Winning Friends and Influencing People: On Community

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I’ve been thinking a lot about community these days, about what it takes to be a true friend and supporter to someone else. Because we live in a world where it’s easy to feel connected to a lot of people without ever actually having to know them personally. We scroll through a news feed from time to time, glance through curated photos of a person’s life. That’s the beauty of the internet, being able to build connections, learn from people regardless of how close in proximity our lives would otherwise be.

It’s changed the way we think of pen pals. There are still some of us who write handwritten letters and trudge down the street to drop them in a mailbox to be sent somewhere across the world, but the number is certainly dwindling. More on that another day. But the rise of online connections has created an entirely new category of long distance friendship, the pen pals of the twenty-first century. There are people we know online that we consider true friends, despite the fact that our ‘real’ lives have never actually crossed paths. There are people we’ve never met that we put more effort into communicating with than the people we actually see and spend time with. As someone who’s had snail mail pen pals for the better part of two decades, I get it. That kind of friendship is real and valid and has a lot of value. But I think we sometimes forget we need to put effort into our real-world relationships too.

This culture of loose connections has made it easier than ever to drop out of people’s lives without realizing it. We still see the photos, read the tweets, but don’t actually spend the face-to-face time we would have if we weren’t tethered together by a news feed. It gives the illusion of friendship, but without paying attention it can become a slow fade into no longer attempting to communicate. And it becomes a tragic façade of a relationship.

It’s allowed for the rise of ‘ghosting,’ in which someone stops communicating without warning, falling off the edge of the map never to be seen or heard from again, as though a person had been talking to a ghost the entire time. It still strikes me as odd that it happens as frequently as it does. And every time I hear about it happening, I wonder how we got this way. How have we slid so far as to accept the idea that we can just opt out of relationships and hard conversations we don’t want to have?

The thing about relationships (of any kind) is that while there’s a lot of joy to be found, they’re also a lot of hard work. Investing in someone is never easy, and there’s always a chance of getting hurt. That’s what makes vulnerability terrifying, especially if you’ve been hurt before. And sometimes it feels like it’s easier to push people away as they start to get too close to really knowing us rather than risk exposing something that might scare them off anyway. Because at least it’s a controlled burn, then.

But fading into the background isn’t a viable option if we want to keep people in our lives. We can’t take one another for granted because the reality is that humans are not knitting projects; you can’t just drop them in the corner and expect that they’ll be waiting for you the next time you’ve got some spare time and are looking for something to do. They’ll move on, find new places to spend time, find new people who will stay.

We have to show up, send the text, reach out again and again. Because life happens. Things get hectic, and time gets away from us. But we have a responsibility to be there for our people. And at the end of the day, there is no real excuse for not supporting the ones who matter to us.

We have to prioritize one another. The thing about time is that nobody has any more or less of it. Yes, we each have different demands on our time, but busyness is a trap that convinces us it’s okay to apologize for being absent and tell people we miss them but then make no real effort to spend time with them. Action matters.

If there are people you need to go see, please do that. Send a message; make a plan and show up for it. Sacrificing deep, meaningful relationships in favor of a broad assortment of acquaintances is not a healthy solution. We can’t be everything to everyone, and we desperately need people who will see us for who we are and love us because of (and in spite of) ourselves.

I say this having found people who care deeply about me, who check in regularly to ask not only about the events of my life, but also my emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s beautiful and challenging and sometimes more than a little uncomfortable. But it’s necessary; it’s valuable. And while there are days when I’d rather not be honest about what’s going on in my heart and my brain, I’m always glad afterward. It’s a privilege to be able to pray, laugh, cry, and dream alongside these humans as we wrestle through what it looks like to live well and chase after Christ.

I wrote a Real Talk Tuesday about something similar a few weeks ago, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since:

“I'm part of a small group doing a study on discipleship this summer, and last week the question was posed to us about how our priorities should be shaped by the knowledge that being created in God's image means we are made for relationship. As I thought about it in the days leading up to our meeting, I wrote down the words "community is our calling." Because that's it. We are made by love, for love. Despite our cultural obsession with individuality and independence, we can't fly solo. If we're going to make it out sane or with any measure of fulfillment, we have to look past ourselves.”

Friends, community is a get-to, not a have-to. It’s meant to be a gift, not a chore. Let’s not settle for the surface. Dive in deep with your people and keep showing up for them. It’s one of the most sacred, wonderful things you can do.