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Entries in Friendship (7)


It isn't a matter of "can" we be friends . . . 

Over the summer, I skimmed parts of Aimee Byrd's book Why Can't We Be Friends? I had other reading which was more pressing, so I didn't spend long on it. Sometime when I am able, I wouldn't mind re-visiting the book after I've had more time to think about the question. 

Of course men and women can be friends. But all friendships need boundaries, both with men and women. And sometimes, we tend to assume that female friendships don't need boundaries.

Many years ago, I was friends with a woman at my church who has since moved away. At the time, I did not see it, but it was one of the most toxic friendships I ever had the misfortune of being in. It started at a very vulnerable time for me. We had just moved here, and my husband mentioned to her in passing how much I was struggling with being away from my family and friends. Over the years, it was the source of more angst than it was worth. She was hot and cold. She simultaneously sought me out and pushed me away. I never knew what kind of reception I would get when I saw her at church. I thought I had done something wrong. I turned myself inside and out trying to be the perfect friend.

When I began to see what was happening, confronting her was not an option. Call display meant that if she didn't want to talk to me, she simply ignored my calls; and she did that frequently. When we began using email, that was even easier to ignore. She would avoid me at church, or worse, freeze me out when I spoke to her. After about six years, I'd had enough. She moved away, making it easier to simply end things. After she was gone, I discovered that I was not the only woman who had struggled with her.

This was not entirely her fault. I had not put up proper boundaries with her. In my desire to have friendship, I had allowed her to cross boundaries that other friends would never have been allowed to do. The Church sometimes puts so much pressure on us women to have these perfect, wonderful friendships with other women that we don't think about boundaries. If we are not out shopping with our friends, having coffee and chocolate (I prefer potato chips and I hate shopping) we're not doing it right. I have come to see that perfect friendships of any kind only exist on television.

It has been my experience that my friendships with men never unfold in such an acrimonious way because going into them, I know that because I am married, there are boundaries. This is not something my husband and I have sat down and outlined; it's just something that has developed over 32 years of marriage. I have many male friends at seminary, but they are not like the kind of friendships I have with women, and that's not a bad thing. Men and women frequently differ in the way they conduct their friendships, anyway, so it makes sense for them to look different. And that includes the ones with our siblings. I love my brothers, but there are things that I wouldn't confide to them, because frankly, they would be embarrassed, and I would rather spare them that. The only man in my life who is going to be on the receiving end of my intimate expressions is my husband. Even the relationships with my sons differ from that between me and my daughter. Boundaries with our adult children are necessary, too.

All friendships need boundaries. Boundaries represent a desire to respect the other person. When it comes to male friendships, of course we can be friends. But they do require boundaries. When it comes to women, with the tendency to ignore boundaries, I am thinking that the question is less "are we allowed" to be friends and more of "are we able." That's a book I'd read.


Does Anne Shirley give us unreasonable expectations?

In Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley declares her intention to be Diana Barry's "bosom friend" forever. And in the context of all of the books, that happens. Even in the volume Anne's House of Dreams, we see Diana and Anne as adults chatting as Anne prepares to marry. Diana has called her newborn "small Anne Cordelia." Later, Anne calls her twin daughters "Anne and Diana." There is no record of a squabble or misunderstanding between the two women.

Even in all of Anne's other friendships with women, she is the perfect friend. Everyone loves Anne. In the book Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne has to win over a crusty colleague, and of course, she does. She is able to win the love of everyone she meets.

Growing up, I read those volumes over and over again. I expected that I, too, would find a "bosom friend." And of course, that has really never happened. Montgomery, herself, was well-liked. She was charming and winsome, and people liked to talk to her. But she did not have perfect relationships. The woman she was closest to, her cousin Frederica, died in 1919 of the flu. And her journals are filled with words expressing her feeling if isolation and loneliness.

Christian women are encouraged to have those "bosom friend" situations; to have close sisters in Christ. That has really not been the case for me. One of the most toxic friendships I have ever had was with a fellow Christian woman. There are women I've gone to church with for more than twent years who are good friends to everyone, but I share no close connection with any one woman in particular. I came into the church when many friendships had long been established, and I was a bit of an outsider.

To be completely honest, the only woman I feel like I can be completely myself with and trust with personal details is my daughter. And in recent months, I have come to see that I have not given my trust to many people. Instances when I have opened up a little only to have the individual freeze me out later have made me even more reluctant. One friend has become cool toward me since I began seminary. Asking what I have done wrong is met with a painfully polite, "Nothing at all." And yet the coolness remains. My mind thinks "You are not a safe person." And I let it go.

