Over the past year I have spent a certain amount of energy in thinking about friendship. For whatever reason I have thought about the question of who my friends are probably more than I really need to. I know that others also ask this question: a facebook friend posted his status some time ago as “I’m finding out who my real friends are”; so here are some ideas that have surrounded the exercise, but without consideration of who my real friends are. (That question is one that does not belong in any public space!)
First thought: I was at a conference last February where one of the presenters described an idea behind the way that some emerging churches in Australia structure their lives: Everyone needs three circles of friends – a work circle, a community circle, and a church circle. These three circles are, of course, in addition to one’s own family circle. As I reflect on my own processing, I realize that I tend to overemphasize one or other of these circles. I sometimes try to load the whole of my friendship needs on to church, or on to work, or on to community (i.e., those people in my life who fit together as my friends, but are not part of my church family or my work group).
Friendship circles, especially in the individualized West, are usually not strong enough to bear the whole weight of any one person’s friendship needs. Therefore I need to nurture each one in its place and not call on any one circle to bear the whole load of friendship needs. Socializing with co-workers, involvement in a care group at church, and participation in interest-based groups all work together to supplement the foundation of care received from one’s own family circle.
Obviously for each person the blending of these three circles will be different, and there will be overlap as some people are found in one or two or all three of these circles. But the basic point remains: we lean on each other in ways that fit the respective places in which our friendship lives.
Second thought: We all bear responsibility for reaching out to others for our own friendship needs, and for inviting others into our circle for their benefit. Personality plays a huge part in this process: some reach out naturally, almost instinctively, while others struggle to reach out at all. Some need many people in their circles; some need three or four and find more than that stifling or draining. But in one way or another, we are all responsible both for ourselves and for each other.
I have experienced this dynamic in different places more than once. I find it relatively easy to reach out to others, but more than once I have stood on the edge of a new group wondering how to join in. I have been the one needing to be invited. I have also been the one looking at someone who wants to join a circle and speaking words of welcome while showing with my body language that the newcomer is not welcome. Of course, the newcomer reads the unspoken message and moves off soon enough.
Why do we sometimes close ranks like that? I can speak only for myself. I know that sometimes I think the newcomer is boring. Sometimes I think that he/she will get in the way of another friendship I want to nurture. Sometimes I’m judgmental. Sometimes I just want to be left alone. Since no one can be open to every one else all of the time, some sort of selection must go on. Friendship circles cannot be infinitely open, or they lose their ability to support and nurture those in them, and they lose their meaning.
But if they are simply closed, they become cliques, potentially destructive, whether at work or in the church, or in our communities. C. S. Lewis has written about the effect of the “Inner Ring”, the circle of people who are in the know and who wield an unhealthy influence in society. Somewhere between the infinitely open and the destructively closed, we need a balance in our friendship circles, inviting others in and yet remaining a healthy size. As one who has moved often, I see the difficulties inherent in maintaining such a balance.
Third thought: Friendship is one of the basic ways in which we love each other. Jesus often referred to his disciples as, “my friends”. Alongside the incredible love of God (agape) and the wonderful intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage (eros) stands simple friendship (philia). (One can add familial love or affection – storge – as Lewis does in The Four Loves.) Friendship is a basic way in which we discover God’s presence and in which we become fully disciples of God’s Son, Messiah Jesus.
That is, I believe, why we need more than one friendship circle: we mediate God to each other daily in the way that we treat each other – if we do so in genuine and caring friendship. To lack friendship, then, also means to be deprived of the full blessing of God’s presence in this world. God has made us so: that we mediate him to each other through our friendship.
Obviously this mediation occurs at different levels: with one person the friendship will be more on the surface, and with another more deep and full of meaning. Yet in every case it is truly God’s Spirit flowing through the bonds of friendship.
I wish I knew fully what I am trying to describe; but after almost 60 years of life on this earth, I know only that I need friends with every fibre of my being, and that I need to give friendship as deeply as I need to receive it.