A few months into my freshman year of college, I found Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and for the first time in a long time, I felt at home in a community of peers. Making friends was easy. Vulnerability? No problem! Coffee and retreats and breakfast meetings at 11:00 a.m.? Perfect!
If this was an introduction to adult relationships, then I was all in. High school had clearly been holding me in, because adult life was going to be glorious.
Like many others though, I have found relationships on this side of college to a bit more challenging. An extrovert by nature, meeting people has never been the issue, but building something beyond the surface has been hard, at best. Avoidance sometimes feels like the best available strategy. Wouldn’t it be easier if we just didn’t have to deal with the people part of community?
In Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron, the story’s narrator has a conversation with a Fransican friar, in which the friar explains that he was once a teacher and then a hermit. Early into his days of isolation though, he says, “the Lord Jesus told me that being a hermit was too easy.”
He was right. Avoidance—or maybe just the distance we create by staying screen to screen instead of face of face—is too easy. We were never called to the easy, comfortable life.
The last decade of showing up and being awkward and feeling left out and regretting what I said and wishing I could start over has taught me that my early-college ideals were not going to cut it in the difficult day to day of ordinary relationships.
I turned 30 this month—and I’m still a kid in more ways than one—but as I step into a new season, I’m bringing along a little more understanding of people and how we all get along.
You Are the Common Thread Running Through Each of Your Relationships
My one-word lesson of the last 10 years is this: ownership. It is the thing I didn’t know that I didn’t have when I turned 20, but people could only disappoint me so many times before I had to address the expectations, predispositions and unhealthy behavior patterns I was bringing to the table.
“It’s not me, it’s them.” It’s the lie that keeps us from the community we long for. If you want people to know what you need, you have to tell them. If everyone fails to hit the mark of how you define a good friend, the problem may have less to do with them and more to do with your expectations. If every boss or supervisor is “unreasonable” in the same way, what else might that communicate?
Introduce yourself. Start a group. Sign up to serve with new people. Take initiative. Be gracious. Be generous.
If you are the common thread running through your relationships, how can you foster healthier community in 2016?
Relationships Are Made Stronger by Hard Times More Often Than Good Ones
Somewhere between the age of 20 and the age of 30, I stopped defining my relationships exclusively by their highlights—the deep conversations and the great nights out—and I started defining them more by the dents and the scars and the marks earned through struggle.
People will never meet our expectations, especially if we are comparing them to someone we knew in an isolated capsule of time—like college. History has shown that my expectations have a tendency to obstruct my vision. They keep me from seeing the practical expressions of love all around me, like the friends helping my husband and me move when I was too sick to do it myself, bringing us food the day we lost a baby girl in miscarriage, or watching our kids so I could be with my grandfather before he died.
In 10 short years, I have witnessed friends get married, divorced and fight back from the edge of walking away. Most of us have said goodbye to at least one baby, while others have pressed through the pain of infertility. Homes swallowed by foreclosure, grief over the death of a parent, mental illness that threatened to take away life itself—each aching milestone acts like a fire that refines and strengthens. The trivial pieces burn away and what is left has a bit less shine, but a lot more power.
It Takes Time
Shauna Niequest wrote, “Vulnerability happens when you’re brave and start first, and when you hold a safe space and wait, when you log enough hours over time to create something really durable for that truth to tumble out onto, in a big, lovely, rich mess.”
We are not a generation that loves the long investment. We like the idea of friendships that span decades, but we don’t always like sticking it out once we’re bored, annoyed or disillusioned.
Good relationships take years of time. Years of showing up and being awkward and pushing through and coming back. Nothing great is built overnight. Those middle years of working it out together build stability by creating the space for real growth, like roots pushing deep into the ground.
I used to think my people would simply “feel” like my people, like some sort of tribe I knew I was supposed to be in. Now I think my people are the people I’ve made a conscious decision to stick it out with. We don’t always understand each other and we don’t always know how to relate to or support the other, but we are linking arms anyhow, because we know we weren’t made to spin through life on our own.
I wonder how many mornings Jesus wanted to hide and how many days He resisted the temptation to isolate Himself, because He knew how much we needed His life. We didn’t need to just hear about it. We needed to experience it.
If we want to imitate Christ, we have to live in the throes of people and all that comes with them.
It’s true that smaller circles and less face-to-face engagement would be easier, but we were never called to the easy life. We were called to something wider, borders we can only reach when attached and committed to others—the ones we love effortlessly and the ones with whom love is taxing.
So here’s to nudging us all out a little further in 2016—letting go of what’s easy to take hold of something richer.