This morning I chuckled when I found a bookmark my friend Jill had given me for my birthday last year. It says, “I looked hot yesterday. You missed out.” When she gave it to me, she’d laughed and said, “It sounded like something you’d say.” And she said it without any kind of passive aggressive under-tone. She was just pointing out that I might say something like that (I would), and she would have enjoyed it.
When she gave it to me, I felt like she liked me, which sometimes feels even better than being loved.
I’ve been writing and speaking about friendship for almost ten years now. I write about safety and authenticity. What it means to be honest, how to be honest carefully, and how to choose who can handle your honesty. I talk about accountability and Biblical encouragement. About toxic behavior and manipulation. I talk about friendship as a tool of spiritual growth.
But one of the things I don’t talk about enough is that our friends should like us. They should enjoy us. We should bring them delight. And they should bring it to us.
When I forget that, even my best friendships lose their savor. And I start believing I have to work hard and act perfectly to keep them.
I have several close friends that I really enjoy being with because they are charming and fun, and I have ease in their presence. In normal times, Josie and I like to get our toes done and wander through Ikea, drink coffee and help each other with home decorating tasks. Jenni and I like to shop for plants, buy hot outfits and go out for brunch. Jodi and I watch “This Is Us” together, and I talk too much during the show, but she can go back and watch it in peace the next day by herself because she has TIVO, so she allows it. And I let her make fun of me about it, which she enjoys.
But this year, my friends and I couldn’t do a lot of those things, so our friendships became a little more transactional, in the sense that we were acting more like each other’s free untrained therapists and less like playmates. And I’m not sure how they felt about this (I’ll probably ask them today), but I felt much more insecure about myself as a friend after a while.
I’d hang up and think, “Did I say the right thing? Was I comforting enough? Did I ask the right questions? Did I make them feel better or worse?”
In September 2020, I wrote an article saying that – miraculously -- I was not feeling lonely. (You can read it here.) But by January, things had changed. When the loneliness finally kicked in, it wasn’t because I wasn’t known or understood. It was because I didn’t have the joy of just being with people and being sure that they wanted to be with me. This happened not only because of pandemic restrictions but because my four favorite people got really busy this year – one went back to school, one got a promotion, one has ailing parents she cares for, and one started a life-coaching business and a podcast.
I heard a podcast recently in which the guest talked about all the physical cues we get from being in people’s physical presence, cues that actually trigger neurotransmitters in our brain. They put us at ease and signal to us that we belong. This doesn’t happen on Zoom or over the phone. The podcaster suggested that we make up for this by telling our friends regularly, “I still really like you. I want to be on the phone with you right now.” I’ve been doing that regularly and it helps a little. (I just asked a couple of them yesterday if they could please say it back.)
And then last week, the Atlantic posted an article called, “The Best Friends Can Do Nothing for You” by Arthur C. Brooks. (Read it here.) Brooks wrote about the difference between real friends and “deal friends.” Deal friends are helpful and expedient – and this isn’t necessarily negative. It’s great to have neighbors who can help watch your dogs and a co-worker who can carpool, and to be friendly with each. But a real friend is someone who knows and enjoys you just for you.
Brooks writes, “One of the great paradoxes of love is that our most transcendental need is for people who, in a worldly sense, we do not need at all. If you are lucky, and work toward deepening your relationships, you’ll soon find that you have a real friend or two to whom you can pay the highest compliment: “I don’t need you—I simply love you.”
Some action steps to take:
If you're not enjoying all your friends right now, don't panic. We are all so cranky and worn out that it's hard to enjoy anything. That's probably the problem, so don't make any sudden moves.
If you’re lonely, go be with in friends' presence even if you can’t do it in all the ways you normally would (and even if you still feel cranky). One of them might be looking hot; you don't want to miss it. More so, you don't want to keep missing out on the good brain chemistry magic that says, “People like to be in my presence.” Wear your mask or sit outside, but do what you have to do to get some eye contact.
And finally: Sit in God’s presence. It’s the best place I know to remind yourself that you are loved, accepted and delighted in, just as you are. This is, in fact, the most foundational thing I teach about friendships, and why the first lesson in my new series is called “If Jesus Loves Me, You Can Too.” Because God’s love has taught me that being perfect and being lovable are not connected. And when I feel the healing, covering presence of his love for me, I can more easily receive it from humans.
Go forth, and be loved today, my friends.