Every so often, someone says something to me that demands my contemplation. Sometimes it’s the most innocent of questions in passing conversation and sometimes it’s a direct criticism. Most of the time these quips are simply seen as growing opportunities. Then there are those remarks that nag at you — Jonathan Haidt’s “elephant”. They stir emotions that seem irrational, but there they are, a bur in your sock. Irrational as they may be, it demands your attention and won’t let you alone until you’ve dealt with it.
Such was the case a few days ago when someone asked me, “Do you have a lot of friends?”. Given the right conversation this would have been an innocent enough question and even one that gave way to a deeper meaning about what a friend is and isn’t. I, however, insecurely bristled and indignantly offered, “Yeah”, as if to imply “Doesn’t everyone have a plethora of friends?”.
The look on asker’s face said they weren’t convinced and I quickly tried to double down by sadly offering, “You know…as you get older…get married, have kids…it’s hard to find time to hang out with people and stay connected.” It was sad indeed. The truth was out. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I wasn’t buying it. I wanted to believe that I did have a lot of friends…that everyone likes me.
Later that day, to prove it to myself I opened three Chrome tabs and quickly scrolled through my meager 200 friends on Facebook, scrolled through my Google contacts, checked my Linkedin page, and even tried to think of a handful of people who weren’t on any of those. “Yeah, I have enough friends,” I convinced myself. My “yeah” wasn’t so indignant now and “enough friends” replaced “a lot friends“. I closed my three tabs as some sort of personal resolve even as that sinking feeling called loneliness formed in my stomach.
The funny thing about stomach feelings is they don’t go away easily. They just sit there, waiting to be dealt with, to be fed. Whether it’s love, depression, loneliness, or sorrow; it will growl at you and remind you it’s still there, unresolved, needing your attention.
The next day, I reopened my three tabs and methodically scrolled through the list of friends. I tried to think of the last time I talked with them on the phone or in person. I tried to think of the last time I sent them a meaningful message that didn’t include, “lol (laughing out loud)”, “sys (see you soon)”, “ttyl (talk to you later)”, or a broken promise of “let’s get together soon.” When was the last time we hung out? When was the last time we did something together? That we shared an adventure? That we shared a laugh? That we did something stupid together? That you came by my house? That we shared a meal together? That we cried together? Two years, five years, ten years,….fifteen years? I quickly closed my tabs and went back to work. A lump formed in my throat as I offered myself, “You have a few good friends.”
Loneliness said “hi” the next morning and I reopened those same three taunting tabs. I scrolled though my lists of strangers stopping at each one asking, “Could I name ten things about this person that they like?”, “Apart from what they post, do I know how they are really doing?”, “Do I know what’s going on in their life?”, “Do I even know their favorite color?”, “Do they know anything about me?”. Save for a few people, I could have been looking at anyone’s social strangers list and answered the questions exactly the same, “No, no, no, no, and no.”
I sat there in disbelief for a few moments. From my social strangers list, I had a grand total of about ten friends. My elephant’s rider quickly kicked in high gear consoling myself with things like, “You don’t live in your home town where all your friends are at”, “You’ve moved around a lot lately”, “You have a kid and wife”, “You’re a business owner”, “You…..”. The excuses drowned out as that feeling of loneliness dug deeper.
How could this be? Until someone asked me that damned question, I felt loved. I felt like people liked me. I felt like I had a lot of friends. I felt like I was a friend.
So who are my friends? Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.” I think this is often understood as dying for someone. I would venture to say this means giving up everything — your stuff, your desires, your wants, your priorities — for the people you call friends.
So, who are the people in my life I know the most about? Who are the people I spend the most time with? Who are the people I’m making sacrifices for? Who are the people I’m helping? Who are the people I desire to know deeper?
It’s the people I see every day, every week, and every month. My barber, a few people at church, a couple colleagues, my barista and regulars at the local Starbucks, the homeless guy on my walk home. These are my friends. Maybe they don’t consider me a friend. That’s okay. Because it’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s about my love for them.
So if you are lonely, come find me at Starbucks, I’ll be your friend.