I can recall, with nearly perfect clarity, the first time I experienced a broken relationship. The scene unfolded on a kindergarten playground. My friend approached me at the beginning of recess and said something witty like; “I’m not your friend anymore. I saw you talking to so-and-so. I’ll never talk to you again.” Apparently, I was only allowed to communicate with her, a rule nobody mentioned on the first day of class. She walked away and I cried. The sting of that loss was unlike anything I had known prior.
Relationships are tender and tricky beasts. We need them and our hearts ache in their absence, but the protocol for establishing and maintaining them is often less than clear. Occasionally, problems arise due to the actions of one person, as seen above; but often, both parties are involved in the fallout. Many of us have experienced the pain of being ostracized within a group of people, but when that situation repeats itself in new contexts, we have to ask ourselves if there might be a pattern to our story. Perhaps it is time to stop listing the reasons other have let us down, and instead give an honest appraisal of our own contributions.
Like many eager young twenty-something’s bouncing out of campus ministry, I found the adult social world to be painfully frustrating. My expectation for friends who would pour out their hearts over coffee for hours on end was met with something much more practical and labor intensive. I quickly grew disappointed and lonely. It was not until I adjusted my expectations that I was able to intentionally invest in relationships that were life giving. When we narrow our definition of community to a single mold that once worked well, we limit our opportunities for meaningful friendships. We begin to spin a cycle of faulty accusations toward others, blaming them for our struggles to connect…
“They aren’t like me.”
“They don’t understand me.”
“They don’t call me.”
“They aren’t as serious as me.”
“They aren’t as fun as me.”
“They let me down.”
“The problem is with them. Not me.”
They are not perfect, and neither are we.Their need for grace is as desperate as ours. They cannot be everything in one person…and they might look different than friends from the past. If we are not willing to look beyond those differences and accept responsibility for issues we may bring to the table, we can’t complain about the outcome.
Do you have trouble finding community? Nothing happens in vacuum and those around you may certainly contribute to that difficulty, but ask yourself, “What role have I played?” “What attitudes or expectations might I need to reevaluate?” As you process these questions, keep in mind the following…
Don’t wait for them to come to you. Not only will this lead to disappointment, but the relationships you do form will likely be centered (at least in your own mind) around what you can get out of it. In other words, it will be about you. Taking ownership over our social lives involves a measure of risk, but ultimately leads to greater rewards. If you aren’t already involved in your church, start by doing two things this week: join a small group AND volunteer to help somewhere. Can’t find a group that meets when you are available? Start one! Not sure where you can serve? Ask someone where they need help! Plan a dinner. Organize a hiking trip. Set-up a play date with other moms. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Strike up a conversation and organize a gathering today!
Stick it out. Did you go to that game night and leave fifteen minutes in? Do you duck out of the service during the closing song each week? My challenge to you is to pick a group, service, or event and stick it out. Commit a given period of time to try something new. Make an agreement with yourself to go (and stay) three times. If it still isn’t working for you after that, be proud of yourself for trying and keep looking!
Don’t ask one person to be everything. If you are waiting for the friend who will meet every need, you might be in for a long wait. Most of us will not find this in one person. Instead, we will find a variety of people bringing different gifts to the table. Some will make us laugh. Some will challenge us. Some will stretch our patience. Some will help us clean our homes. Together, they make up our community.
Set reasonable expectations that are full of grace. Have you ever watched a person drive relationship after relationship into the ground because everyone was always “letting them down”? Friendships will end when one of the two parties is consistently selfish, unkind or inconsiderate; but if all our relationships eventually deteriorate in this way, it probably says more about us than it does about them. Friends are friends. They are not our spouses…and more importantly, they are not Jesus. Begin from a place of healthy boundaries and expectations, and extend waves of grace when disappointments come (Matthew 6:12).
Take it where you can find it. As a college student, I was discipled by a woman who met with me every week. Naturally, I longed for a duplicate experience in the post-college world. After years of searching and coming up dry, I have learned to embrace and appreciate the scattered moments where older, wiser women speak into my life. If our “ideal” picture of community cannot be found, perhaps it is because we need to readjust what we are looking for. Embrace the unexpected moments that come along by being present and grateful.
Step away from the unhealthy. There may be seasons when we perpetuate the problem by not distancing ourselves from community that is consistently unhealthy. Lovingly creating space to meet new people may open opportunities for relationships we did not know we could find.
We are the common denominators in our relationships, and we bring with us a set of expectations and judgments that shape our point of view. Laying them down and reexamining their truthfulness allows us to embrace relationships for what they are – messy, beautiful, imperfect, and continuously different than what we imagined.
Cara Joyner spends her days chasing a toddler, nursing an infant, starting cups of coffee she rarely has time to finish and thinking about how much she needs to clean her house. Years of working in ministry and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology have led her to graduate school, where she is working towards a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. While waiting to finish grad school, she is working as a professional birth doula and freelance writer. Cara writes about family, health, faith and intentional living at www.carajoyner.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.