Recently, I was having lunch with some friends when the topic turned to friendship itself. I had been researching the subject for a while, so I threw out an open-ended question: “How important have your best friends been for you?” I was simply doing some informal information gathering. There was a brief silence before people gave the following ideas about friends:
- – They have been safe places where I can be myself.
- – They are a few people I can be comfortable with.
- – They are the ones I go to when I need support.
- – They know and accept all of me.
- – They have walked with me through my marriage and childrearing years.
The answers were all thoughtful and positive—and fairly predictable. They probably represent what any of us would say about our closest friendships. Then one woman, who I had not known for long and who had been silent until this point, said: “I probably wouldn’t be here without them.” I heard something in her voice, so I asked, “You mean, you probably would not be where you are these days in life—that sort of thing?” She looked directly at me. “No. I probably wouldn’t be here. Here here. On earth.” I felt the level of the conversation change, as no one could have predicted that answer. We were in a whole new and deeper arena with that one thought. The speaker, Rachel, was not someone you would think of as being in a crisis or having experienced a great deal of trauma. She was a professional in her mid-forties, married, with two children.
I then asked her to share her story with us. She told us about years of serious and painful struggles: an abusive childhood, a nightmare of a first marriage, and, by far most difficult of all, the death of one of her children. That last event, she said, almost put her under. When I asked how she got through these massive losses, she said, “God and three friends.” God, she said, sustained and guided her through the very dark years. And three friends—three best friends—were there in so many ways: They listened to Rachel. They supported her. They stayed at the hospital during her child’s illness. They let her feel whatever she needed to feel about her life. They lent her money when her job fell through. They drove her to church and to her therapist’s office when she could hardly move. “That’s what I meant about saying that without them, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Rachel told us.
More Vital Than You Can Imagine
I begin with this story because it illustrates a problem we have in our best friendships: the word friends has somehow been robbed of its meaning and power. It has been diluted. Friends, especially best friends, are often explained in a vanilla way, in the same manner you would say, “We just decided to stay in for the evening and watch some reruns.” There is nothing wrong with that, and it can be a good experience.
Likewise, friendships can appear comfortable, safe—and not much more than that. But Rachel does not see it that way, and I agree with her. She sees her best friends as a lifeline. Her three relationships were not simply helpful and encouraging. They were critical. They were a matter of survival.
I think that is more of what friendships should be about: people we go to with our deepest dreams, needs, and questions, and who are lifelines to us. People who bring us life.
As I work with people and organizations, I have noticed several reasons that the power and meaning of friendships have been diluted in our present-day experience. One is that many people are simply isolated in the first place and, though they want more close relationships, they’ve learned to live without them. They may have trust issues or painful past relationships, but whatever the reason, they are lonely even though they are surrounded by people.
Others are simply not aware of their deeper need. In their experience, it is enough to have pleasant and positive conversations with others and not much more. They feel bad for people who struggle, but have not experienced “dark night of the soul” seasons, or seasons of great celebration for that matter, that would drive them to share with others. Some people don’t possess the required skills and abilities to deepen a relationship.
Still others put their friendship energy almost exclusively into the opposite sex, either in dating or marriage, and have difficulty experiencing high levels of need for nonromantic friends. They are stuck in a couple’s world, which can exclude the idea of best friends. In addition, some people have difficulty opening up to anyone but their close family members. Nonfamily friends just do not make it into the circle. There are other reasons, but however it plays out, friendships—especially best friendships—don’t bring to us what they were intended to bring.
Jesus saw friends as central in a way that we often miss. He told his disciples that he was going to stop calling them his servants and change things:
“Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
He was making a distinction between two types of relationships: servants and friends are very different.
You give a directive to a servant. But you bring a friend into your confidence.
At lunch, you tell the waiter you’d like a refill on your coffee, and he does it. But you tell a friend that you need that refill because you didn’t get a lot of sleep last night with a sick child at home. You make known to your friend what is going on in your life.
In addition, at the end of Jesus’ life, during his time of deep trouble and distress while he was praying at Gethsemane, Jesus asked his three closest friends—Peter, James, and John—to keep watch with him (Mark 14:32–34). Imagine God himself asking three friends to support him! It seems so dependent of Jesus, so “unspiritual.” The stereotype is that he should have only looked to his heavenly Father for support.
But the reality is that Jesus modeled a need for both divine and human connections. I think most of us are missing out in our best friendships in these ways. We are more on the safe side, not the Rachel side, of things. And I hope that this book will help you to get the most out of what is available to you. Because when you have a few real best friends, and you know what to do with them, life can be significantly better, fuller, and richer.
We often don’t have time or energy to make many BFs in life, so it’s good to know how to make them count. (And when people say, “I have lots of best friends,” it is the sign of someone who is not familiar with true and deep relationships.) There are many examples of famous best friendships, both in history and currently: David and Jonathan. Roosevelt and Churchill. Lewis and Tolkien. Sinatra and Martin. Damon and Affleck. Oprah and Gayle. We have a fascination with the dynamics of these relationships, partially because the people are well known, and partially because we want long-lasting and safe relationships like these.
Unused Potential Most of us aren’t experiencing the highest level of good that is available from our friendships. You may find a great deal of warmth, understanding, encouragement, and shared life experiences in your best friendships. But I believe that for most of us, there can be much more richness, growth, and fulfillment as well. Think about all the important areas of your life, and how you are intentional about growth and improvement:
- – The gym for your body
- – Church for your spiritual life
- – Training for your career
- – Marriage seminars for you and your spouse
- – Parenting workshops for your family
- – Financial training for your money
- – Classes for your sports and hobbies
However, we don’t tend to pay a great deal of attention to being more intentional about our friendships. We aren’t prone to focus on our best friends and on making those relationships even better. Think for a moment about those few special people on your BF list and ask yourself these two questions:
1. If this relationship is a good one, would it be worth the exploration to make it a great one? If you like the person and are drawn to her, why not? You are BFs for a reason. There is good you are both experiencing today as you walk through life. Why not more and better?
2. Are there specific areas of life in which my best friends and I could do better for each other? Some friendships tend to be “specialty” relationships. That is, the energy stays on parenting, marriage, or dating, and doesn’t delve into physical health, family of origin, spiritual values, or finances. While each BF does have its area of specialty, there may be untapped help available in your relationship.
I have experienced the “problem of potential” in my own friendships and have seen great results in applying the principles I’ve learned. I had lunch recently with a close friend, where we told each other that we were important to each other in specific ways. It was something I think we both were aware of, but had never been clear about. We each left the conversation with a deep sense of “This person is a lifer for me.”
The very talk we had helped us use more of the potential in the relationship. The closest thing to this kind of thinking is in the romantic sphere of life—marriage and dating—where there is a lot of good research and helpful principles for creating intimacy, communication, and depth within those relationships. While the romantic world should certainly also offer you a close friendship, that is only one person. The friendship world should consist of several people and ideally include your partner.
Excerpt taken from “How to be a Friend Forever – Making and Keeping Lifetime Relationships” by Dr. John Townsend.