When Matt and I got married, or rather, just before (as there was very little lapse between meeting and matrimony), I met his “horde” of friends. The very first Sunday we attended church together, it took us over an hour to get out of the sanctuary. Around every corner, there was “someone I want you to meet.” There were sixteen men in our bridal party. I needed a flowchart to remember names, particularly when it came to the denizens of his southern hometown, who had nicknames like “Bubba,” “Boots,” “Rock,” and “Dink.” Bear in mind these are grown men. It was like being dropped into the middle of a Faulker novel where you can barely understand the dialogue. At the time, his crowd was sweetly entertaining. He was loved by many. I beamed with pride at my new husband.
But over time, I became frustrated. Every weekend, we had another social engagement. Parties and dinners blurred together. Why SO many people? Wasn’t I enough? What was it he wanted that I wasn’t providing? Wanting to be a dutiful young wife, I said nothing to Matt. Until I said nothing for too long and burst into tears one day, telling him I felt like I’d married him AND his circle of friends and if he wanted one more dinner with yet another couple at a steakhouse, I was going to fling my Outback Special at his face.
This is what happens when an introvert marries an extrovert.
I spent nearly all of grad school on my own. I was a commissioner of the North Grounds Softball League (yes, I can “play” a sport other than horses), but my nickname was Carmen San Diego. As in “Where in the World Is She?” Where I was, was mostly home alone with my cat, a stack of books, and a Lean Cuisine. I was perfectly happy, too.
No relationships meant no investment, and no hurt. This, I have learned, is not a way to live. Even Jesus had friends. Quite a few, actually. And so my husband was teaching me something, if in an extreme sort of way (because let’s face it, no one needs 16 groomsmen unless you’re Jay-Z). We are built for community. We are instructed to “love our neighbors” (Mark 12:31), and reminded that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). Jesus himself wept at Lazarus’ passing because of the deep friendship between them both (John 11:11-36), and Christ used the concept of friendship when teaching us how to be bold in asking the Father for what we need (Luke 11:5-13). He called his disciples, his “friends” (John 15:13-16).
Now I watch Noah navigate the construction of friendships on his own. He is like me in that way – preferring to be alone, if given the chance. It’s a function of both disability and personality. Crowds drain him. Ditto for his mother. But we were built by God for community and so we encourage him, but do not force. “Encouraging,” means we enroll him in karate, or football, or invite friends over for play dates; it is the gentle persuasion of parenthood with the invisible safety net of our presence at the ready. “Forcing,” is telling him to leave the room to which he’s escaped during the chaos of a party, and shoving him into socialization with our guests. “Forcing” is a good way to get an Aspie to lock himself in his room with his Nintendo DS. When he comes out, he will most likely be wearing his Batman gloves and telling you that he’s figured out he can fly. Something may be broken to prove it.
Friends require investment. They are work. They can – as we do – hurt one another. But they come with benefits untold. In our lives, they have delivered meals, watched our children, made hospital visits, elevated us in prayer, and loved us even when our ugliest parts and most glaring errors are on display. Living with friends in authentic Biblical community requires that we build a community, first. And that’s done only through making ourselves vulnerable to one another: being honest, transparent, and committed, and trusting that the love we’re commanded to show one another will flow both ways.
For Noah and his Mom, that means choking back a chestful of anxiety. It means the soft belly beneath the hard shell must be exposed. But it also means we experience the love of friends, and all their many benefits.