“I don’t have any friends.” she said with an awkward laugh, the kind of laugh you give when something is just painfully true enough but you aren’t entirely ready to accept the truth of it yet. The sentence was also immediately untrue as well because we were both sitting at a wedding reception of someone we both love immensely, so automatically you can probably count the bride as a friend. Plus, you know, she was talking to me, someone she had met way back in the fifth grade, so I’m her friend. But despite these automatic rebuttals to her statement, I knew EXACTLY what she meant and I nodded along with her.
I hear that sentence and I say that sentence way more than I thought I would ten years ago. And it fluctuates from being completely untrue and completely true, sometimes in the same week. And I think its because of this: we’re getting old.
I recently spent six hours alone in an airport waiting for a return flight home…because I am cheap and when I booked my flight months earlier, this long layover saved me $60…which I probably spent in that airport on take out BBQ and Cinnabon, but whatever. Six hours is a long time, especially when you have read all the books you brought (or maybe deemed one of them completely useless and chucked it back into your bag), the Wifi is just a joke and you are lugging around two bags that are becoming heavier with each step you take as you wander around, trying to look purposeful and important because everyone else around you seems to be very important and full of purpose. I can’t remember the last time I had six hours of uninterrupted time that I didn’t chock full with Hulu or social media or phone conversations or to do lists. It was an odd experience. I had a lot of time to think and listen to podcasts. I downloaded an old episode of This American Life simply entitled, “Middle School” thinking it was poetically ironic seeing as how the reason I was sitting in an airport and had time to listen to it was because I was returning from the wedding of a dear friend I had met in middle school.
It’s a great episode and it made me laugh and cringe and even tear up a little bit because middle schoolers are just learning how to mask their emotions but they aren’t too practiced with it yet, so what they are really feeling still eeks through their tough and macho bravado. One kid in particular made a statement that caused my bored wandering eyes to stop for a minute and probably stare way too uncomfortably at a stranger who didn’t realize I was just trying to listen very intently and not perform mind control on them. The kid said something to the affect that in elementary school friends are easy. You walk up to any kid on the playground and ask them if they want to play or join in on whatever game they have going on and bam! Instant friend. But in middle school, the game changes. Suddenly the clothes you are wearing become a divide or the music you listen to or the neighborhood you live in. These subtle facts about your life become the dividing lines around the lunchroom. And in the course of one summer you go from having a zillion friends on the playground to a few close friends at the lunch table. (Interestingly enough, I also learned from this episode that something weird happens to our brains during this time of adolescence that gives us a remarkable capacity to retain the most random of skills and relationships. This explains why you still remember that one piano piece you had to practice over and over again in the eighth grade for that one recital and why I was sitting in an airport returning home from the wedding of a friend I made in the seventh grade.)
As I sat there in an almost empty terminal, turning the words of this youngster over and over in my head, I suddenly realized that another factor that I couldn’t control in my friendships wasn’t only the amount of time that I get with them, or the amount of physical space that separates us, it was good ol’ Father Time marching on. With each step forward in life, my friend circle has been slowly diminishing, from a playground full in elementary school to a couple of lunch tables in middle and high school, to a few carfuls in college to a small group size in early adulthood to where I am now, a precious handful, mostly scattered around the country and squeezed in between the “I’m hungry’s” and “He hit me’s” of our kids.
This revelation had me all at once feeling relieved and powerless. I was relieved because I had started to think maybe I was just too rough, too difficult to get along with (this, by the way, does have some truth to it, but that’s for another airport revelation). I had thought maybe it was me. But even my friend’s confession the day before had reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this feeling of isolation. But my relief was cut short by a feeling of overwhelming helplessness that I am getting older (duh) and it would appear that if time truly teaches us anything, my already small palmful of friends was about to only fit in a thimble.
But. BUT. Here’s the thing that has been turning in my head for months now and I only bought it to the surface while sitting in an uncomfortable chair with my feet propped up on my luggage: I can see proof around me that this does not have to be my fate.
At first when I would catch glimpses of real adults with real kids having real community I would assume it was a fluke. They were just lucky. But then I started looking closer and realized they worked hard to keep those friendships alive. And as luck would have it, one of those books that I had brought along with me that I had not deemed useless, had just dedicated two whole chapters to this idea of adult community. It was possible! And then jealousy and envy came crashing over me. It wasn’t fair! I wanted that! I deserve that too! Why can’t I have it? Why can’t I get in that club? And as I sat in that airport facing my envious demons, I started connecting some dots.
Recently I was asked to contribute something to our church’s bi-annual magazine (this is not a big deal, but yes, grandma, I will send you a copy). At first I jumped at the chance but when I was told that the theme was “Community” my heart sank, my eyes rolled and I shrunk back thinking that I have nothing worthy at this stage of my life to contribute about community that wouldn’t depress people or, more likely, anger them. But I chatted it through with Greg and decided to take it on. My topic is about the 12 disciples and how they were quite the unlikely community…um…and that’s as far as I’ve gotten so any ideas on that send them my way!
Twelve men, with maybe some things in common, like profession or in some cases actual blood, but with a whole lot of personality separating them, probably sat gathered together for that first time, giving each other the side-eye and thinking, “THESE are the guys Jesus has stuck me with?”
The setting in which we make our friends changes as we get older. A playground. A lunchroom. An apartment. A classroom. A board room. A play group (ironically a playground again). A living room. A conference room. The setting changes, the purpose of gathering changes but one thing remains true. We are thrust into community every day, in every stage of life. The question becomes what will we choose for ourselves? Isolation and the lie that we are alone in a roomful of strangers? Or will we, will I, choose to embrace the women and men that Jesus has put me in a room with? Time should also teach us that when 12 men gather together in a room for the first time, they (and the world) might just walk away changed.