We met for tea on the second day of the Lunar New Year. I had known both of them for more than forty years.
Faces more lined, hair more gray, but in so many ways we were the same boys who knew each other in primary (elementary) school.
But here we were in our 50s’ excitedly sharing the most recent life lessons learnt, testing plans and perceptions, laughing at jokes old and new, drawing life and strength from each other. Old friends. As we parted we silently articulated hopes that we would do this again next year and quietly hoped that we would meet up more often than that.
Forty years and more meant that our lives were inextricably bound together in so many ways. They were there through the seasons of life — single, married, children, career, midlife decisions and the unexpected twists in our journies that no one could have foreseen. In the darkest moments of our lives we turned to each other. We turned to our friends.
Along the way each of us had made the friendship of Christ and so not only were we friends, we were friends in Christ. Therefore this was a friendship that would continue beyond this life. Here was comfort indeed as we began to come to terms with our mortality.
We had seen each other at our best and at our worst. True friends accept one another and create safe spaces for each other to work through the struggles of life. Where needed we spoke what we believed to be true and right but always couched in language that said “I am here for you.”
As I look at my own evolution as a friend I see that it is also an indicator of my growth as a human being. When I began my friendship with these and other friends, I was selfish, consumed with my own agendas, poor in my ability to emphatise with others.
Growing older is to grow in the realisation that one has so far yet to go. But if I am a better friend today than forty years ago it is evidence of God’s grace at work in my life.
Too much literature on human development focuses on the growth of individuals in isolation. More and more I realise that who we really are and how far we have really grown can only be seen in how we relate to others.
Tom Rath points out in his book Vital Friends (New York: Gallup Press, 2006):
“The majority of courses, professional development programs, and books highlight how to improve yourself. You take courses in grade school to improve your own ability to read, write, add, and subtract. Then as you progress through the educational system you have the opportunity to spend more time educating yourself in areas you choose. When you enter the workforce, you might get the chance to add to your base of knowledge by participating in training and development programs designed to make you a better individual employee.”(p. 17)
In contrast to this highly individualistic approach to life, Rath points out that:
“Friendships add significant value to our marriages, families, work, and lives. At some level, everything we see and feel is the product of a personal relationship. Look around you and see if you can identify anything created in true isolation. After pondering this for a few moments, you might notice how dependent we are on connections with other people. Remove relationships from the equation, and everything disappears.” (p.16)
If friendships are so important to life it is ironic that: “During our teenage years, we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time we spend with friends is less than 10%.” (Rath, p.22)
The duties of adulthood mean we no longer have the same discretionary time that we enjoyed in our adolescence. Nevertheless if friendship and personal relationships are so vital to our well being and our humanity, we would be wise to invest time to intentionally cultivate and nurture friendship in our families, churches and offices and in our other social networks. Truly it is not good for human-kind to be alone (Genesis 2:18).
In a world that is changing rapidly, consumed by a Darwinian globalisation that makes us competitors, a world increasingly defined by technologies that isolate us more and more, perhaps the most counter-cultural decision we can make is to put a high premium on friendship.
It might just save our lives.