The radio buzzed in the background when a friendly voice, coming through the airwaves, caught my attention. I paused, briefly, to listen before I turned off the car and rushed to my next appointment, learning that the friendly voice belonged to a children’s songwriter. She said, “This song is about making friends. It’s also a song for grownups; we don’t talk about it enough, but it’s hard for grown-ups to make friends, too.”
At another point in recent weeks, I was in a conversation with the spouse of a best-selling author. We started to talk about what it’s like to be widely known; for people to think they know you because they know your work. The spouse shared that as their partner became more famous, friendships became more difficult, strange.
I was fascinated to hear how the circles of connection changed; how even lifelong friends, assuming they were no longer eligible to be close to the famous author, drifted away. The author became lonelier, their spouse told me, and had to make friends with other famous people instead.
I felt sad to hear about the changes and wondered if grief and loss were felt by the famous author in the situation. I have experienced enough relational shifts in my life to know that, even without the spice of fame brewed into friendship, it doesn’t take much for meaningful friendships to fall apart. It not tough for me to make friends, necessarily, but it’s tough to maintain friendships and navigate shifts.
The modern fractures and frictions found throughout society put stress upon friendships, threatening our connections to each other. We change political and religious beliefs, jobs, schedules and relationship statuses. Any change in life threatens our commitment and availability to others — strangers and friends. Compared to generations in the past, we relocate more. And then there’s the wild influence of the internet: a web of connection that is evolving how we come to know others, share ourselves, relate.
Online or in person, we reach for connection because friendships make us more human; we feel less lonely. And loneliness is a serious public health problem. Isolation impairs our mental and physical health. It may be obvious, but it’s important: the more connected we feel, the more engaged we tend to be in work, school and civic organizations.
The struggle, though, is that once we feel disconnected, the tougher it is for us to engage; the more we need the support of others. In the past, it was provided that we were part of a community simply by geography or association, but now people need to build or seek out community. Despite all the challenges, especially in these modern times, this relational work is a part of the Christian mission.
Yes, making and keeping friends is a struggle, and loneliness contributes to the culture of death, yet Christians are called to share the abundant life we know in Christ. Our guide and model is Jesus himself, who came to be our friend and set us free from anything that oppresses us. (John 15:15) Considering that those who are lonely are more likely to be ill or die early, it’s not an exaggeration to say that genuine friendships save lives. Friends keep people alive.
In 2022 The New York Times published an article entitled “How to Make, and Keep, Friends in Adulthood.” When I read it, I learned that when it comes to adult friendship, assumptions play a big role. It is better to assume that people like you. And it’s better to not assume that our efforts will always feel comfortable; that genuine friendship will always feel good or that friendship will just happen. Our mindsets really matter, and we must be willing to enter into the mess of other people’s lives. We are called to be vulnerable and hopeful at the same time. This is a tough, messy combination that gets easier when you consider the call to share the peace and justice that Jesus Christ established.
There is something timeless, too. We relate to others because we have longings; having friends reveals our humanity, help us know that we belong. We connect even though we may never be totally fulfilled.
In his 2002 book “Eternal echoes: Celtic reflections on our yearning to belong,” John O’Donohue writes, “The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging … The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.”
By God’s designs — by nature — we turn to each other and belong to each other. We need each other. Webs of friendships create community, and the Christian community is meant to offer a sacred shelter of belonging to all. Making friends is another way to love ourselves, our neighbor and our God.