catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 23 :: 2009.11.27 — 2009.12.10


Of drunken birds and calling to best friendship

I think we’re more unpracticed at [friendship], and therefore more desperate for it. … If you realize how vital to your whole spirit and being and character and mind and health, friendship actually is, you’ll take time for it. But the trouble for many of us is that you have to be in trouble to remember what’s essential.

John O’Donohue speaking to Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith

The ache for friends is the one ache that did not come from sin….  God made us in such a way that we cannot experience paradise without friends.

Rev. Tim Keller in a sermon titled “Spiritual Friendship”

Wendy was the easiest best friend I ever made. It was the first day of second grade and we were assigned to be hallway buddies on our way to recess. Even though I was the new girl in town, I didn’t hesitate to put the question out there: “Do you want to be best friends?” She didn’t hesitate either. Soon we were swinging and climbing our way to a friendship that only the travails of third grade could break apart.  

It turns out that friendship doesn’t come as easily once you no longer frequent playgrounds, lunch rooms, dorm lobbies and student activity offices. Nor should it.  

Post-college life doesn’t seem to allow many opportunities to meet people, and the opportunities that do exist feel every bit as awkward as singles mixers, or “meat markets” as one of my friends calls them. Lost are the natural contexts in which you can build relationships based on shared experiences. In the anything-goes world of young professionals, there is no guarantee that the people you meet will have anything in common with you. You feel out of place at social events, grasping for appropriate things to talk about and wondering whether anyone there actually cares about who you are and where you come from.  

This social world is not for me, which means that I spent the first two years out of college hanging out with my wonderful husband and my cats. I had occasional coffees with friends who hadn’t left town and even more occasional phone dates with friends who’d fled the state for further education and careers in bigger and better locales. 

As time went by, I had the desire to find a close friend who was more…local. I wanted a best friend who was close enough to be my “go-to person.” With all the moving I did during childhood and early adulthood (I’ve counted over 20 moves in 22 years), best friendship has constantly passed me by. I’ve had scores of close friends and second “families,” but since age 13 when I met Mary in Moscow, Russia, I have not called another person my best friend (I still call Mary my best friend, but she lives hundreds of miles away in a state that might as well be another country).     

A friend from college recently suggested to me that my search for a best friend is simply a labeling problem. There are plenty of people around me who love me and support me like a best friend would (my husband, for example). Why belabor a single person with the “best friend” title? Part of me agrees with her that relationships in the 21st century are so fluid that labels appear to do more harm than good. They can trap people and relationships and try to fit them into boxes with prescribed expectations. Good friendships should be creative and moldable and ever responsive to the leading of the wherever-the-wind-blows God that we serve.  

But I’m not satisfied with the idea that I shouldn’t seek a Jonathan to my David or Anne to my Diana (I may be every bit as influenced by Anne of Green Gables in the matter at hand as I am by the Bible). I wonder if throwing away all labels is a way to avoid commitments and expectations that might actually help us become better people. I am already too satisfied with the banalities of Facebook friendships and once-a-month “how are you?” coffees. The number of “friends” I have and the number of lunch dates I keep in my calendar can easily make me feel like I’m “OK” in the social realm. I’m not a loser. People like me.  

These “safe,” non-labeled friendships have become less than enough for me. First of all, they’re just not satisfying. When I don’t commit to people, they don’t commit to me and I stay put on my island. It’s lonely out there. Secondly, these social dalliances don’t require me to change or make adjustments in my life where there are excesses or well-hidden sins. In fact, keeping people at arm’s length and using them to bulk up my list of social contacts inflates my pride and shrinks my soul. I need a friend I can’t manage on my account settings or fit into my perfectly tailored cosmopolitan lifestyle.

I need a real friend to teach me how to love on a day-to-day basis, where there’s a chance to dredge up some of my darkness and expose it to the light. 

I realized all these things after a life-changing service trip to a Franciscan convent earlier this year. Soon I became open to the possibility of making a real friend. What happened thereafter is lovely and awkward, joyful and confusing.

