In spite of iPhones and Facebook, we're more disconnected than ever. It's time to make some offline friends.
One afternoon, I thought, "I think I'm bored." Then I thought, "Is that really possible — being the mom of a very active toddler?" Then I thought maybe I was depressed. After sitting down and having a good cry, I figured out what I was actually feeling.
I was lonely.
I had recently had a miscarriage. If you had asked me a month before that loss if I had a good support system, friends I could call if I needed something, I would have absolutely said yes.
But having the miscarriage changed something. I had plenty of people who e-mailed me after the miscarriage to say they were available if I needed anything, or that they had been through something similar. I did follow up with two of these people and tried to connect, but that never happened.
Maybe it was pride, or shame, or just plain grief, but I couldn't seem to reach out to others.
I think everyone struggles with disconnect. It seems to have gotten worse now that you don't have to pick up the phone, write a letter or make a coffee date to connect with someone. The age of message boards, e-mail and Facebook gives me this false sense of security, that I have all these friends and I know what's going on with them and they know what's going on with me — people I rarely or never see for any kind of "face-to-face" interaction.
I've come to realize that's not what Jesus had in mind when He talked about sharing life with other believers.
The tragedy of the miscarriage sent me in search of what it looks like to have a sufficient support system in one's life, as well as what some of the obstacles to that are. This is something I had been thinking about for a long time in the ministry I do with those dealing with sexual brokenness. We are constantly emphasizing the need to be connected with other Christians, specifically as we grow in our faith.
One day, a ministry participant asked me point-blank, "So how do I make friends? How exactly can I get connected?" To those of you who have experienced the disconnect and loneliness that I just shared, you already know it's a more challenging question than it initially appears to be. So I set out to practice what I preached and find some tangible ways to connect.
Even before Facebook, our society for quite some time has tended to breed isolation, independence and individualism. In my curiosity to discover the origin of this disconnect, I came across an anthropology book that studied familial trends in the United States. The anthropologist concluded:
A pervasive theme of American child-rearing ideology is independence, which can be considered under three headings: separateness, self-sufficiency, and self-confidence. The emphasis on separateness begins at birth among middle-class Americans, with the allocation of a separate room to the neonate, requiring him to sleep in his own bed removed from others in the family.
The author goes on to say,
Parents begin to emphasize sharing only after the child has become habituated to eating, sleeping and being comforted alone, on his own terms, and with his own properties — which he has become reluctant to give up. (From Childhood Socialization: Comparative Studies of Parenting, Learning and Educational Change by Robert A. LeVine)
It's no wonder we struggle to connect! To admit we might need others is seen as weak. Pick yourself up by your boot straps, take the bull by the horns, pull yourself together — all of these clichés reinforce the belief that we need to take care of and fix ourselves.
This train of thought breaks down when the rubber hits the road, and can result not only in loneliness and frustration as we try to meet all our own needs, but also in increased illness. In the Alameda County Study, researchers followed 7,000 people over the course of nine years. The most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections. Three times!
Another study was done where 276 people were infected with a virus that produces the common cold. People with strong emotional connections did four times better fighting off illness than those who were more isolated. As one of my favorite speakers, Sy Rogers, would say: "True for the body, true for the soul." How we work biologically can be a direct analogy to how we work emotionally, relationally and spiritually.
There have been many times when being in relationship with others has positively changed me. I think of my first Bible study leader. The first time we met for lunch, I told her everything about me — my struggles with same-sex attractions, self-injury, disordered eating, and so on. I fully expected her to be disgusted and run out of the restaurant. But she did exactly the opposite. She lovingly welcomed me not only to Bible study, but also into her life. Through her, I learned that I could truly love a woman, be in close friendship with her and not be tempted to be in a sexual relationship with her.
I think of my therapist of three years. She continually reminded me of who I was in Christ, and gently challenged my faulty ways of thinking. My friend Judy taught me how to really experience the depth of grace.
I need people. Think of Jesus. In a mystery we can't completely understand, He was fully God and fully man, with all the power and knowledge of God, and with all the needs and temptations that we have. Yet there were times when He specifically requested that the disciples, and in particular John, James and Peter, accompany Him somewhere, pray with Him, just be with Him. If He needed people, then I certainly need people.
