There are acquaintances, (a term I think we ought to use more, without fear or embarrassment) there are friends (a term I think we use too carelessly, until we sometimes forget what it's supposed to mean) and there are the very special Chosen Few, the people we feel most comfortable around, the people we would choose to be with us if we were marooned on a desert island. That is, unless you're one of those pragmatic people considering cannibalism.
Let me explain.
Acquaintances is an old-fashioned word that has dropped out of use, but which I think is a more honest and helpful term than the all-inclusive, vague 'friend,' which has reached the same level of meaninglessness as 'thing' and 'dude.' Growing up, I remember being very particular about how I used these words (and probably sounding incredibly stuck up without meaning to) because I had unfortunately read Anne of Green Gables and been influenced on the full significance of the word 'friend,' 'bosom friend' to use the exact phrase. I insisted that the kids I played with at the playground weren't my 'friends,' they were just acquaintances. Because we didn't particularly like each other. We just needed enough people so we could play and have fun. Whether it was you, or him, or someone new, it didn't really matter. Could you run fast? Were you a poor loser? That was all the information that really mattered. If we never saw each other again we wouldn't miss each other, and we could mutually acknowledge this frankly without hard feelings on either side.
I feel it's kind of a pity that we use the word friend so generically now. Anyone we know the names of immediately gets classified as a friend, because we're embarrassed to admit we're not close...
...which makes no sense. Life would be a lot simpler if everyone was fine with being honest. And--more importantly--I think we would be a lot less confused and insecure about the whole concept of friendship, and better equipped to build real, satisfying friendships. I could bring up the outdated but still applicable example of Facebook 'friends,' but I think we've all heard that rehashed as proof of the evils of social media and the hopeless state of the next generation (us) so, no.
This was an idea covered in Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend. It wasn't exactly a book I would have picked up to read but it turned out to be thought-provoking, raising many issues on the whole concept of friendship and its abstract, inconsistent, sometimes confused application in my life. For example, in chapter 3, they examined different types of friendships, from acquaintances to casual/close/best friends. And as the book unfolded its discussion of what friendship entailed, and how it should be cultivated, the underlying factor beneath it all became clearer and clearer, the difference between acquaintances and friends: purposefulness.
Not that this is a radical idea. But I think what stood out was that this idea of purposefulness encompasses more than simply "making time for each other," which is what we tend to reduce it to. Yeah, friendships aren't static--we have to make time for them! And we leave it at that. We squeeze out a space in our schedule for one meal together and then think we've done our share. I liked how, while dealing with the need for purposefulness, To Be a Friend didn't get sucked into the overly simplistic make time=friendship equation, and gave equal coverage to other aspects.
To purposefully build friendships required more than just time together: energy and effort, vulnerability, and even "unanticipated and unplanned costs," which was an additional category I didn't expect. Under "energy and effort," they included the "freedom to say no": "Every relationship requires energy and effort, of which we have limited amounts. We cannot do everything and respond to everyone...we need to be intentional in [friendship's] development and priority. This is particularly true for the ten to twenty close relationships [an estimate] that are current and active in our lives right now."
To me, this was a wake-up call for the need to prioritize the input I'd been previously unthinkingly giving to whichever friendship called most loudly for at the moment. It is so easy to live life prioritizing the urgent rather than the important. My grandparents, for example. They seem to be always available, patiently waiting for my schedule to accommodate them, compared to friends whom it's harder to spend time with, who have exams and limited holidays, who seem much more elusive and urgent, as result, to 'catch.' And the grands get pushed to the back burner.
It was a good and sobering realization to ask myself, what are the ten to twenty close relationships in my life right now, which I value the most--and am I actually making a correlating effort at actively building those relationships?
A great insight for introverts like me was the next paragraph: "Keep in mind that some relationships build you up and others drain you. The relationships that give us great pleasure take little energy and effort to develop. The ones that drain us have a higher cost, but our commitment to the friendship may draw us to pay for the price."
It was a great relief to be able to admit without feeling guilt, that that are such things as "high-maintenance" friendships, and that you can only take so many, or so much of one, before the relationship becomes unhealthy and perhaps even sours as result. Know your limits, for your own sake as well as your friends'. The Whites gave an example of some friends whose understanding of this ensures balance: "We have friends who are quick to respond to the needs of others. When they are depleted of energy, they announce, 'We're cancelling the weekend!' Without guilt, they wipe the calendar clean for a few days to restore their energy. They wisely recognize they cannot help others if they are exhausted. They make it a priority to guard their health so they have more to give to others."
This highlights how another aspect of purposeful friendship, I realized, is considering each friendship within the context of the circle of people in your life--whether that means different stages of priority, or simply stewarding the time and energy you have to invest in each, without feeling guilty or embarrassed about doing so. After all, one of the requirements for a strong friendship is honesty; and that starts with being honest with yourself.
