This a practical and very honest book about how to be a friend, both to yourself and others, how to keep the friends you have and how to nurture friendships that may be difficult and challenging.
Clare Catford is a media trainer, journalist and broadcaster with a particular interest in faith and mental health. A longer book, entitled Addicted to Love – From Rehab to Heaven? is also published by Darton Longman and Todd Ltd.
64 pp. Darton Longman & Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online go to www.dltbooks.com
The best friendships are kind, warm, intimate, supportive, loving, affectionate, and fun. If they offer so much, why are they often so low on our list of priorities after romantic liaisons and work commitments? Could it be that as I learn to befriend myself, learn to meet my own needs, dare to ask for help, and share my own fears that I will attract and develop more solid friendships and deepen those I may already have? Perhaps this will lead to more loving connections with my parents, my children, my partner or spouse, my neighbours, my work colleagues, my fellow Christian travellers and ultimately with the God of my understanding. Friendship, whatever its shape, whoever it’s with and wherever it manifests itself, is a divine gift.
Looking at the story of God’s connections with us over the centuries, it seems to me, that this divine friendship is available to us personally whoever we are, and wherever we are in life. ‘Ask and it will be given to you: seek and you will find: knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Mt 7:7). I know from my own experience that when I ask for God’s support it doesn’t always seem to be forthcoming. However, the fact that I have had the humility to ask and put my concerns consciously into the spiritual realm, I believe, means I have ventured into another dimension of possibilities. Asking God to walk alongside me in both good and not-so-good times, also helps me to ask for support and help from my human friends.
Asking for that kind of back up from our friends, and from God, can be hard. I was brought up to be self-reliant, and initially believed that showing my vulnerability to others was a sign of weakness. Although this ‘asking’ can be tough to do, it can bring intimacy, acceptance and joy. There is nothing more healing than being able to be ‘heard’ by a friend when we are at our most vulnerable. By acknowledging that I cannot ‘do it’ all on my own, I am creating the possibility of a deeper connection, both with my human friends, and with God too. As a result I have begun to see others’ love for me often revealed by their kindness and regard. I have begun to discover that friendship and faith go together like best buddies. What follows is an honest exploration born of my own friendship ups and downs, of how to be a friend, both to myself and others, how to keep the friends we have, and how to nurture friendships that may be difficult and challenging.
CHAPTER ONE: BEING YOUR OWN BEST MATE
I used to dislike myself. There were ‘bits’ of me that I thought were up to scratch, but the messy stuff, the tears and fears, I mostly kept private. If people knew what I really was like, they wouldn’t love me. Would they? I was never thin enough, pretty enough, clever enough or talented enough. My coping strategy was to be a joker; make ’em laugh, so I could avoid needing to cry. It is often in our earliest years that we learn how to handle difficult emotions. If our parents or carers find it hard to deal with anger, sadness and conflict; then we learn that these feelings are unacceptable. In my family, laughter was allowed, we all have a great sense of humour; but everyone seemed to be frightened of those ‘darker’ feelings. I hoped that if I ignored the pain inside, then it would disappear. Of course it didn’t.
During my student years, I developed an eating disorder; a bizarre form of comfort which later became an addictive way of dealing with all the sadness and anger I felt I could not express. If I let others in on that ‘dark’ side, it would be too much; I would be too much, and I feared I would be left out in the cold. I eventually told my parents about my illness, and, late at night, I heard them trying to get to grips with this revelation. ‘What shall we do? Is it serious? Do we need to call a doctor?’
It took time to understand the roots of this problem, and a long while to let go of the behaviour. I didn’t do it on my own. The shame that I wasn’t ‘normal’ was immense. I had a great deal of therapy and counselling, but the real support came from those who shared and understood this illness, both from within and outside the faith community. Finding a support group, where others struggled in the same way, was the beginning of my recovery; and the start of making friends with myself and of hers.
Being frank with our friends
Honesty and authenticity are supposed to be cornerstones of the Christian experience. It is surprising though, how many of us believe that showing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to other believers will mean they will reject us, because we may have learned that our faith is meant to make us stronger and comfort us in our tougher moments. Perhaps too, we have been let down by so called friends in the past, which makes it even harder to show our true selves to other people. Our faith may make us stronger, and be of comfort but it can also give us the confidence to show our ‘shadow’ side too. Jesus was vulnerable, really vulnerable, with those close to him; so we do have a blueprint for sharing those more intimate aspects of ourselves. I recall meeting a woman at an event I was hosting. I spoke honestly about my own struggles with loneliness and depression. She approached me afterwards and wept. ‘I have told others in my church about how I feel, how much I struggle and how alone I am, and they told me to pray harder for God’s strength, It didn’t work.’ This is a form of punishment. The implication is that it is our fault we feel such pain, and that somehow, if we prayed more and trusted God more, we wouldn’t feel the bad stuff.
