When I was younger, my friends would talk about what it would be like to be a “grown up.” They all seemed to be looking forward to this stage of life with bated breath. Driving! Freedom! Money! No one telling you what to do!
For the most part, I dreaded that far off time. It just seemed to be a complicated minefield. Voting. University. Finding a job. Getting married. Taxes. Death.
I wanted to remain in the realm of dress up clothes and playground tag for the rest of my life. It seemed infinitely less terrifying.
Interestingly enough, those things which I thought so scary and overwhelming have not presented too many difficulties—at least of the ones I have experienced. Marriage and Death have still not been endured, but many people tell me that they amount to pretty much the same thing.
I was right about one thing, though: Growing up is complicated, just not for the reasons I was afraid of.
Lately, I have noticed this most particularly in my friendships. In many ways, I think the world sees friendship as something that exists simply for fun, for letting loose. And that is certainly a large part of it—who wants to be friends with someone who is not fun to be around? But if it’s a real friendship, a grown up friendship, there is more to it than forming an alliance because you are wearing the same shoes on day one of Junior High.
There is nothing easy about seeing friends through miscarriages, or divorce, or breakups, or job loss, or crises of faith and beliefs. Those are all things that come with the territory of “growing up,” which weave into the tapestry of our friendships. Life becomes messy as you navigate all the decisions it offers.
What is so remarkable, though, is that it is in the complications and the messiness of life that the friendships you cultivate truly have a chance to shine. It is all very well to be friends during good times, when all you are doing is planning road trips, and going shopping, and dreaming up big dreams for life.
But when grief hits and tough decisions need to be made, or when overwhelming joy needs to be shared with someone who knows how to rejoice for another—that is when a friendship shows its worth.
A few months ago, when it seemed as if life was just hitting me in the gut over and over, and I struggled with the complications of a long distance relationship, and health that was going hay-wire, and big decisions about my future, I sat on a friend’s couch and tried to plan an evening together with her. Movies? Dinner? Both? Neither?
I couldn’t quite gather my wits enough to even decide what I wanted to do.
Finally, she looked at me. “Mary. You don’t have to pretend that things are okay. I know life is rough right now. You can cry. I can be with you in this place you are in. That’s what friends are for.”
And so I did. But the valuable thing about that experience—and the many similar experiences over the next few weeks with the same friend—was that she allowed me to be in that place, and bore witness to it without making herself responsible for any of it. That’s a really difficult thing to do.
But that’s everything I needed. That’s all anyone needs in the middle of grief, or confusion, or anger: someone who bears witness to the experience without pushing their own self into it.
I didn’t want her to solve anything. I didn’t expect her to shoulder any of my burden. Much of the time, I didn’t even need to talk. I just needed to not be alone. She had the wisdom to see that, the strength to not take on any responsibility for any of it.
To me, that is what signals the beauty of the friendship she offers and the one I aspire to. So often, we make another’s pain about ourselves. How it makes US feel. We feel guilty, or as if we need to solve it. There is a maturity in being able to see the suffering of another, and to sympathize and offer support, without making it about yourself, without wanting to walk away because that would be easier.
That is where the complication lies, though. In our childhood friendships, we cycle through our friends according to how fun they are, or the quality of the snacks at their house, or the toys in their yard. As soon as we get bored, or fed up, or even change so that the friendship no longer fits, we move past it to someone else. That is a natural stage of growth, and part of the process of finally settling on real friendships based on similar interests and goals and a mutual love.
Real friendship sees the responsibility you have to the person you have freely chosen as “friend,” and the importance of fulfilling it—even when the going gets tough. If you have been wise, if you have been smart about choosing your friends, you know that they will be there for you no matter what, just as you will try to be there for them, whatever comes.
The task of the mature friendship, then, is treating it with more of a sense of permanence, as something you have freely chosen and are therefore committed to, rather than something you have fallen into because of convenience.
That choice and that commitment is so important as time marches on. As we grow up, we need our friendships in a way that we never did while dressing up and having tea parties. As we come face to face with the suffering and the messiness and the joy of life, we need to know that we have around us people who will say “I see you, I hear you, and I am with you all the way.”
There is such safety in that, such an image of God in his unconditional and unfathomable and utterly generous love. We must reflect that as much as possible in our own lives.
Let us never be asked “Could you not watch with me even one hour?” Let us not fall asleep in the garden, leaving the suffering Christ alone.