How can I work less and make more friends?

Question

I’m in an engineering program at a public university. Most people think I have my act together because I’ve got scholarships, my own apartment, a job after I graduate, and no money worries. Most of my professors know me by name.

But I’m a workaholic. It’s getting bad. I’ll sleep every other day, and I’m working most of my waking hours. My close friends all have the same major, the same research, and most of the same classes. They aren’t Christians. School and work are what we have in common, and that’s all we talk about. If I’m not working on a deadline, I’m asleep. I can feel my entire perspective slipping from Christianity to something more like a dog chasing a rabbit. My prayers seem to have fallen to simple SOS calls. I can feel my mentality becoming more like my companions. I only eat when I’m working on something. Like I say, it’s getting bad. If I don’t set boundaries now, I’ll probably have this problem all my life.

In the past I used my parents for balance and for a reality check. I know that Christian friends would be good for me, but honestly, I have little experience with any sort of friendship. Most of my friends before college hung out with me only if I was the only person left in town that they knew. I am incredibly afraid of letting people get close. People may have known me for a year and a half but not know a thing about me. My church and family take it for granted that everyone knows how to make friends or how to react around gals, but I have no idea, especially how to do it in a godly manner. When I ask about “How do Christians interact with people?”, no one seems to understand what I mean, and I don’t seem to be able to talk about it too well. To top it off, because the kids ridiculed me at church when I was young, I find it harder to trust Christians than non-Christians. In the Bible, most of what I find is nice generic advice that doesn’t seem to help someone like me. Especially when there seem to be entire layers of communication I seem to miss.

I don’t know if this makes any sense, but if it does, I’d appreciate some advice.

Answer

Thanks for your good letter. I think you’re asking three
questions: (1) How can you develop friendships? (2) How can
you develop normal fellowship with other Christians? and (3)
How can you bring your urge to overwork under control? Let’s
take them in order.

How can you develop friendships? The art of
friendship is learned, and it’s learned much the same way we
learn other things: through practice and perseverance. Just like
when you learned to ride a bicycle, you have to be willing to
keep trying, even though sometimes you’ll fall and get scrapes
on your self-regard. Bear in mind that friendship isn’t so much
a set of “skills” as a set of virtues. At the beginning, for
example, you may find it difficult to talk with people whose
interests are different than yours, but work at it, because
friendship is part of God’s design for getting us “outside
ourselves.” They may feel like “Others,” but that’s the whole
idea. They really aren’t you — they’re really different
people — but they’re made, like you, in God’s
image.

Here’s a tip. Good friends can give each other a lot of
counsel, if they’re wise. But in order to give counsel, they have
to understand your questions. If I hadn’t read your letter, I
wouldn’t have understood your question “How do Christians
interact with people?” either. Make your questions more
specific. For example, you could say to a Christian friend “Tom,
you seem to find it easier to talk with girls than I do. How do
you get started?”

How can you develop normal fellowship with other
Christians?
Because you were ridiculed by other kids at
church growing up, this may be hard to believe, but the best
place to practice friendship is your college Christian fellowship
group. Of course it has to be a reasonably healthy fellowship
group, in which the members share not only faith in Christ but
lovingkindness toward each other, and in which differences of
temperament and gift are appreciated because each person
recognizes the others as limbs of the Body of Christ. The sting
of rejection by other kids must have been pretty awful when
you were growing up. However, they didn’t act like that
because they were in church. The reason they ridiculed you was
that you were different; children are conformists because they
learn how to act by imitation. The reason they were cruel was
that they were too young to have learned how to put
themselves in another person’s place. These are limitations of
fallen kid-nature — not fallen church-kid nature.

How about the non-Christian study friendship you have
now? The reason you don’t get hurt in those isn’t that they
aren’t Christian, but that they aren’t really friendship, as you
admit yourself. You see, by caring for others, we do expose
ourselves to the risk of pain. The price of never getting hurt is
never loving.

Here’s what I think you need to do. Step one: Spend a few
minutes thinking of those church kids who used to ridicule you.
Step two: Ask for Christ’s help, then take a deep breath and
forgive them. Step three: Leave the past behind, and make a
new start on Christian fellowship. There is an ancient saying:
Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus
“One Christian is no Christian.”

How can you bring your urge to overwork under
control?
The answer to this question depends largely on
where the urge is coming from. There are a number of
possibilities: (1) You’re afraid that if you don’t overwork, you
might fail. (2) Work is a refuge from the burden of social
interaction. (3) Work is a distraction from your problems. (4)
You seek the respect and approval of your teachers as a
substitute for the respect and approval of friends. (5) You don’t
overwork for any of these reasons, but because of an
unexplainable compulsion — as someone else might have
a compulsion to repeatedly wash his hands, and another person
might have a compulsion to check the door over and over to
see if it’s really locked.

If the answer is (2), (3), or (4), then as you begin to
develop friendships, I think that you will also find it easier to
resist the temptation to overwork.

If the answer is (5), then you should seek the assistance of
a Christian professional who is skilled in counseling people
with obsessions and compulsions.

If the answer is (1), then you need to find out why you are
afraid of failure, whether there are any rational grounds for
your fear, and what you can do about it. We know you’re a
good student. Perhaps you are in a field suitable to your
talents, but you’re merely taking a heavier courseload than
necessary. Perhaps your uneasiness arises from the fact that
even though you’ve succeeded in all of your courses, God really
intends you for a different field altogether. Or perhaps your
fear is irrational, and you should talk to a Christian counselor
about how to cope with anxiety.

Since you’re a good student, I’ll give you an assignment.
Get into a Christian fellowship group. Attend regularly. With the
help of a minister or counselor, draw up a schedule for yourself
— one which puts reasonable limits on work, and which
also includes time for fellowship, play, and sleep. When you
feel the urge to toss the schedule and keep working, say loudly
to yourself “No!” — and follow the schedule anyway.
Finally, give thought to the questions and possibilities I raised
in the previous paragraph, and feel free to write back about
them.

The promise of Jesus is for you, too: “Come to me, all who
labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my
yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in
heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.”

Grace and peace,

PROFESSOR THEOPHILUS

Copyright 2004 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.

About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.