When we do not like who we think we are it is very hard to trust our own instincts, and to believe that we can trust others with the deepest longings of our hearts. The wonderfully warm and honest author and theologian, Henri Nouwen, believes, as a result of his own life challenges, that if we can begin to accept our fragility rather than bury it, then we can start to heal and trust others; laying the foundation for nourishing and loving friendships.
Nouwen describes three essential characteristics of the spiritual life. ‘[Firstly] the connection with the self and the acceptance of your own brokenness, I next I the acceptance of the community and a renewed trust in others; [and] the ability to trust oneself and others clears the path to trusting a creator’ (Reaching Out, New York. Doubleday Company. 1975, p. 1).
Self-regard emerges in Luke when Jesus is asked which commandment is the most important. His response, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10:27), although only five words long, underpins all other loving instructions. All the other commandments spring from this. perhaps the more self-regard we have, the less likely we are to hurt ourselves and others. Cherishing ourselves, I believe, is not selfish, it is essential. Our God celebrates us, despite our failings and limitations.
This might appear to be the opposite of what you and I may have picked up from some received Christian teaching. When I was new to faith, in my late teens, I recall a great deal of talk about self-sacrifice, putting others first, and being unselfish. I realise, looking back, that I was struggling with my own self-worth. Anything that appeared to reinforce the fact that I was not ‘good enough’ prompted me to sink further into guilt and self-loathing. Although there appears to be a great deal in the bible about a vengeful God and the penalties we might pay for ‘disobeying’ this kind of divine disciplinarian, all of the ‘rules’ are set in the context of love. All the ‘wrongs’ I may have committed, lying, using others in relationships for my own gratification, wounding others with harsh words and actions and so on, hurt ‘me’ as much as the other. I have discovered that the loving choice for myself, may not be the apparently easy one.
Jesus was constantly faced with difficult decisions, but he managed, with God’s help, to be true to himself, say what he thought, and be completely honest despite the consequences. When I look at his life and his death,although I almost grasp the sacrifices he made, he made a choice; he was not compelled to hide behind a mask of ‘niceness’ in order to gain others’ approval because he feared they might think him selfish. In a sense, he was truly human. He showed his fears as well as his strengths. Strangely, the more open with others I allow myself to be, the more human I become too, and my friendships deepen and become more nourishing and meaningful.
An example of how loving others can be, when we are prepared to be really honest about our own lives, became obvious when I was asked to administer the wine at communion in my church community. I am divorced; and some of my behaviours, I thought, meant I should not even take communion, never mind give it to other-people. When my priest asked me to take on this role, I cried, realising that serving in this way meant that I was forgiven. My priest’s wisdom and kindness, had led, in part to my liberation.
Sometimes, even if we don’t feel we are worth the effort, it helps to act as if we are own best friend. This does not mean ‘making ourselves’ do things for the sake of it; if you struggle with depression, for example, often the best thing you can do is rest and take it easy. However, I have found that by eating well (even when I can’t really be bothered), just taking a walk (even when the idea doesn’t really appeal) and taking myself to see a play or film (even if all my friends are busy, I can still go out!) helps to reinforce the fact that I am worthy of attention and love … from myself. Saying ‘no’ is important too. Turning down commitments, whether they are family obligations, work plans or church and community meetings, in the church community, or at work, can be freeing and loving to ourselves.
CHAPTER TWO: YOU GOTTA FRIEND
It took a long while, before I made, what I now call, REAL friends. I wasn’t exactly ‘Billy no-mates’, but my friendships were based on being what I thought others wanted me to be. After my divorce, all the friends I had, except one, melted away. I don’t believe this was because they didn’t care; but when a couple split, after having many mutual connections, the loneliness and isolation that follow can be excruciating. I sat alone in my new rented flat, unpacking boxes, hoping that the phone would ring. It didn’t. I had been totally focused on work in my 30s; one boss called me the ‘career seeking missile’; I was so proficient at networking but had neglected to make deep friendships outside the office, partly because I did not know how. Work colleagues, supportive though they may be, are not there to provide marital counselling, or hold you when you are in bits after seeing the divorce lawyer. Ironically I had met the friend who stood by me earlier in my career; and her love and support as I stumbled through the aftermath of my split, was unfailing.
I spent time with her and her family some weekends. I began practising honesty; telling her how I was really feeling, and not hiding the depth of my sadness. She did not turn away, and I began to learn that I did not have to wear a mask in order to be accepted. Her children were young and trips to the zoo and nature parks, with pushchairs and nappies, were surprisingly nurturing; messing about with play-doh with my friend’s three-year-old took my mind off my own struggles. You may find that once you take a risk with someone when you are on your uppers, it may lead to a deepening of that friendship. Recently this close friend has begun to explore her own faith – and she is able to share her deepest joys and sorrows with me. I feel extremely privileged.