I've been thinking more and more about friendship as I get older, as I balance old friendships with new ones, maintain different sorts of friendships. It's not enough to just be aimlessly, passively friendly, responding to whichever friendship is most proactive or demanding. Time is short and there are, there will be, more and more people in your life. Some will fade out if you don't hold onto them. Some will come in whether or not you're ready for them, like "divine interruptions" to use Elisabeth Elliot's phrase. Some are perhaps only there for this season of life.
With a one-size-fits-all, first-come-first-served mentality to friendship, you swing between feeling burnt out and yet vaguely dissatisfied. Guilty for not doing enough or keeping up with certain people, or for saying no. Awkward when you realize the generic "friends" label disguises a whole lot of uncomfortable disjuncts, from how well you actually know the person and how much you actually like each other's company, to wondering if you ought to like So-and-So's Instagram posts even though you hardly know anything about them (still learning the ropes for social media etiquette as you can see. I ought to have been born in the previous generation.)
Unstable, to summarize. The paradox of feeling exhausted from having "too many friends", yet discontented because you feel you "don't have real friends," which seems to be a common sentiment from what I hear. I think purposefulness has a lot to do with this. And to be honest, purposefulness is HARD. First of all you need time (yes, that word's coming up again in this post) to be purposeful. You don't just read an article and have your life automatically transformed (like listening to a sermon; sounds familiar?) You need to sit down and evaluate what areas you need to be more purposeful in, and how--practically, concretely--you're going to make that happen. You're going to need focus and perseverance, and maybe even courage. And even if this takes shape during your morning commute to work, and looks like nothing more than a scribbled memo on your phone notes, in order to tackle it in the first place there must have been mental and emotional energy as well.
Where we are now, where entertainment and consumerism encourage passivity, and social media cultivates spontaneity, it's hard to be purposeful. Perhaps it's the first sacrifice we make for our friends, for better friendships, and for ourselves, as stewards with limitations of time, energy, and emotional capacity.
A few weeks ago, I went out with a group of friends, and during the inevitable silence when everyone was chewing their food, an idea came into my head as I sailed my last piece of naan around in a sea of butter chicken gravy.
"Can I ask a weird question?" I licked my fingers clean as my naan boat shipwrecked, and unapologetically broke the peaceful lull of mastication and digestion. "What kind of old person do you aspire to become?"
It was a thought that had never come to me in this form before. I mean, I think we've all, at some point or other, thought about what it would be like when we get old; maybe even had some ideas about what we want to do (or not do) when we are old. But 'aspire to be' isn't often connected to the idea of aging. If anything, that phrase (and the attitude it connotes) is usually used when talking about youths and children growing up. Because to aspire implies purposeful working towards that goal, doesn't it? You aspire to be a pop star, so you regularly deafen your family by singing in the bathroom, and practice perfecting that brilliant superstar smile every time someone takes a picture of you. You aspire to be the valedictorian, so you push yourself to do that extra practice set, take tuition, and make sure you study harder than everyone else. You aspire to be a doctor, so you try to ace biology and chemistry, and watch Korean dramas about glamourized doctors to motivate yourself. (I'm joking, okay? But there's something to be said about the role of media. I remember feeling like I was wasting my life studying literature instead of learning how to save lives after I finished watching Descendants of the Sun.)
But growing old? Maybe we avoid thinking about it in the first place. After all, toniiiiight....we are young....*beat drops*
All seasons of life are a blessing from God. If we rush into them thoughtlessly, we miss out on so much that they have to offer. Christians are called to do all things to the glory of God. That implies purposefulness. You can't accidentally glorify God. Since it's not easy to do so even when you're trying to. In Craig Cabaniss's words, "Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit. We don't accidentally drift into holiness; rather, we mature gradually and purposefully, one choice at a time."
And that includes growing older.
As I thought about myself, I realized how important the examples of people I knew were in shaping my answer. Whether it was what I wanted to be like, or didn't want to be like, it was always through thinking of someone I knew, of the impression their life and person had made on me; how they had represented their age, so to speak. It was as if I was trying to choose a career by thinking of all the different careers of the people I knew.
For example, a dear family friend came to my mind, who had went to the mission field in a third world country as a grandmother. On her own. And every time I saw her, she gave little me the impression of grace and kindness as well as the dignity of old age. I remember her dressed simply but elegantly. I remember how she always brought little gifts for us whenever she came--pretty things I treasured away, like the necklace with blue beads and pink leaves I still have in my jewelry box. I remember how smiley she was, what a pleasure to be around. Most of all, how here was someone living out love and thoughtfulness at an age where society told you to focus on taking care of yourself. When most people her age were looking into retirement, she started a whole new chapter of life, serving, loving.
