Yet we cannot accumulate friends like so many trophies. Friends are not objects to be found and collected. Our calling isn’t so much to find friends as to become friends to others. I am not even sure it is possible to “find” friends. Instead, we befriend others, and in the befriending, worthy companions are mysteriously born. As imitators of Jesus we are here to grant to others the gifts of safety, attentiveness, compassion, empathy, accountability, truth-telling, loyalty, distance, time, forgiveness, spiritual care, and selfless love. In offering such graces to others, friendships emerge.- from Pilgrim Heart by Darryl Tippens
On one level, I'm right on board with this concept. Darryl Tippens (my former professor and elder) puts into words a process that I've believed in most of my life.
I've never viewed friendships as something to be collected. I've never had more than a couple of close friends at any time in my life. (I understand this is consistent with my astrological sign. Not that I believe in that crap.) I never tried breaking in to the popular crowd in high school. I didn't pledge a social club/sorority in college. If a relationship can't develop naturally, as described above, I'm going to move on to something else. I don't believe in trying to break into tight social circles. It’s just not me.
When I think of the significant friendships I’ve had in my life, they all involved a starting point. When I moved to a new school in first grade, a girl overheard a boy being rude to me. She didn’t think that was right and she decided to be my friend. Lori and I were inseparable through that year, 2nd grade and even after my family moved away in 3rd grade. She’s now my Facebook friend and I’m continually amazed at all the things we still have in common, despite the fact that we haven’t seen each other since I last visited her in high school. (I'm the one with the broken arm in the photo.)
Then there’s my bff Carol. She’s the kind of person I probably would not have been friends with in high school. But we met a few months after high school, when we were just starting college. The same weird guy liked both of us at the beginning of that year and it gave us something to laugh about. We’ve stayed friends for years and she’s the one I can talk to about anything. We rarely miss a week of talking on the phone – even though we haven’t lived in the same town since 1993. (That's the two of us at the U2 concert in Dallas two months ago.)
And there’s Lois, probably my most unlikely friend. We were born a half-century apart, for heaven’s sake. When I first walked in to Missouri St. Church of Christ in Baytown nine years ago as a young mom and minister’s wife, I didn’t think “She’s my kindred spirit” the first time I met her. I just thought of her as one of the elders’ wives. Then I organized a weekly moms’ group at church and asked her to be our speaker at one of the meetings. We had been having decent attendance at those things but on Lois’s day to speak, no other moms showed up. Lois and I sat and talked for an hour. We connected on a level that our age difference simply could not touch. Six years later, at our going-away party, she described it like this: “I forgot how young Deana was and she forgot how old I was and we just became friends.” But didn’t the space between our ages cause us to be too different? People have asked me that. Let’s see. Here’s the only difference I can think of. I read about the impact of World War II on American culture and society in my high school history book. Lois lived it. And to me, that made her even more interesting. So the age thing didn’t matter. In fact, I think it made us better friends. Lois was a librarian for years and one thing we share is a love of books. I told her when we moved away that our friendship reminded me of that of Anne’s and Diana’s in Anne of Green Gables. Two kindred spirits with completely different backgrounds who came together and connected on a truly unique level.
All of these relationships had what relationships must have to form: a starting point. If Lori hadn’t cared that Daniel was rude to me, or if Carol (who went to college in the same town she had gone to high school in) was content to stay with her high school friends and not let anyone else in, or if 15 moms had shown up at that meeting and Lois and I never got to talk that day, those three women would be distant memories, if that. Instead, they each hold cherished places in my heart. Because we extended starting points to each other. I wasn’t looking for a new best friend when I met any of these people. It just happened, as the Tippens’ book describes.
Same Kind of Different as Me, a book I just finished reading, illustrates this concept beautifully. Two men who were worlds apart in every aspect of their lives came together and one extended his hand to the other. It was a reluctant hand, but it counted. Their resulting friendship went on to bless both men in ways neither of them could have envisioned.
Having moved around a lot, I’ve become something of a pro at showing up somewhere and making friends. At least I thought I had. What I’ve learned is that the older you get, starting points are harder to find. Someone who hasn’t moved to a new place in their mid- to late-30s may not understand this, but it’s true. Because of time constraints, busyness and life in general, or maybe just because existing relationships are too comfortable, people get more stingy with their starting points. This is what I think the paragraph from Dr. Tippens’ book doesn’t quite grasp. You can be a friend to others all you want, but if they are not offering you a starting point, you will get nowhere. You’ll end up sitting on the couch for three New Year’s Eves in a row, staring at Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest and trying to figure out why, after a lifetime of having had at least a couple of friends everywhere you had lived, you have suddenly gained citizenship on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Starting points aren’t always the springboard for some match-made-in-heaven relationship. There have been times that I’ve found myself at a starting point with someone that needs to be an ending point. I’m a big believer in people having boundaries and protecting themselves from relationships that could be unhealthy and exhausting. But can’t there be a middle ground between trying to be friends with everyone (which will wear you out) and shutting everyone out (which could make you the Unabomber)?
I can see why it could be more comfortable to just pull up the welcome mat and become the embodiment of that Emily Dickinson poem (“The soul selects her own society – then – shuts the door…”), but I just don’t interpret that as being Jesus to others.
We could leave the welcome mat out there and see what happens. I’m willing to see what happens.