I thought we were friends.
At midlife I learned that I might have overstated some of these relationships a tad. It seemed that my BFFs had really been church and parenting co-workers.
Inspirational speaker Barbara Bartocci parsed the difference, noting, “People frequently think they have friends at work—or church or the tennis club or any location where like-minded people gather—when in fact what they have are ‘work neighbors.’ Once you move out of the ‘neighborhood,’ you’re no longer thought about or included.”
The hormonal drama of middle-school relationships or those first lonely weeks in a new town are nothing in comparison to the challenges of making new friends and keeping the old at midlife.
Like many other women, I had enjoyed a stable posse of friendships during my childrearing years. My pals and I compared notes about potty training, shuttled kids to one another’s homes for play dates, cheered and coached and prayed for one another. I never doubted that our shared experiences and, in most cases, our shared faith, would be enough to cement our friendships for life.
Shifts at midlife threw us out of sync with one another. Our kids scattered, some to college, others into the workforce or the military. Some friends relocated or put new energy into their careers. A few marriages ended. The easiest way to deal with the new distance in these relationships was to make excuses for it (“How did we get so busy? Let’s get a date on the calendar ASAP!”) or to try to pretend nothing had changed.
In middle age, many women discover they’re downsizing and moving into a brand-new neighborhood, so to speak. Midlife strips us of the things that formed our network of relationships back in the old neighborhood of our 20s and 30s: children’s activities or the drive to find meaning in a career. This new life location can be lonely. No one I know is riding in a red convertible with her empty-nester Gal Pals, singing along to oldies while heading together to a beach house weekend. Most of us aren’t looking for Gal Pals, anyway. We’re simply looking for a few friends in our new neighborhood. Studies confirm what we intuitively know: loneliness is a serious issue with far-reaching consequences as we get older.
The standard friend-making advice offers motivational action steps: take a class, join a group, serve those in need in your community. In addition, Christians are encouraged to find fellowship at church, though they may discover that there aren’t always as many age peers attending as they might hope.
The suggestions are useful, but without first doing what Jesus asks of us, our efforts will not be grounded in kingdom reality. We can not befriend others if we are not willing to first befriend our midlife selves. Relying on the identity that seemed to fit like a glove at age 25 to build new relationships when we are 47 won’t net us the kind of authentic relationships we’re longing for in our second adulthood, nor does it honor the process of God’s transforming, maturing work in our lives.
Befriending ourselves is a solidly scriptural principle. Jesus once told a religious expert that to inherit eternal life, we must love God heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. On the hunt for an error in Jesus’ thinking, the expert then asked Jesus who this neighbor was. Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a flesh-and-blood illustration of the Golden Rule in practice. The Samaritan understood how to be a friend to the wounded man because he was in touch with what he’d need if he’d been in a similar situation. His caring actions contrast those who’d chosen to live for the affirmation of others via their religious practice.
We are not immune to the temptation to allow the affirmation of others to shape our behavior. For instance, many of us have heard joy comes from putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. It’s a catchy little dictum designed to challenge the selfishness to which we are all prone. Joy indeed does come from loving God and loving others. Unfortunately, some corners of the church have preached or modeled that self-care is Oprahspeak, code for a narcissistic, sinful waste of time. In that context, the call to serve selflessly becomes a command to exorcise our ourselves from the equation.
At midlife, those years of ignoring ourselves have a way of catching up with us. When our nest empties, our career downshifts, our marriage hits the rocks, our church splits, our parents die, or our health fails, we may find we have little choice but to stop the striving to please others and give ourselves some attention.
Those changing friendships at midlife are an invitation to do so as well. I realized that I’d never be able to make new friends or keep the old if I wasn’t first willing to answer my own friend request. Self-care for me meant attending to the things I’d back-burnered in the name of serving others: my physical needs (rest, eating healthy meals, and some form of physical exercise), my emotional needs (time with a Christian counselor to sort through grief after my mother’s traumatic death) and my spiritual needs (instead of leading big events at church, I realized that I now found joy in one-on-one forms of service to others). Perhaps not-so-ironically, the spiritual practice of solitude was especially helpful in embracing the transition taking place in my life and learning to simply be myself in God’s company.
Some of those stalled long-time friendships have been revived as I’ve settled into my new “neighborhood”; others haven’t. I am grateful for the gift of wonderful new relationships that are developing in my life as well. It took making one important new friend in my new neighborhood to help me connect and reconnect with others: myself.