The old gentleman who lovingly feeds the cats downstairs everyday--
--who smiles so brightly in the lift to even the grumpiest neighbours with genuine interest in his eyes
--who, when we jogged past each other, surprised me by waving and smiling cheerfully, too breathless for a greeting. I felt ashamed for being such a grim-looking jogger (though admittedly, it's hard to smile when you feel like you're dying)
Or another friend, a fiesty German lady who travelled the world on her own--which was how she first met my mom on a Singapore bus as a tourist who needed loose change. That small incident started a friendship that extended to the rest of the family, and went on for years and years. Every birthday, I would be sure to get a card, full of her spidery handwriting, with snapshots of the birds in her garden, or pretty postcards she thought we would like. Thoughtfulness. Vitality. A curiosity about others and the world that kept her eyes bright even when she could barely walk anymore. How many adults that you know would take the trouble to keep up a correspondence with a child over mail? Exactly.
Even though every letter means so much to that child.
The elderly man I saw on the bus who went all out to make the baby sitting in front of him laugh.
Of course, my own grandmothers, each singular epitomes of the strong woman that forms the nucleus of a family, using their skills to nurture and build those of others. The kind of women who don't talk about strength, but who live it out every day.
In old age, due to the physical decline of our bodies and the big changes of lifestyle we experience, it's easy to get self-absorbed, or to withdraw. I don't say this to judge--in fact, it's exactly the same challenge we face as young people, for the opposite reasons; the 'life of unmitigated selfishness' I wrote about years ago. Because selfishness is a temptation we face every day of our lives. In fact it has been the number one thing I've been praying about for the past few months, especially as business and stress levels rise with finals approaching. Regardless of age, it's so easy to be completely absorbed by our physical or emotional needs; like a paper towel lying passively saturated in a pool of spilt coffee.
I got some interesting answers to that random question inspired during the consumption of butter chicken and naan. It took everyone a while, perhaps it was the food digesting; but almost everyone had the same answer; they knew they didn't want to be a grumpy old person!
As for me--I aspire to be an old lady who takes interest in others, who is hospitable and shares my abilities, my skills, my knowledge. Who has a heart for young children and youth (which is not easy; we're often so careless and impatient, so self-absorbed in the importance of our own youth and life when we interact with old people.) Who prays, because of all the many things age limits us from doing, prayer remains. The best prayer warriors I know have all been older people.
It's time to start looking towards old age with an attitude of aspiration, not just acceptance. As C.S Lewis so beautifully said, "The process of growing up is to be valued not for what we lose, but for what we gain." I always thought of this quote in the context of someone in their twenties, having to accept being an adult, letting go of nostalgia, of reaching maturity; but isn't this even more poignant and thought-provoking when it comes to aging?
'Prudent' is a word usually associated with frugality.
Being prudent in your speech generally means few words, just as prudent spending generally means few receipts and fewer regrets.
Prudence, as it is commonly understood and used, is the aspect of wisdom regarding our resources--how we use them (which usually also means how we see them, by the way.)
It's a very relatable word for those of us struggling with the widespread problem of not having enough time/energy/insert overused word of choice.
How much time should I spend on people, how much energy to invest in relationships?
How many minutes must I give to my devotions, how many seconds to prayer?
How much do I have to restrain myself from doing what I feel like doing, or force myself to do what I don't feel like doing?
How much money should I tithe, how many dollars do I have to donate to feel safely good about myself?
How little am I allowed to spend on myself and my desires? How little do I sleep so I have time for something else?
How much is too much, how little is too little?
Oh, for prudence, we sigh. If only we knew...if only there was a nice handy measuring cup to dole out our resources, and a clear-cut recipe to follow for a perfectly balanced life...
'The wise in heart shall be called prudent...'
The book of Proverbs is our family meal-table tradition. Growing up, we went through Proverbs three times at the regular rhythm of one proverb per meal. Guess what. We're doing the rounds for the fourth time.
My mom was trying to think through what exactly Proverbs 16:21 meant, and she gave an explanation that I wasn't expecting, but which caught my attention.
The thought that prudence may not necessary mean simply sparing with your resources. That 'wise in heart' may be more than the superficial cautious, careful, reserved that we'd generally assume from the context of the sentence.
Perhaps, she suggested, wise in heart meant instead that you value the things God values; that your heart's emotions, desires, loves, are God-centered rather than self-centered.
Perhaps this is where prudence begins. Perhaps prudent managing of your resources isn't about how much--or how little--you give of your _____(again, insert word of choice); isn't only the external act of self-control/restraint that we tend to think is all it means.
Perhaps prudence starts in the heart. When we love, feel, want wisely, the actions and decisions we make regarding our resources will be influenced as well. When we value what is truly valuable, when we love what is truly worth loving, when we desire what is truly worth desiring, we will give it the priority it deserves in our life. And everything else will fall into place, because--to use that old analogy--once you fit the big pebbles into your bottle, the sand fills into the spaces snugly.
Prudence, in that case, is not a merely logical and methodical set of decisions made by the brain. It is the result of a heart that loves and feels wisely; a 'wise heart.'
'The wise in heart shall be called prudent...'
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are