A soul friend

The contents of my "care package" from my buddy, Beth...

The contents of my “care package” from my buddy, Beth…

I get excited as November unfolds. The feeling originates from a number of sources, one of them being Thanksgiving episodes on television. Friends particularly mastered the art of the Thanksgiving stories, in that it understood the core of what brings us joy – relationships. One feels compelled to spend Christmas with family, whether or not that is an enjoyable time. Yet, Thanksgiving is about being with the people we love the most, legal ties or not.

As vital as the building of a friendship is to the meaning of our lives, it is also one of the most elusive aspects of our lives. Any number of us can name acquaintances, but a true friend – that’s something different. I remember a sociology class from college that espoused most friendships are based on proximity. I wanted to argue with the research. (And I think I did, actually.) Yet, the fact remains that it’s easier to be friends with someone we see on a regular basis than someone who lives far away. And if we are closely connected to someone at a great distance, there have to be some very strong ties that keep us bound together. Social media and technology can only do so much in maintaining a true friendship and not just a mere acquaintance.

My friends are important to me. I try to invest time, provide support, graciously receive help, and find times for just having fun. We all know that many friendships will fade over the years, and others will end more dramatically and  harmfully. That’s life. Yet, in spite of the impact life will have on our relationships, I do believe that we have true soul friends in this world.

I am not talking about the ridiculous Hollywood, romantic comedy idea of a soulmate. That is baloney. No one is incomplete without that one perfect person to complete them. A soul friend is an ancient concept from Celtic spirituality – anamcara, to be more precise. To find an anamcara is to find someone who will travel the journey with you, wherever it goes, and truly comprehend your soul. It is someone who supports during the darkest times, and holds accountable when we are really messing up. It is unconditional love and grace. (And by the way, someone should marry a soul friend.)

I am so grateful for my dear friends, especially the few I know to be soul friends. Even if not understanding my life’s journey, they still walked with me, and helped carry me when I stumbled. This past weekend was a bit of challenge for me emotionally, and in the midst of that challenge, my dear friend Beth unexpectedly sent me a care package (just like the ones I sent to my college kids earlier in the week). The picture above reveals the contents – some goodies from Trader Joe’s, and a beautiful infinity scarf with words from Pride and Prejudice, our favorite book. We live hours apart, and life is too full to talk or visit as much as we would like, but knowing that she is with me in spirit certainly lifts my soul.

Here is to finding and developing your own soul friends!

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.”

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.” I was only half listening to the author being interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition, but that one statement echoed throughout my small car. I repeated the phrase a couple times before asking my daughter to find a slip of paper and write down the sentence. I continued driving to church while Ava graciously recorded the statement. I listened more closely and soon discovered the author was Lawrence Osborne, promoting his new book The Ballad of a Small Player. I admittedly have not read anything by this British writer, but his insight spoke to me, especially as we were heading to weekly communal worship.

Humanity certainly has been afflicted throughout history. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the problems – violence, disease, fear, greed, discrimination, hatred. Each of these things is prevalent in the world today, but I believe Osborne is correct in his assessment. Loneliness is the greatest of all the ills facing our world today. The irony is that we are more exposed, more connected than ever before. Through the internet, and social media in particular, we oftentimes end up sharing far more of ourselves than is perhaps a good idea. We have hundreds of “friends,” place our every unfiltered thought on twitter, and post selfies of every size, shape and sensitivity multiple times a day. We create an interesting timeline of our lives, encouraging people to know how #blessed we are or sharing our outrage over poor customer service at the local store.

Yet, in the midst of this extreme lack of privacy, we are lonely. A recent study by the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness is dangerous for one’s health even, placing a person more at risk than poverty. During my years of working with college students, I know that isolation (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges. The teen and young adult suicide rate continues to increase. If one feels completely alone, the pain is often so great that death seems the only escape.

There are a number of reasons I attend church (and not just because I’m a minister). One of the primary reasons is for the community. God calls us to be in relationship, and we know God most clearly when we are connected with others. It is when two or three are gathered together that God is present. Even when we are not in the physical presence of another, knowing that we are connected with someone else in spirit holds a great power – a great power of grace.

Community doesn’t always need to be found in religious or spiritual organizations. That is obviously an easy place to combat loneliness and isolation, but we can create community with others in very powerful ways. Friends can oftentimes become closer than family. Our co-workers and neighbors can provide support and understanding in ways we can’t always imagine. To heal the great affliction of our age, we are called to connect with others. Social media is a great way to enhance relationships which are already present. It’s not a substitute for doing the deep face to face work required in friendships. Connection is not just about time – it’s also about quality. We must risk ourselves and that which is at the heart of who we are, so that others can truly know us and we can truly know them. That’s scary to do. Revealing ourselves is not always received as we would like, but when it is received with grace and love, it has the greatest power in the world.

Your Friends Are So Nice

“Your friends are so nice, Mom.” The words alone sounded like a compliment, but the tone from my teenage son definitely gave it a different meaning.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. We sat beside each other on the first bench seat of my parents’ van, my parents in the front while my daughter and husband relaxed in the back. Late afternoon sunlight filled the car, as Dad drove along a two lane mountain road back to their house. A pleasant afternoon had been spent at the 50th anniversary reception for my oldest friend’s parents. The little church fellowship hall overflowed with food, pictures, family and well-wishers. My kids regularly see my dear friend, Sandra, and her family, but other childhood friends were present as well. These now middle-aged women were excited to meet my two teens, hear about their joys and dreams in life, and retell old stories for their entertainment.

 “Well, mom, I mean, they were just really sweet. It’s kinda hard to imagine those were your best friends growing up.”

 “Thanks for the compliment, buddy.” I responded with a fair amount of sarcasm.

 “Hey, don’t pick on my little girl,” my own mother chimed in with a laugh. “She’s very nice, too.”

 “Mom, you know what I mean,” Caleb added quickly. “It’s just – you know – they are really nice.”

 “And I’m not?” I bestowed a look that dared him to contradict me.

 “That’s not what I mean. But you know you can be critical.”

 “They haven’t been raising you, buddy.” The rest of the car’s inhabitants joined in the humor, as my poor boy smirked with chagrin.  “I know. I’m not as nice as they are. I can’t really explain why they wanted to be my friends – why we were all so close.”

 “Now, Amy,” Mom added. “You are as nice as they are. I just didn’t go around telling your faults to other people.”

 “Well, thanks for that, Mom.” I grinned, as Caleb continued to defend himself. In the weeks that followed that day, and in reflection on my son’s comments, I have pondered how I grew up with a very nice bunch of girls – girls who always had kind words for others, who never saw the bad in someone else, who worked hard, who loved their families, girls who were loyal and true friends. I realize my own family of origin modeled this for me. It didn’t mean we were blind to the faults of others. But it did mean that we showed grace and kindness in the face of others’ faults, because none of us were perfect. I thought about how great my friends looked physically – in the midst of their 40s – and realized that harsh lines of judgment, envy, and hate had not marked their features. I examined my own face in the mirror and yet could not be certain if those lines were there or not. I always knew they were nicer than I – as my son so obviously exposed to the rest of the family – but did it show on my face as it did on theirs?

 Those girls taught me a lot when we were little – more things than I can remember. And these wonderful women still are teaching me. They teach me and remind me each day that living a life of grace, compassion and forgiveness is the best way to truly live.