Sipping my tea, I stared out the window at the homes of my as-yet-unknown neighbors. My recent marriage had moved me from Chicago to a small town in the middle of Washington state. Although I had the companionship of my husband, I yearned to spend time with my female friends.
Picking up the mail, I came across a letter from my good friend Judy and eagerly tore it open. Reading her cheerful words, my spirits lifted. Good friends will do that for you, regardless of the distance! But I realized that if I was going to be happy in my new home, I needed to make some friends nearby, too.
Psychologists have suggested that our "circle of friends" is actually a triangle. At the base are the estimated 500 to 2,500 acquaintances we make each year from contacts through leisure, work, and religious activities. Some of these move to the middle as our 20 to 100 "core friends" whom we know by first name and see more regularly. Finally, one to seven "intimate friends" emerge at the top. These are the people who "stick closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24) and share our joys and sorrows.
In recent years, psychologists have amassed evidence that suggests friends affect our physical and emotional health:
- Of several thousand residents of Alameda County, California, studied for more than a decade, those with good support systems were two to five times more apt to outlive those with fewer social ties.
- Pregnant women under stress were three times more likely to have complications if they lacked a support system.
- Healthy elderly people with close interpersonal relationships had a stronger immune system and lower levels of cholesterol and uric acid.
The benefits of friendships go deeper than lab tests, however. Friends answer our needs for acceptance, encouragement, and role models. That's why each time I move, I know I need to make the effort to find new friends. In opening myself up to others, I risk rejection—but friends are worth that risk. I've found that the rewards of friendship include the following.
I met Peggy at a church-sponsored aerobics class we both took to relieve stress. When the leader moved away, Peggy and I admitted to each other that we lacked motivation to continue alone. So, we decided to have our own class—just the two of us—at times that fit our erratic schedules.
There's nothing like the agony of leg-lifts to cut through pretense. As we laughed together, we released the carefree part of each other. We grew to understand each other's sense of humor, delighting in sharing cartoons and making outrageous cards.
Then came one of my forty something birthdays—one I thought would predictably pass with cake and ice cream for family dessert.
But Peggy had other ideas. On my birthday morning, she kidnapped me to a park, set a table with candles and china, popped a birthday hat on me, and ceremoniously served up breakfast. As joggers sprinted by our silly private party, I felt special.
Proverbs 17:22 says, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." As we face life's challenges and changes, it makes good sense to surround ourselves with cheerful companions. Having fun with friends helps keep us emotionally health!
Our car bumps down the road when its tires are out of alignment. And I find that I bump uncomfortably down life's road when my perspective needs realigning—a job I'd trust only to a good friend.
Sometimes that realignment comes unbeckoned, but not unwarranted. "Wounds from a friend can be trusted," says Proverbs 27:6. Friends are willing to be painfully honest when necessary.
My friend May Jo, a former co-worker and widow, had a daughter come out of the hippie culture unwed and pregnant. As I watched Mary Jo mature through that difficult experience, my respect for her grew.
Then the tables turned. My parents died six months apart when I was 31 and still single. Recently unemployed and faced with the overwhelming task of closing out their home, my self-esteem plummeted. One day, Mary Jo called with a short job I could do for her on a free-lance basis.
"I can't do it," I complained. "I'm just not good anymore."
Seeing to the heart of my discouragement, she responded, "I know you're hurting, but you've got to move on. Remember Nehemiah 8:10, 'The joy of the Lord is your strength." I hung up, admonished—but helped. I decided to take the assignment, and it turned out well. With one success behind me, I gained enough confidence to go forward.
Other times, the realignment is subtle. Some friends are quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). But their lives speak volumes.
I was as irritable as a cat petted backwards over one relationship problem. When I described my problem to Georgia, a friend whose interpersonal skills I respected, I saw my own blind spots in the situation.
"As iron sharpens iron," says Proverbs 27:17, "so one man sharpens another." Friends can invigorate us, pushing us out of our comfort zones.
