How to love the people with whom we are friends or with whom we might start a friendship
When I think of friendship as a verb, when I think of actions that shape friendship, what comes to mind first and foremost is the willingness to take initiative. Over and over.
Initiative means making some kind of response after a friend has surgery. Perhaps a card, a meal, a gift, a phone call or a visit. Initiative means creating opportunities to listen when a friend is going through a crisis — suggesting a conversation over coffee, making time for a phone call or sending an e-mail with specific questions about the situation. Initiative means checking in with friends when you haven't heard from them for a while. Initiative means remembering to pray for a friend's needs.
I know that initiative is so important to me because I had to navigate 11 moves in my first 15 years. As I look back on my childhood, I can see clearly that if I hadn't taken initiative over and over to reach out to potential new friends, I would have been desperately lonely.
The emphasis I place on initiating in friendship also comes from conversations I've had with both men and women over the years. "I have trouble initiating," many people have told me as they talk about feeling isolated and wanting more friends. Initiative in our time takes many forms, and we'll explore some of the obstacles to initiating in this article.
Worth the Risk
Many people today find it hard to initiate with friends or potential friends because of wondering if the act of initiative will be welcome. Many people have fears about the whole process of taking action. Will something bad or unpleasant happen?
And many people are so absorbed with immediate needs — household, family, work — that they find it hard to think about extending a gesture of friendship to someone who is not immediately present.
"Love is kind." Love "believes all things, hopes all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4,7). Part of the solution to the fears of reaching out in friendship comes from considering how to love the people with whom we are friends or with whom we might start a friendship. What would it look like to act in kindness to someone we know? What would it look like to believe and hope that our kindness will be received? Or to believe and hope that kindness is never wasted, that God will bring good things from it whether or not it is received graciously by the person to whom it is given?
When we reach out in kindness toward a friend or potential friend, we are mirroring the love of God that reaches into our lives. When we act in kindness with the hope of a positive response, but with the willingness to show love even if the response is tepid or negative, we are reflecting the character of God. The kind of initiative that builds true friendships is rooted in God's love, full of kindness and hope, believing the best outcome may be possible.
Love carries its own reward. When we act in love, when we take initiative to show kindness and compassion, we are mirroring the character of God as shown to us in Jesus Christ. Every time we do that, we are participating in God's work of transformation in us. Even if our act of kindness isn't received very enthusiastically, we will be blessed if we trust that God's love is shaping us into the people we were created to be.
The fear of initiating is a significant obstacle in friendship. If I call and invite someone to get together with me, will I be rebuffed? If I ask someone over for dinner, will they hate the food I fix? Will my house be too messy? Will conversation lag? Isn't it better just to wait until someone takes initiative with me?
Damon, a nurse in his late 40s, has been working on initiating in friendships for the past 20 years. He has come to view it as one of the tasks required for his spiritual growth.
I remember being an adolescent and a teenager. It seemed like there was always something to do. There were plenty of boys in my neighborhood, and we played baseball and basketball all the time. Then I went off to college, and the other guys in the dorm were always up for a movie or a game of tennis. It just seemed to happen. I didn't have to take action myself in order to have friends.
Then I grew up and got a job. I was the only male nurse, so I was lonely at work. My roommates were busy working, and I didn't know how to find people to do things with. In my family growing up, the mantra was "What will the neighbors say?" There was a lot of shame and fear. My parents seldom invited people over to our house because they were worried someone would take offense at the food they served or the way we lived. My dad had friends from work, but my mom was very isolated because of her fear.
When I met my wife, I was so surprised to find that she came from a family where both her parents had a lot of friends. They had people over for meals, they visited friends when they went on vacation, they sent a bazillion Christmas cards every year. I watched my wife handle her friendships.
She was always taking initiative in some way, sending a card, calling someone up, inviting people over. I realized I had never learned how to do that. So I started trying. I realized that if I wanted to show Christ's love to the people I knew and if I wanted to have friends, I had to learn to take initiative.
It felt so awkward at first. Twenty years later, I'm still learning. But it comes more easily than it did before, and I have friends now. Good friends. Real friends. And I see that reaching out to people is a part of being a loving person, which has the side effect of nurturing friendships as well.
And it brings great joy to me in the process.
Damon's story illustrates the encouraging reality that taking initiative in friendship can be learned. It takes time and effort, but in recent years Damon has experienced increased ease in reaching out to friends and potential friends in a number of ways.
Vulnerability as Initiative
When I think of taking initiative in friendships, I think first of asking people to do things with me: have a meal at a restaurant or at my home, have coffee and talk, go to a movie, go for a walk. I also think of forms of initiative that involve communication: picking up the phone to make a call, sending an e-mail or a Facebook message, writing a card.
When I asked Clare, 18, what she believed to be the best advice about nurturing friendships, she said, "Stay in close touch. Stay connected." She talked about all the acts of initiative she engages in with her friends. She tries to send frequent text messages, and she interacts often on Facebook by posting comments about her friends' photos, links and updates. She views those acts of connection as the foundation for good conversations when she sees her friends face-to-face.
Roberta, in her 40s, brought up another form of initiative:
I have trouble talking honestly about what I'm thinking and feeling. I know it has had a significant impact on my ability to make friends. I always appreciate it when others show vulnerability in a conversation, because it helps me get over the hurdle of talking honestly.
I've noticed that if I share some small vulnerability with someone I'd like to get to know better, they often respond by sharing something that matters to them as well. I might talk about something that's making me sad, something that's worrying me or something I've been thinking about a lot. I save my deep feelings of sadness or worry for my husband or my close friends, who I know I can trust to listen with sensitivity to what I'm feeling. With people who I don't know as well, I share feelings that are real but not particularly deep.
Part of that sharing is a bit of a test. I watch to see how they will respond. If they are able to enter into what I feel, and perhaps later share feelings of their own, I have some optimism that we might become deeper friends. I also see that sharing as an act of love, giving them the unspoken message that I'd be happy to listen to them talk about what they're thinking and feeling. They may not want me to listen to their inner concerns in that moment, but my openness extends an invitation for later conversations.
Initiative takes many forms, and we need to think creatively about it. When God nudges us to reach out to a friend or potential friend in any way — with a visit, a phone call, a conversation on Skype, a card, an e-mail, a message on a social-networking website, a gift, a word of affirmation or love, an invitation to come over for a meal or to meet for coffee — we need to pay attention. Yes, we may feel a little or a lot of anxiety that our overture will not be welcome. Some of that anxiety might prove to be justified. The unfortunate reality is that we may receive a less-than-enthusiastic response. In my experience, however, initiative is never wasted, even if it feels that way. Over time, acts of initiative shape our heart by training us to act in love.