Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up…”– Ephesians 4:32
My heart raced as I noticed the return address on a piece of mail I received one random weekday. It was from an old friend, one of my best in high school whom I hadn’t heard from in years. I’d made the initiative to reach out to her, sensing there was something adrift in our friendship, since she hadn’t responded to my previous text messages or phone calls. Then there was her reply.
The note was raw, heart-wrenchingly honest, and I accepted what she shared. But my heart was pained, too, because the essence of the message was this: You are not a good friend anymore. She wrote words like, “this is one-sided” and “more effort on one end” than another. What pierced my heart the most was that I felt this way about myself, too.
For years, I’d been absent from most people’s lives. The intention to contact friends nagged in the back of my mind sometimes. Then, inevitably, I’d get sidetracked – a screaming child, the immediate need to break up a sibling fight, a diaper change, then lunch.
By the time I’d remember my intention to call or text just to say hi or check in, the end of another day fell upon me, and my brain was depleted of all mental energy. I had nothing left to give. Again.
This recently made me think about why so many people are absent right now – absent from church, from family reunions, from holiday dinners, from parties and baptisms. Why don’t they call, or return calls? Why is sending a text message too difficult?
Most of us assume we understand those closest to us. But often we don’t. People are absent, because they are raising young children and are constantly overwhelmed. They can’t seem to catch a break or a breath. People are absent, because they are exhausted from caring for an aging parent, shuffling them from appointment to appointment and filling out endless paperwork.
People are absent, because they have a child with a disability that requires every iota of precious little free time in order to assist with physical or occupational therapy, update a caseworker, spend an hour on hold with the insurance company. People are absent, because they are depressed and can barely care for themselves, let alone nurture their relationships.
The tendency for those of us looking at the glass bowl of another person’s life is to judge – wrongly, harshly, of course – because we think too highly of ourselves. Or we keep score – I gave this, but there was no reciprocity, so I’m done. Or we are jealous – what do they have to be depressed about when their life is so easy and mine is so hard?
The truth is that all of us have an incomplete understanding of what another person suffers. Someone’s absence means that they’re likely suffering alone. They know they “should” get up to make that phone call, respond to that text, send that card. And maybe the desire is even there. But they can’t.
As I continue to emerge, little by little, from my long bout of postpartum anxiety and depression, I gain the strength to repair and restore the relationships I’ve sadly allowed to fall by the wayside. I’ve given myself some grace and leeway in knowing that friendships wane at times, but they don’t have to dissolve completely.
When a friend is absent, I reach out from time to time. I might let a week lapse before I call again, and I make sure to let my friend know there’s no pressure to respond right now. I just wanted to check in. Sometimes I send uplifting memes with scripture verses or an inspirational quote, attaching a personal note that reads, “Thought of you when I saw this.”
I extend invitations, again and again, even when a friend declines—again and again. I’ve been that friend. But I’ll add, “I’m so sorry, I can’t. Please keep asking.” I think of this when I feel as if I’m doing most of the work in a relationship, when I begin to feel as my friend who wrote the letter does – that it’s all “one-sided.” I remember what it’s like to want to extend even a small effort to get together for coffee or lunch, but the idea is too overwhelming.
Right now, I’m gathering items to make up care packages for my absent friends. I have no expectation of reciprocity. I consider the way Jesus lived, and I want to model my life after His. I don’t want to just learn theology. I want to live the Gospel. That means I give, even when it hurts to give. I stretch myself. I don’t give up on a friend who doesn’t return my call, yet says she misses me and wants to get together.
Christian accompaniment involves a continual reaching out, extending beyond what we think we deserve. It means a willingness to enter into another person’s suffering in such a way that we are both transformed by Divine Love.