The reality is that friendships are not perfect. We are not perfect with one another. It takes forgiveness and a willingness to be offended. We have to overlook things. And we have to put an effort into the friendship. If I sense that I'm doing all of the initiating, I do ask myself if the friendships is actually what I believed it to be. And it's okay if we're not best friends with everyone. It's not necessary to have a "best friend." If we do, we should consider it a gift. God has his reasons for establishing us in his circumstances. Sometimes, we need reminders that our sufficiency is in Christ, not in human relationships. Even the best relationships are no substitute for what we have in Christ. He does not let us down, cool toward us, or betray us.

While the existence of perfect friendships is engaging in a book, the truth is that relationships are not easy, and if we are not Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, we're not the only ones.


Changing our expectations of female friendships

Female friendship is something I have given a lot of thought to. My first very good friend was a boy, and I grew up with three older brothers. I had more male cousins than female cousins. In my middle school years, I was a tomboy, but I had female friends. That changed dramatically in 8th grade. I did have one or two good friends, but after I left Alberta in 1982, where I left the only close female friend I had in high school, I never really had many female friends until I became a mother.

In the past couple of months Tim Challies has linked articles about female friendships. The first was called When There is Unexplained Distance in a Friendship, and the other Lonely For a Friend? Here's One Thing That Might Help.

They got me thinking.

When I moved here in 1996, I did not want to be here. I had, for the first time, a good female friend, and I was sad to leave her. I found myself in sizeable church, but extremely lonely. Yes, part of it was my fault. I tried to fit in with the women, however, but it was not easy moving into a new church where one's mother-in-law is one of the most beloved members of the congregation. Everyone just assumed that she was taking care of me. And sometimes, friendship circles can be exclusive. I'll never forget attempting to join a group of women at prayer meeting (why must women and men pray separately? I'll never understand that) and being told that their circle was full, and I should join a different one.

I had my children, and I focused on them. But I was still very lonely. I observed the close female friendships, some which had lasted for many years, and wondered what was wrong with me. I reached a point where I prayed to God and said, "Lord, I don't have any friends, but I have my family and I have you, and if you want that to be enough, that's fine with me." And it was. And I did make a few friends, but something even better began: deeper study in God's Word. That was really when I began to study seriously.

One of the things that I did wrong was looking at other friendships, and I think that is a temptation we all face. Friendships between women on the cover of Christian magazines and advertisements for women's events may be real for some women. There are some women who have a circle of female friends and they tell each other their burdens, and they go on holidays together, and attend each other's dinner parties. But that is not everyone's experience. I think somewhere in there the idea that being more outgoing is more spiritual has convinced some of us that unless we have a circle of Christian girlfriends, we're failing somehow. In all honesty, being friends with women is rather frightening to me at times, and attending events designed for women leaves me anxious.

A couple of weeks ago, D.A. Carson was at my school speaking, and there were 500 people there. At the most, there were 50 women there. I felt less fear walking into a room of hundreds of men than a group of 30 women. When there are men there, there is no expectation that I must mingle and make a new BFF. I can just sit and be quiet and wait. And in a lovely turn of events, another woman saw me sitting alone and joined me, and lo and behold, I found out she knew my husband's grandmother. 

Part of me struggles to trust women. I have had a few bad experiences, and yes, that is something I need to get over. But at the same time, I don't think every woman has to have a large circle of female friends. I need to focus on the women God has placed in my life, regardless of age and circumstance, and without any thought of what is in it for me. Quite simply, I've been reminded to live out the truth that one must first be a good friend. One of the articles I linked above echoes those sentiments.

I cannot help but wonder if we're expecting too much. Compared to women even 75 years ago, we have so much time on our hands, and filling them with friends is a natural desire. But if we aren't traveling with an entourage of female friends, and are content with one or two, I think that's okay. And although people tell me that my husband can't really be my best friend, I'm afraid he is.

This past week, I was showered with love and care from three ladies at my church who brought food. Two of them arranged for me to be picked up and driven home from a hair appointment I'd had scheduled. We are good friends. I don't see my friends a lot. They are busy women, with aging parents, adult children, and jobs. To expect me to be the centre of their world is unreasonable. I'm learning to change my expectations of female friendships. And the changes, as cliché  as it sounds, start with my own attitude.


Be in touch with your mortality

Today is the second anniversary of the death of my husband's friend. They went to high school together, and were each other's best man when they married. He was a firefighter, but he did not die as a result of his work. He died from a heart attack at the age of 53, leaving behind three kids and a wife.

When he died, my husband grieved, of course. This was his friend, after all. And it hits close to home when a friend dies. This is the first of our friends to die, and as I attended the funeral, I thought to myself that there would only be more occasions such as this.