A flock of unusual birds landed just outside my office window a few weeks after I returned from my trip to the convent. I had to know what these colorful birds were, so I phoned a co-worker whose job it is to keep track of the birds, bugs and mammals that hang out near my office building. From her I learned that the birds were cedar waxwings, known to gorge themselves on the fermented berries remaining on trees through the long winter in our state. The freewheeling conversation that followed led to more conversations about birds. Soon our conversations weren’t about birds anymore but about our lives and God and how much weight we needed to lose and the best way to thicken plum jam. 

She’s the fastest friend I’ve made since second grade. The mechanics of friendship formation weren’t terribly difficult: short visits to say “hi,” lunch and dinner “dates,” girly movies, trips to the farmer’s market and even a very dignified sleepover. We enjoyed spending time together, which meant we spent even more time together and became better and better friends. She even threw an elegant dinner party for my birthday; that’s when I knew she must be my best friend. 

But even as the well-oiled gears of friendship moved things forward at a good pace, that “dredging up the darkness” bit I mentioned earlier was making me a bit car sick. Turns out that when you’re an adult, fast friendship does not necessarily equal easy friendship. Indeed, being close friends with someone reacquainted me with deep insecurities bred during early adolescence when I moved two or three times a year. I found it hard to trust my new friend in matters pretty crucial to close friendship: Does she like me? Is she only spending time with me because I’m practically forcing her to with my incessant nagging? Will she decide she doesn’t want to be my friend if I stop by or call too much? What if a far cooler person comes along and wants to be her best friend?

Being car sick is not fun. Why wouldn’t I just bail and sit by the side of the road for awhile until a Greyhound bus comes along? The answer is terribly simple: I like my friend a lot. And it’s not really her fault that I’ve swept my social anxieties under the carpet for over a decade. Furthermore, God seems to have made her a strong (or splendidly oblivious) enough person to be up for the ride. So slowly, I’m learning to take the curves, peaks and descents of the road better and better as we go. And as I work these things out, I’m starting to see friends less as social assets and more as fellow travelers on the road.  

Yes, real friendship isn’t as easy as it was back in grade school. It doesn’t always fulfill my expectations or give me the warm fuzzies.  

But I believe that the best friend I have now is filling a role that my second grade friend could not have filled in my life when friendship was “easy.” My best friend is doing a priestly job, mediating redemptive grace from God to me. How is she doing this? Simply by being a kindred spirit-a blessed sister to walk with me along the road. She is teaching me things (how to make killer plum preserves, how to deal graciously with coworkers, how to not be sorry for every single thing I say and do) and I hope that she’s learning a few things from me, too.  

It is said that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. I’d like to invert that and say that you can choose how much to interact with your family, but it’s hard to push away friends God has put in your life to work out his salvation in you. Call it irresistible grace, if you’re into that sort of thing.  

I’ve become a believer in best friendship, even though with my history, I have a hard time believing that friendship is anything more than provisional-a temporary and elusive thing. I’m going to have this nagging fear for awhile that the moment I call someone my best friend, she will get up and walk out of my life. I have no guarantees that my best friend will still think I’m cool next week or in two years or in twenty years. I don’t know where I will live for the rest of my life, and whether that place will be close enough for me to stop by and bring her soup and cookies and bother her with my “brilliant” ideas to start cooking clubs and throw huge dinner parties together. 

This is where faith comes in, and this is what my whole crazy story of best friendship hangs on.  

I feel called to this thing called best friendship. I’ve felt called to it from the moment my best friend told me that cedar waxwings can die from eating too many fermented berries. In a very real sense, I didn’t choose friendship, it chose me. But every day thereafter, as I sit on the magical bench outside her office watching birds come to her bird feeders, I face the temptation to give in to my darkness: my insecurities, my pride and my tendency to self-protect. And every day thereafter I have been faced with the choice to stick with best friendship in faith that it will transform my life and make me a more whole person.

It has, and it will.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus