Ashley and I were sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a smattering of orange, red, and green only broken by the Potomac river meandering its way through the trees. “I feel like we haven’t talked in forever!” she said. “Me too!” I said, “how have you been? I mean really.”
In truth, we’d talked in passing at least twice a day for the past week. But in those moments, there’s only time for a shallow ‘I’m good!’ or ‘I’m a little stressed about…’ fill in the blank. But when I asked her that day on the mountain, there was nowhere to be and nothing to rush us. So we had a long, deep talk and walked down the mountain as better friends.
Our country is plagued with a loneliness epidemic and it’s only being aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, The Economist conducted a survey that found that 22% of adults in the US say they always or often feel lonely. In 2020, 28% of households are single person households and, in the midst of physical distancing, they have become isolation chambers. But this epidemic is not just a lack of physically seeing each other, we could do that before the virus, it’s a lack of deep connection. So how, in the midst of social distancing, can we connect? Through intentionality. We must deliberately take time to listen, talk, serve, and spend time with friends. Here’s a few ideas for cultivating a rich, rewarding friendship to combat at least one of the ‘demics.’
Ask the hard questions first. My literature professor always hated small talk, even above students being late. He believed that if we want to connect with people, we have to know them deeply. Often, we waste precious moments with those we love by talking about the game or complaining about that one neighbor who’s destroying the neighborhood, when we could start the conversation with something like ‘how is your marriage?’ ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ ‘how’s your mental health?’ These are big questions reserved for those we’re closest to. But we must we ask them. It can be nerve wracking to start the conversation, but people are usually very happy to talk about themselves and you might walk down that mountain with a new friend. Yes, some people are more private and maybe they won’t want to tell you. That’s okay, you asked and that shows you care. This is about serving your friend–not about your need to know.
One question in particular may deepen a friendship more than anything else; how can I make your life better? Some people feel loved when their friend listens while they rant, others when they’re invited on a hike, still others when someone brings them coffee, tells them they’re wonderful, or helps them with the dishes. But we won’t know unless we ask. Too often a friendship becomes a game of trying to get the most out of another person for our own benefit. But this is not how we develop friendships. Instead, friendship should be a game of trying to serve the other person better.
But, one might ask, how do I know I’m close enough with another person to ask these deep questions?
Just ask! When I was in grade school, I had the habit of insecurely asking “we’re friends right?”
whenever I saw a friend. At the time, that came out of a need to be liked, but now I wonder if asking that question out of a desire to be friends with someone could be healthy. That question defines and quantifies a friendship and can alleviate anxiety within a friendship. With the advent and common use of social media, sometimes it can be difficult to determine who our friends really are. But asking one simple question, can alleviate a lot of stress; we’re friends right?
Claire and I were sitting in her living room when she started telling me about her current relationship.
She wants to break up with him, but she’s afraid of being excruciatingly lonely because she felt like he was the only one who intentionally seeks her out. And I call myself her friend! That conversation forced me to reexamine our friendship and we had a much longer talk about our friendship wherein I asked, in many more words, what amounted to, “we’re friends right?” The result was a greater sense of peace and, they’re still together, but she knows I’ll be around when she needs someone.