friends with anyone.

So I don’t know–is this just the way I’m wired? Is it a product of my introverted nature? Is it related to my more solitary pursuits in writing?

The authors make the distinction between living the good life and getting “good at life.” I think I have had happiness and joy confused with living the good life. Happiness and joy come from the practices that one develops as one gets “good at life.” And for me, developing some closer, more spiritually satisfying friendships is probably a good step in the direction of getting better at life.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

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