The Girl Scouts used some of the words of Welsh poet Joseph Parry for a song beloved by the organization. The first lines will be familiar to anyone who has ever sold a box of Thin Mints:
Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver and the other gold.
At midlife, how can we cultivate those silver and gold relationships in our lives? Some of us are blessed with a few long- time relationships that are comfortable, steady, and grounded in shared history. The challenge with these relationships is continuing to find time to connect in the midst of the busyness of daily life. The trust built into the history of these friendships allows many of these relationships to absorb separations of time and distance. Those in true gold friendships are able to pick up right where they left off, whether a few days or many months have elapsed. I am blessed to have a few golden friends in my life, and with each passing year, I am more aware than ever what a treasure they are to me. There’s nothing like having someone in your life who knew you “when,” and still loves you now.
However not all old friendships make the transition into midlife without some alchemy that changes the nature of the relationship. This friendship may reveal itself as less than the pure gold you once assumed it was. That revelation doesn’t negate the worth of the relationship, nor does it necessarily mean that at some point in the future there may not be a fresh rekindling of it, if only for occasional catch-up visits. Recognizing and grieving those changes is a necessary journey toward healthy acceptance of what the relationship is at this point of your life. In some cases, that reassessment may result in a good “define the relationship” conversation with your friend. In other cases, it may be wiser to simply embrace the current relationship without trying to dig through the past in hopes of recapturing an earlier closeness.
While the Serenity Prayer (attributed to sources ranging from Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr) has application in many areas of our lives, it definitely offers a helpful spiritual grid through which to prayerfully discern how to approach changing friendships: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
My life is richer because of a handful of old gold friends in my life, as well as some wonderful newer “silver” friends I’ve made in recent years. I may not yet share history with these new friends, but they are excellent, diverse companions God has used to teach, strengthen, and encourage me at this stage of my life. (I pray I bring that same sort of energy to these friends as well!)
Remaining open to making new friendships at midlife comes with a cost, however. At this stage of our lives, holding space for the possibility of a new relationship will call on us to risk some comfort and pride. We may risk reaching out to a potential friend only to discover that person isn’t interested in reciprocating. Not everyone will make space in their social orbit for us. We won’t click with some people.
Vanessa (not her real name) wrote me to say she was still struggling to find new friends after more than two years in a new town. She’d done all the “right” things: volunteering at church, joining a book club at the library, taking a class at the community college, and working hard to get to know her neighbors. “Am I always going to be ‘the new girl’ here?” she asked.
I didn’t have an easy answer for Vanessa. I affirmed that her disheartening circumstances were not a measure of her worth or value as a person and empathized with the discouragement she was feeling. There are no quick remedies to this problem. During the course of our conversation, we brainstormed some strategies to combat her loneliness. Some of those strategies included: continuing to find ways to stay appropriately connected with friends in her former hometown for emotional support; seeking out new opportunities to serve alongside others on projects or ministries she’s passionate about both at church and in her new community; praying and journaling to process her emotions and desires; and seeking out a seasoned spiritual director who could come alongside her and help her discern how God might be at work in this difficult time in her life. My husband and I moved just 8 months before COVID hit, and we are in our own extended “new kid in class” experience as we navigate forming relationships during a pandemic.
When our kids were little, I could bring them to a playground and they’d bond instantly with the other kids there, forming ad hoc teams for games of tag. There have been times as an adult when I’ve been the “new kid” at church, wishing someone would tag me and invite me to be a part of their team.
Don’t we all want that very thing? The spiritual challenge before those who are a part of comfortable, established social circles is to seek to keep that circle open to welcome a new friend into the group. Long-time groups of friends have their own internal culture and rhythms of interaction. But wherever possible—say, at church, at work, or in a neighborhood—doing what you can to keep a circle open is a way to express the love of God not only to a “new kid,” but as a way of encouraging growth in emotional and relational maturity for other members of the group.
That’s pure gold.
Question, Perennials: What other advice would you add for keeping old friends or making new ones?
The post above was adapted from Becoming Sage: Cultivating Maturity, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife (Moody Publishers, 2020)