Finding Friends Offline in the Real World
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WHY WE’RE SO LONELY
“You’re not alone in feeling alone,” states author Jennie Allen. A 2019 study she quotes says more than three in five Americans report being chronically lonely. "Two years of a global pandemic have surely expanded and deepened those feelings, as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts are all on the rise," she says.
“Scientists now warn that loneliness is worse for our health than obesity, smoking, lack of access to health care, and physical inactivity,” Jennie cites. Researching history, various cultures, and, of course, the Bible, she found some answers as to why we’re so lonely.
“In nearly every generation since creation began, people lived in small communities, hunting together, cooking together, taking care of their kids together. No locks, no doors. They shared communal fires outdoors and long walks to get water, doing their best to survive day by day. People were rarely alone.”
What’s more, she writes, 80% of the world’s population still exists in small communities or villages. For those who live in the Western world, life is far more about independence.
Jennie explains that’s because of the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism, the self-help ideology of the late twentieth century, which prized personal happiness above all, and the birth of social media in 1997, which isolates people more than it builds real community. She points out that Scripture is replete with admonitions for fellowship, starting in Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Another reason many people are and remain lonely, Jennie explains, is because of two very real, common emotions: pain and shame. Both, she says, cause us to hide our deepest thoughts and feelings from others. “After being burned, backstabbed, lied to, and otherwise betrayed,” one of Jennie’s Instagram followers told her, “I have a hard time trusting anyone … letting them come inside my walls.”
Understandably, pain makes us want to hide, she says, when what we really need to do is share it. “The lesson I’m learning right now is that vulnerability is the soil for intimacy, and what waters intimacy is tears,” she says. “Real, raw, gut-wrenching honesty about the fight that made you want to leave your spouse last night, or the addiction to pornography or sex that is eating you alive, or the abortion you have never shared, or the small stuff that makes you cry.”
As to the shame that comes hand-in-hand with sin and abuse, Jennie calls it one of the enemy’s lies, and that the cost of shame is connection. To deal with the lie, Jennie says we must replace it with the truth of God’s unconditional acceptance of His children, and His promise to cleanse and restore us no matter what.
HOW TO FIND AND DEEPEN FRIENDSHIPS
Jennie’s goal in helping people find and make friends comes down to this: “I want us to trade lonely and isolated lives that experience brief bursts of connectedness for intimately connected lives that know only brief intervals of feeling alone.”
She found in her research that most all people want to have more friends and deeper levels of intimacy, but simply don’t know how to go about it. Through personal experience, she devised a three-step plan to help us with both, right from where we are.
1. Notice who is already right in front of you. These may be people you’ve met through work, church, the neighborhood, gym, the kids’ school, etc. Write down the names of ten people with whom you could see yourself developing a friendship, and pray about them.
2. Put yourself out there. “Be the one who reaches out. Initiate and initiate again. You can’t expect to have friends unless you get good at this. Even though it’s frustrating. Even though it’s awkward.”
3. Start great conversations. “If you aren’t sure how to get past shallow conversations, know that you’re not alone.” Jennie says we can all learn to ask deeper, more intentional questions which give others the opportunity to share themselves. Two examples she offers are “What are you longing for?” and “What’s making you anxious?”
Once we have a community of acquaintances and closer friends around us, Jennie says that we can only maintain an “inner circle” of 3-5 people. For those most important relationships, she advises looking for - and offering others - three primary qualities.
The first: availability. “Look for people who say yes and show up even with kids in tow, even with a messy house, even before they’ve had a chance to shower.”
Second, humility. “Look for people willing to say hard things and receive hard things.” And last, transparency. “Look for someone who refuses to hide, people who will say what’s really going on in their lives. Watch for the ones who will articulate the hard, messy truth rather than a sanitized version that goes down a little easier.”
JENNIE’S OWN STRUGGLE
After moving their family from Austin to Dallas in 2017 to be closer to family, Jennie, her husband, Zac, and their four children had to start all over building new friendships. She says the prospect was daunting. “Not only did I not know where to buy groceries or get a haircut, but I had four kids who each needed friends, doctors, tutors, mentors, people to call their own. I didn’t know where to turn for help. The ache of needing everything and knowing next to no one intensified. I felt sure that we could settle our home in a few days. But would our souls ever settle again?”
The Allens made it their first order of business to find a good church. Then, starting with prayer, they had to put into practice the steps she describes above to “find their people.” Jennie admits that the process not only wasn’t easy, but sometimes painful, and often awkward. Nonetheless, they persevered and God has given them new communities of people to share their lives.
She says the effort is worth it, “because neither you nor I should be trying to make it on our own through this hard thing called life.”
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