Friendly or Friend?
Want to die young? If so I have just the answer for you. And it doesn’t involve smoking, drinking, over-eating, or driving too fast on an icy road. If you want to leave life on this planet at an earlier than necessary age do one thing. Live an isolated life. Yes you read that right. Become a loner.
As Dr. Richard Schwartz, author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, has observed in his research, “Beginning in the 1980’s study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right.”
He goes on to observe, “Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.” Yet you are unlikely to ever see a public health notice on loneliness; no ads on network TV or your local talk radio station speak of this “public health” problem. At least not on the same level as the hysteria surrounding “climate change.”
Perhaps even more shocking is the noticeable lack of discussion on this topic in our churches. Churches often describe themselves as “friendly” although I’m not quite sure what they mean by that word. I am confident of this reality, however.
The average person in our churches, especially middle-aged men, are every bit as lonely as their secular counter parts. If you don’t believe me just ask.
Now that is not to say that people don’t have a large number of acquaintances. Most of us do, either at work, at church or in our neighborhood. Acquaintances, however, are not the same as friends. I have lots of acquaintances. I’m sure you do as well. When I start listing people who I would call “friend” the numbers decline quite dramatically, however. In fact there is research to suggest that the average middle-aged American male has no more than one close friend and many have no one they can call a friend. By any measure that is a sad reality.
Yet we were made for this thing called friendship. As beings created in the image of God we were built for relationship. As Augustine observed, “In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them.” In reality I don’t think most of us undervalue friendship but I do think that life in general and certainly life in the modern world makes it difficult for most of us to engage in the kind of activity that is essential to the development and maintenance of real friendships.
So, what can we do about this growing epidemic of loneliness? Here are some brief thoughts.
Quit Pretending and Admit the Obvious Reality
First of all, we’ve got to acknowledge that there is a problem – personally and within the church as well. As Billy Baker, a columnist for the Boston Globe admitted in his article on the topic, The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness, “I’m hesitant to say I’m lonely, though I’m clearly a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship even if all signs point to the contrary.”
Let me suggest a simple way to review your current “friendship” status. Just ask the following question: “If I was to experience a major crisis and needed help who, beyond my spouse or other close family members, would I call?” If you struggle to think of someone then you probably have a friend deficit.
Begin Building Bridges
If you discover a “friend deficit” then ask another question: “At this present time is there anyone with whom you do enjoy spending time that is more acquaintance than friend.” If you are like me I suspect that there would be several names that come to mind. So what could you do with that reality?
There are two things I love to do, read and play golf. So, I began thinking of ways I could leverage those activities to build a friendship bridge? As an example I began playing golf with a professional colleague who lives in Colorado Springs. Over the last three or four years those occasional rounds of golf have become more frequent. We have much in common and enjoy our conversations. That has led to the periodic lunch or dinner dates with our wives and so our relationship has deepened beyond just acquaintance.
The same thing has happened recently with a young man in our home group at church. And here’s the deal, especially if you are a guy, most men are ready to jump at the opportunity to do something they enjoy doing. Find that common thing, whether its golf, hunting, fishing, racket ball, baseball, or taking trips to interesting places, and invite someone to join you in that activity. I suspect you will find a lot of people willing to take you up on your invitation. That goes for both men and women.
Don’t Wait For the Other Guy (or Gal)
Doing just that, waiting on the other person, is one of my fall back positions. Contrary to public perception I am not the most out going, warm person in the world. I’m a bit slow (boy, is that an understatement) to step out. Linda is much more likely to greet a stranger than I am. If you wait for an invitation you will likely be waiting for a long time.
By the way this tends to become more difficult as you get older, especially as your children leave home. The reason for that is simple. More than anything else our kids connect us to other people. It’s the one thing a lot of people, especially in the church, have in common. With kids out of the picture we’ve got to look more diligently for something we have in common with others around us.
Don’t Confuse On Line Relationships with Genuine Relationships.
FaceBook may be a great way to stay in touch with acquaintances. It is insufficient soil in which to plant a lasting friendship. “We find ourselves,” observes Robert Bellah, “not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face-to-face, side-by-side with others in work, love and learning (and I would add in worship). We are part of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price.” Forget that at your peril.
Don’t Expect a Positive Response Every Time
Let’s face it. We just don’t hit it off with everyone. Nor does everyone hit it off with us. It may be hard to accept that there are people who don’t particularly like us for some reason. Believe it, but don’t let that reality deter you from trying to make connections.
It is also good to remember as Derek Kidner observes that “Proverbs itself is emphatic that a few close friends are better than a host of acquaintances, and stand in a class by themselves. Our Lord’s relationship with the “beloved disciple” endorses the point.” Our goal must never be to collect friends in the same way we might collect coins or postage stamps. Genuine friendship requires more than a smile and a “How are you today?” Make sure you are ready for that commitment.
I close with this one thought. I know, without a doubt, that I could not be doing the work to which God called me without real friends, some of whom have prayed for me and for Linda, and some who have been generous in giving over the years in support of my efforts to help Christian schools and school leaders. Thank you!
In His grace,