So we know we need to be connected. How do we get connected?
Remember that no one is normal. Normal is a setting on the dryer. It's a hair type or a skin type at the drug store. I used to be afraid of people who appeared to be "normal"; I was sure they wouldn't be able to relate to any of my weird, "out there" problems.
Then I realized when actually getting to know some people I thought were "normal," that everyone has something they'd prefer to hide. After all, people in the Bible aren't "normal" either. I'm fairly certain that even those who managed to not slip up too bad were not viewed as "normal" in their day. Truly connecting is accepting people "as is," as they come, and asking them to do the same.
Meet people in groups
Imagining walking up to someone and asking them to hang out can be intimidating, even to this extrovert. Soon after the miscarriage, my husband and I joined a small group, with toddler in tow. It was one married couple, singles who were recent college graduates, and one older woman, and us. They were very accommodating of us and our child.
I also started having moms groups in my home. I went through my e-mail address book, and invited every woman who was a mom, no matter what her age. I also helped organize a gathering of moms from my online moms group.
Maybe your church has some small groups based on common interests. If not, you could start one. Meeting people in groups helps me to get a feel for different people. I'm drawn to people who are honest, who don't worry about what other people might think, who seem comfortable in their own skin.
In groups, we can look for people who are healthily vulnerable. Jesus was transparent, but there was a level of transparency He reserved only for certain people in His life. Not everyone needs to know all our business, but a few people need to know most of it. Find people who are not afraid to be weak, who talk about sin and struggle in an honest and redemptive way.
Make relationships top priority
As I tried to reach out after the miscarriage, I found that people, myself included, really struggle with living a life where trying to have coffee with a friend doesn't requires planning three months in advance. If I really want to connect with people, I need to make room in my life and my schedule for them.
This is an increasing challenge with every life change. In college, it's easier to connect because you live and study with the same people every day. Then you graduate and have to be more even more purposeful about finding time to connect. Then add marriage and family to the mix, and it gets even crazier.
My husband and I have had to get more creative in connecting. We try to invite people over for meals. Eating is something we have to do anyway. Don't be afraid to use your imagination when trying to make relationships top priority.
I need more than a single best friend
After the miscarriage, I realized that of the three people I considered to be my closest friends, only one lived within a reasonable distance from me. In their book Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend write,
We all need more than God and a best friend. We need a group of supportive relationships. The reason is simple: Having more than one person in our lives allows our friends to be human. To be busy. To be unavailable at times. To hurt and have problems of their own. To have time alone.
Jesus had 12 good friends, His Apostles, but He also had three intimate friends whom He took with Him certain places, such as the transfiguration, and the raising to life of the dead girl in Mark 5. At the Garden of Gethsemane, He had the nine other disciples sit at a distance while Peter, John and James went further into the garden with Him.
Friendships take time, and they take work. Disagreements are an ordinary part of relating, and yet people tend to run at the first sign of conflict. I recently heard a pastor say, "If you agree with someone 100 percent of the time, one of you is unnecessary." I've found I need my friendships to be secure and valuable enough to be worth the discomfort of honesty and disagreement.
Even Jesus' intimate friends displayed human failings, such as Peter denying he even knew Jesus. Jesus was patient, and Jesus forgave. He expected His friend to be human, and humans make mistakes.
John 10:10 says "the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." I have a real enemy, whose purpose is to steal, kill and destroy. It's interesting to me that part of his first assignment was to break the perfect relationship that Adam and Eve had, not only with God, but with each other.
The enemy doesn't want me to have real relationships. Within a few days of having two moms groups at my home, my son got horribly sick for two weeks, probably a bug he picked up from one of the kids who came over. The enemy tried to discourage me with thoughts like, "That's what you get for having all those germs in your home!" That's when I need to start praying. I remind myself that in this age of false connections and pseudo friendships, I've yet to meet someone who doesn't struggle with finding solid, meaningful friendships.
Relationships take risks, they take time, but I need them in order to thrive. Following Jesus' example gives me courage to persevere in pursuing the kinds of relationships that Jesus had.
Copyright 2009 Brenna Kate Simonds. All rights reserved.