Over the past number of months, I have thought a lot about death. There are people in my local church who are sick, some with very serious, and ultimately, terminal consequences. There are some younger people suffering. With the good health that we enjoy here in North America, we tend to see death as something for older people. My next door neighbour is 91 years old, and still mowing his own law, albeit, not with nearly as much precision as he used to. Sometimes, it doesn't make sense that my neighbour lives so long, yet my friend is a widow at such a young age. But that is just how life works. God has his reasons for calling some home earlier than others. That sounds trite, but it is true.

It's crucial that we be aware of our mortality. Sometimes, when we're young we don't live like we're going to die. And it's not just teenagers who think they're immortal. Even older people, married with children, can live that way. When we live with the knowledge that this life is temporary, it ought to dictate how we live while God gives us breath.

There are days when I wonder what would have happened if instead of staying home full-time with my children I had juggled both career and family. There are days when I think to myself that I haven't done so many things I wanted to. I had occasion to be working with a younger woman, and she was a little too conscious of the fact that despite me being almost 20 years older, she was directing me. It was actually a little condescending. She had achieved more of a career than I ever will, and was a mother at the same time. I found myself feeling kind of bad about myself. 

On days like today, though, when I see what my friend remembers about her husband, and what I remember about her husband, it isn't the career he had that stands out. It was the man he was. He was a godly husband and father. He was a good friend. He cared about people. He loved his family. I assume he was a well-liked employee judging from presence of other firefighters at the funeral, and the testimony of his co-workers. But the kind of firefighter he was depended on the man he was; he was a humble, godly man.

We chase after a lot of things. Sometimes they're good things. But sometimes, we're chasing shadows, and don't even see it because we don't have a proper perspective on what we're doing here and where we're going. People who have experienced physical suffering or watched a loved one die young have this figured out, but for those of us who haven't experienced death in that way, it takes a little longer.

As I have been reading a few books this summer, many common themes have dovetailed: the kingdom of God, the pursuit of holiness, the sovereignty of God, the sufficiency of Christ, the need for daily interaction with God's Word. These are the things we should be chasing. They're right there for us to grasp a hold of. Those are the things that will endure, regardless of any other achievements. Everything else is secondary.


A book or a girlfriend?

A number of years ago, I recommended a book to someone. It was by J.I. Packer. I really loved it, so felt free to recommend it. The person to whom I recommended it did not like it. When I asked why, the response was that it wasn't "friendly" enough. When I asked for clarification, she answered, "I want to read a book by someone who if I met in real life we'd be friends." I was a little surprised at that response, but I have often seen that she is not the only one who shares that sentiment. And many of the books for women by women seem to want to offer that.

I recently picked up a book (which shall remain nameless) directed to women. I got about three chapters into and became bored. There is nothing wrong with the content, really. I just don't like the folksy presentation. The writer writes as if she's having a conversation with a friend. I kept waiting for an "Isn't that right, girlfriend?" to pop up in the text. 

Now, if you like that kind of book, that is just fine. I don't. I like well-written books and I like books whose writers are eloquent, but I don't really care for books where the writer acts as if she knows me and we're friends. I don't expect to be friends with the author, and if we never meet or are never friends, I'm okay with that. Many of my favourite writers are dead, so I have no expectation of meeting them. And if I saw one of my favourite living authors in an airport somewhere, I would not run over and introduce myself. I don't do that kind of thing. In some cases, I am indeed friends with someone who wrote a book, and that's a real blessing. But I knew her before she was an author, and would have been her friend even if she hadn't written a great book.

This leaves me to wonder if one of the reasons why Christian women buy so many books (good or bad alike) is because they're looking for friendship in a book. Are we actually looking more for a personal connection as opposed to understanding? Are we too busy to foster friendships, or reluctant to ask our pastor, a friend, or our husbands for counsel? So we turn to a book?

The past month I have struggled with sleep and a few other health issues. I've done my share of online searches to get counsel. Yesterday, because of the lack of sleep, I felt drained and discouraged. I could feel anxiety pressing in on me. I finally told myself after lunch to get off the internet. Instead, I sought the counsel of a real, live, in the flesh friend. And she, in love, gave me the best counsel I could ever want. 

I know this woman. I've worked with her, served with her, prayed with her, laughed with her, and wept with her. While getting counsel from books is great, I sometimes wonder if we aren't looking for too much in their pages. How many personal struggles could we keep to ourselves, never talking to anyone about them because we can just read books about them? How often do these books we read to get counsel from prevent us from searching the Scriptures ourselves? Or pray about the matter?  I wish some enterprising sociologist would write a book about the reading habits of Christian women. I'd read it.

I like books. I like good books. But I'm not concerned about getting a buddy out of every reading experience. A book can be a good friend, but there's nothing like a living friend.