It wrecked me when Willow died 4 months ago. In the midst of my grief, I realized that she was my closest friend and her passing did more than wound my heart. It also forced me to confront some issues related to friendship that I had been avoiding. In this context, by friendship I mean both the general concept as well as the specific relationships I used to have with a few people.
Before Simon was born (so think 2017), I began wrestling with issues related to friendship. April had an ectopic pregnancy that was pretty scary and, while I was picking up some things to take back to her at the hospital, I realized that I didn’t know who to call. There was no one in Springfield who I felt close enough to.
After that, I redoubled my efforts to make friends. I started going to a church small group. I joined a tabletop gaming group. I invited people over to our house to hang out. I made concerted efforts to become friends with 5 different people and couples.
None of it really took. I talked with my counselor about it and how I decided to give up trying to make friends because it hurt too much when they didn’t reciprocate. There was no real dislike expressed towards me in any of these attempts, it’s just that people have full lives and social circles and there wasn’t room for me, or we didn’t click, or whatever.
The message I felt though, which I recognize now was a lie, was that I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t worth being friends with. That I was bad.
That was hard and disappointing, but I could ignore it and move on because I had a dog. Until I didn’t.
I had a small group of friends in grade school with whom I played D&D. They were some of the people I was most comfortable around and I considered my closest friends (in addition to one other with whom I played chess and discussed quantum physics rather than playing D&D). That circle expanded my junior year of high school when I started going to church and converted to Christianity, and then senior year when I brought these two groups–my D&D friends and my church friends–together.
But then the drama started. Boys and girls paired up and became couples, with me on the outside. There were fights and fractures and no reconciliation. Some went away to college or for work and faded away. One broke our friendship for reasons I still don’t understand and then lied to others who wouldn’t speak with me for another decade after that.
All of that was nearly 20 years ago, but I was still hung up on it, so in addition to needing to work through my grief, I began talking about these old friendships with my counselor. Over the years since high school, I would occasionally dream of one or two of these friends, and in the dream we would reconcile and be close and all would be well. I longed for restoration.
Old Friends by Ben Rector made me cry every time I heard it because I knew that I didn’t have any old friends and I could never make them.
A common occurrence in counseling is to voice the thing that would otherwise go unsaid. You get to talking and processing and sometimes crying and suddenly a sentence comes out that catches you off-guard. You’ve never thought about it consciously, but this deeply buried assumption or belief was there and influencing you.
My sentence in this context was that the old friends in question were the family that I chose, and they left me.
Unlike previous experiences with counseling, I haven’t had a major breakthrough when it comes to friendship. There hasn’t been a massive reframing or perspective shift that suddenly made it all better. But two realizations over the last four months have helped me to begin healing, and I suspect that my next session with my counselor will be my last for a while (until I find the next stumbling block to begin working on).
The first was a recommendation from my counselor to practice gratitude. I had told her all these stories about my old friends and the times we spent together, how the friendships formed and how they ended, and she listened to me wonder what I could have done differently and how I felt like I must have been a bad friend. She then suggested that maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself, that maybe I’m actually fine, and that I ought to pray about it and see what God says.
She’s not a Christian Counselor, which is to say she’s not associated with a ministry. But she is a Christian who is a counselor and that helps a lot in moments like these. She pointed me the direction that I needed to go and gave me the nudge that I needed. In prayer and talking and reflection, I felt like her intuition was confirmed. I realized that those old friendships that I dream about and long for… many of them weren’t actually healthy. The language I’ve developed is that some of them were not constructive friendships but rather were destructive friendships.
So I began actively practicing gratitude in the context of both these old friendships and new ones. I focused on the things I was grateful to those kids of 20 years ago for. I thought about the specific traits and actions of people currently in my life for which I was grateful. Spending time practicing gratefulness has been healing.
The second realization came from reading What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon (referenced in my last blog post). Going back to the unconscious belief that often goes unsaid, that these people on whom I was fixated were the family that I chose and they left me, a light bulb came on that:
- I never communicated to them the role that they were playing in my life.
- They never agreed or committed to being family to me.
I had elevated them to a role and was hurt when they didn’t meet my expectations, and that’s both unfair and foolish. Or perhaps “foolish” isn’t the right word and “unwarranted” is better. What I mean is, it doesn’t make sense for me to be hurt by them not fulfilling an obligation that I had neither asked them to fulfill nor which they had said they’d fulfill. No contract, so to speak, was set and thus it’s foolish to be hurt that the contract was “broken.”
My hurt is really rooted in the lack of stability and security I felt as a child and the loneliness that came from isolation. It was part of the environment in which I was raised, and that hurt wasn’t their fault.
By acknowledging and meditating on the parts of our old friendships for which I was grateful and the ways in which those people helped me get through those times and become better, and by realizing that my hurt was misplaced, I found healing.
Now, when I listen to the song Old Friends, I hear it a bit differently. Instead of thinking about those old friendships and what was lost and what, in all actuality, never was, I think about what I have now and how great it is.
I’ve got some good friends now and, no, I’ve never seen their parents’ back porch, but they’ve seen my back porch. I have built a wonderful home and have a great community, and people come and spend time with me and my family. We have built our own space and share it.
There’s no one in this time zone who knows what inline skates I wore, but they know what instruments I play now that I didn’t back then, and they know how I prioritize our kids, and they let me cook them food on my grill.
I can’t make old friends, but really, the me of today is so very different from the me of 20 or 30 years ago that it may not matter. If you took someone who knew me well when I was 10 and dropped them onto my back porch to talk and learn about the me of today, they may not recognize me.
And praise the Lord for that! He has made me well. Slowly but surely, He has been healing me and will continue to heal me. He has redeemed me and will continue to redeem me.
It would be nice if the breaks in our friendships hadn’t happened, but reflecting on all of this and talking with some newer friends about their perspectives and thoughts on friendship has also equipped me to provide better guidance to my kids. I think I can help them form healthier friendships and have a better social and support network than I did. And I can form healthier friendships because I am healthier now.