Aristotle said, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”
Based on years of medical and psychological research, we know that friendships are vital for well-being. Science increasingly demonstrates that we are hardwired to connect. The quality of our friends and our ability to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships contributes to long-term success in every other area of our lives.
Before the foundation of the world, our God was in relationships with Himself. Likewise, He designed us to be in relationship with Him and with others. The fact that He created us as male and female, that He chose 12 disciples, that three of them were his best friends, that He formed the church as a community of believers—are just a few of the many indicators that He didn’t design us to live in isolation, to be self-sufficient and an island unto ourselves. God designed us for relationships, to be a friend and to have friends.
What do real friends look like? In the workshops I’ve led on friendships, some of the most frequently mentioned characteristics include: there for the long haul, empathetic, ready to walk a mile in your shoes, generous with their time and their ears, ready to laugh even at your not-very-funny jokes. They’re also emotionally available, truthful, reliable, faithful and dependable, willing to set aside their opinion to understand yours, “speak the truth in love,” to disagree with you at times, laugh when you laugh and weep when you weep, show up even when they have no idea what to say, take some emotional risks and look for opportunities to encourage.
Someone once said that the best way to have a friend is to be a friend. What are some of the characteristics you’d like in a friend? Make a list of them. Now ask yourself this question: “How many of these characteristics do I have?” If there are any you are a little short on, you can make a choice to dig in and start to work on those areas.
The hardest step for the lonely person to take is the first step. Sitting around in your room and feeling fearful and sad and focusing on the negative “What if’s?” is not going to change anything. Don’t ignore your feelings, but take your eyes off yourself and your perceived limitations and, with God’s help, focus on what you CAN do. What might a simple “first step” look like?
Read Andrew Carnegie’s must-read classic “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” Even better would be for you to sign up for PSY 2123, the Psychology of Relationship Development class, to learn practical and proven skills that will increase your confidence, your competence and impact your personal and professional relationships for a lifetime.
Expand your areas of interest. Many chronically lonely people have allowed themselves to become boring and one-dimensional. Do you have any hobbies? Are there any sports you’d be willing to try? Do you have a relational tool-kit? Do you understand what makes for good communication? Do you have good listening skills? How good are you at showing interest in others by asking good questions?
The fact is that we are hard-wired for relationships and good relationships don’t just happen. When you risk expanding your circle of friends, you’ll make some mistakes, you might be hurt, let down, disappointed, discouraged and even betrayed somewhere along the way.Welcome to the real world.
The good news is that with God’s help you’ll learn and grow from each experience and, like the Velveteen Rabbit, you will become even more “real.”
You’ll learn how to listen, understand, live, love, laugh, relate, share, collaborate, deepen, overcome fears, mature, grow, be happier, healthier and probably live a lot longer. You’ll become more than you ever imagined. You’ll make a difference you never thought possible.
Your years here at JBU present you with a unique God-given opportunity to grow in one of the most important areas of your life. You can cultivate deep and meaningful friendships. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen. So what will your next step be?
Oliver is the director of the Center for Healthy Relationships. He can be reached at GOliver@jbu.edu.