In the same way that Jesus’ followers broke out of their comfort zones in order to be with him, we can take the same kind of action. This can be frightening and we may get knocked back, but I have found that the rewards are well worth it. It was partly out of desperation that I began to try new ways of making friendships. Contrary to what I had believed, it was by letting others see my vulnerabilities that I began to build deeper relationships. I joined a group where others had experienced similar struggles; namely an eating disorder and all the chaos that prompted.
At first I felt panicked by other group members’ honest expression of their emotions. Anger, tears and resentment, as well as joy, were all brought into the open. Because this was a 12 Step fellowship for those who wanted to recover from addictions, it was also a spiritual programme. This added element deepened my friendships there, and I was moved by how much love I received from others who had no time for formal religion, yet who displayed acceptance and wisdom.
Joining the 12 Step community felt, in part, like coming home. In the past I had been part of organisations where I really felt I was an outsider. I often thought it was because there was something ‘wrong’ with me. Looking back, I think I felt this way, because I tried too hard to fit in and lost bits of myself in the process. Just because the people you know may belong to a particular group, or hold particular views, does not mean you have to do the same. This does not make you or them ‘wrong’, it is just that you may have different needs and yearnings, and listening to those may mean that you decide to go a different way. I had avoided churches after my divorce, and although I am sure I would have made some nurturing connections had I ventured inside a church building, I found very upbeat services out of sync with my own situation.
Each one of us is different in terms of where we feel comfortable and who we feel at ease with. If we think we don’t fit in, it is easy to believe it is our fault, but it may just be that it takes time to find our “tribe’. A wonderful story illustrates this well. Imagine that you are born into a tall blonde family, but you are short and dark. Although you love your relatives, there is always a niggle at the back of your mind that something is not quite right. Whilst travelling the world as in adult, you come across a tribe of short people with dark hair! Then you realise what you have been looking for (Based on a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting The Power of the Wild Woman ( London, Rider-Ebury Publishing, 1992).
It is a fact of life that we connect with some people and not others. If we have a Christian faith we can feel that we ‘should’ love everyone and anyone. Humanly speaking this is simply not possible. There will he some people we like, and others we cannot stand. I know I have spent too long feeling guilty because I find it difficult to love all people equally. The truth is, if I try too hard to love everyone, I end up loving no one adequately, and simply burn myself out by attempting the impossible. We do not have to become best buddies with those with whom we cannot connect; but if we can accept those people as they are, then that is enough. It might be that those people, who we thought had nothing to offer us, end up being close and supportive.
Looking for good mates: what are our motives?
Although it is difficult to admit; I know that I have gone into friendships, because of what they might give me. I call this seeing others as a commodity. It might have been unconscious, but it is similar to shopping. Without loading on the guilt, how many of us ‘shop’ for the ‘right’ kind of friend, in the mistaken belief that they will make us feel better about ourselves because they are ‘successful’, popular and talented. Jesus’ disciples were a dysfunctional lot. Any worldly success they had was left behind as they muddled through their journey alongside the one they had chosen to follow, yet they were the ones he chose to journey with, suffer with, and die for.
Of course it is not ‘wrong’ to enjoy the company of successful people (whatever that means) or be close friends with those to whom society affords status, but if that is our motive, then we can end up lonely and isolated, our friendships based on superficial encounters.
Jesus surrounded himself with those who he knew, despite their limitations, would be supportive and receptive to him and to his message. He also showed respect to the ‘Other’ as well as expressing ‘tough love’ towards those who he felt were limiting themselves and others by their behaviour. The pharisees, and their obsession with legalistic traditions are an example of ‘tough love’; he refused to collude with their rigidity and obsession with ‘doing the right thing’. He was honest and vulnerable. He was not caught up in pride. A pride that prevented him from asking others, and of course God, for help. My own pride, stopped me asking others for support for years. I was brought up to believe that I should always rely on my own resources, and that asking others for support was a sign of weakness. I have learned that real strength is in vulnerability; in the opening up of myself to others and to the God of my understanding.
For many of us living in the modern world, where relatives are spread far and wide, friends become the new family. This new family though, requires nurturing and commitment. Even if we can only manage a ‘phone call or email; staying in touch means the friendship is likely to survive the test of time. I have a wide circle of acquaintances, but a very small group of friends. If I spread myself too thinly, I never have time to move beyond the surface. I hope I am able to support and cherish those friends I have, and I have been moved by their kindness towards me, often when I am in tears and feeling hopeless.