I'd never met Libby before we were assigned as roommates in graduate housing. But/ soon discovered her heart for urban ministries.
As our friendship grew, she helped me face my middle-class, small-town fear of Chicago. A nondriver, Libby took me with her on subways and buses that threaded through the inner city. She introduced me to nontraditional churches, food co-ops, and economical cooking. To this day, I don't make my own granola without thinking of her.
Several years later, my friend Sandy stroked my feeble interest in sewing as we chatted over bolts of material at a fabric store. As she heaped an arm with knits, I remarked how I wished I could sew tee-shirts for my own children.
Her eyes wide, she exclaimed, "You wouldn't believe how easy they are!" There in the store aisle, she gave me a mini-lesson in sewing knits. I've sewn hundreds since.
Friendship is rooted deeper when we share anything we hav e—money, possessions, time, skill—to help another.
I saw that played out the year after my parents died. Pam, a single nurse, used an afternoon off work to help me paint as I readied my parents' home for sale. Ruth, my mother's friend, became my friend, too, as she cried with me, helped me price items for the garage sales, and included me in many family meals. Judy, a former roommate now married to a seminary student, took a bus 150 miles to help me sort through my parents' clothes.
When I started speaking at women's retreats, I had one baby, another on the way, and very little time to prepare my talks. Then Terry, from my Bible study, offered to care for my infant son for a few hours to free me up to study. With the gift of her time, I was able to finish outlines I'd struggled on for weeks. Terry felt good for helping—and I felt good for being helped!
Another friend sometimes brought dinner on nights struggled under a writing deadline. "I don't know how I can thank you," I' d say as she dropped off a casserole. I had my chance when she broke her foot and was on crutches for three months. Tuesday mornings, I showed up at her door as "Huldah the Housecleaner" and declared, "You can't trust just anybody to wash your underwear!"
In the New Testament, Barnabas modeled nurturing when he took the apostle Paul and John Mark under his spiritual wing. He invested in others' lives because he was "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (Acts 11:24). Our friends should include a mentor—one whose spiritual walk is several blocks beyond ours.
I was a new Christian, feeling very vulnerable, when I started my first job away from home and began church-shopping. At one church, a widowed nurse with a sharp eye for newcomers invited me home for dinner. Although she was 50 years older than me, I felt comfortable with her.
As I complained about the local laundrornat, she invited me to use her washer and dryer. That developed into a standing Friday night date of "leftovers and laundry" for which we both emptied our refrigerators. To compensate for water and electricity, I left money in a piggy bank I bought for her laundry room. But because of her spiritual investment in my life, I'm the one who emerged richer.
As the washer chugged away and we downed leftover spaghetti, she'd field my questions from her well-used Bible. Sometimes, she'd simply share a pearl gleaned from her devotions, askingme for the same. That inspired me to keep reading my Bible and growing spiritually! And she prayed for me, even after I moved away.
Friendship is a two-way street. Sometimes, the traffic seems heavier one way as we absorb the benefits of friendship. But it will even out as we're deployed to befriend others.
That was the case with Aileen, a single career woman I knew casually from church. I heard that Aileen was pregnant and alone. Busy with two babies of my own, I could have left her needs to others. But I remembered how many times others reached out to me when it was "inconvenient."
Aileen accepted my offer to be her coach in childbirth classes and the delivery room. As I shared her burden, our friendship deepened. Our relationship reminded me of the verse by American poet Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
Aileen's lonely pregnancy made her feel excluded from others.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
My friendship nourished Aileen with love and ca're. She kept her baby, forged a new life, and has since begun a ministry of friendship to other single moms.
Seventeenth century English poet John Donne declared, "No man is an island, entire of itself." Life's transitions tend to make us feel emotionally isolated. But all around us are other people seeking friends, too. If we reach out to them, they can become part of our circle of friends.
Scripture texts are from the New International Version.