By Alexis Barnhart

When the World Feels Like a Dumpster Fire — Making Friends

Friends don’t grow on trees. This very well may be one of the most well-kept secrets of humanity. The path from stranger to acquaintance to friend to anam cara (a Celtic term for “soul friend”) is wildly overgrown. It can be often difficult and confusing to navigate. You don’t just plop onto a new campus, take a full load of classes, sleep, eat, take yourself on a walk, spend hours studying, and casually pick some glamorous new comrades off the sycamores on campus. Especially not when the world feels like a dumpster fire.

We have just spent two years in a pandemic. Masks, social distancing, ebbs and flows of new variants, work, and classes being online then offline then online for a hot second again has thrown us into a massive influx of uncertainty. We’ve seen so much death, violence, and racism it can be hard to imagine division becoming unity. And just as restrictions are loosening, Russia has instigated war in Ukraine. It can feel as if our world, trying to pull out of a pandemic, is on the brink of upheaval again.

Our stress barometers have maxed out. Our social skills are rusty, and our emotional tanks are empty. Building friendships, so it seems, has become even more impossible in these times. At the same time, we’ve developed a sharpened awareness of the vitality of forging those friendships.

So how do we do it?

Through luck, it seems, I have stumbled upon some humans who know how.

Friends Ask Me How I’m Really Doing

We all know the scripts. “How are you?” someone says in greeting. “Good!” we exclaim, even though we were just crying in the bathroom. And all is well, or appears well, in the realm of social acceptance.

I’m glad for humans who refuse to accept this. Who listen for the silences. Who see my tense shoulders. Who ask one more question.

Underneath “good” is how I’m coping with the collective trauma we all have undergone. How I’m processing the comings and goings of life. The way in which I’m holding beauty and terror, folded into each other, as they are.

Let’s try this again.

“How are you?” my friend asks. Then she sits. Her body invites me: how are you really doing?

When someone creates safety to come as you are — as you really are — your soul takes a breath. As-I-am is validated and feels beautiful. What a sweet gift, something so akin to the questions and listening of Jesus. Think about your roommates, small group members, and classmates. How might you show up for them with ears to listen?

Intentional Is the Word of the Day

We all have intentions. January 1 comes around, and millions of people have made resolutions: to eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight. According to research on how successful people are in sticking to their resolutions, only 1 out of 10 will succeed. This isn’t the space to digress into the systemic and harmful messaging of the dieting industry’s impact on millions of people, but here is what is fascinating: our intentions often do not pan out. For myself, I know that to be true.

When it comes to cultivating meaningful bonds with others, though, intentionality is key. I’ve learned a good deal from the women I now call friends. They are intentional. They ask for regularity.

“Want to meet and talk about this book every other week?”

“Want to grab coffee together Monday afternoons every other week?”

I’m a real fan of the “every-other-week” model. Not too much, where I’m overwhelmed by another chunk of time being eaten from my life as I work, eat, breathe, meet deadlines, sleep, be human. But not so infrequent and unknown that the actual gift of being together never happens. It’s the goldilocks amount of just enough. Between classes, assignments, clubs, and work shifts, we can often feel overwhelmed and as if there’s no time for a cup of coffee to get to know someone. But what if we set aside all or nothing and instead found the in-between space of every-other-week or monthly times for a walk or a meal? Perhaps we’d find time, friendship, and joy on our side.

Friends Show Up

Like a deciduous tree, I undergo the four seasons. Living in the Northeast, it is a rhythmic spiritual reminder for me to watch the trees. To see how the dying of what will no longer serve is brilliant in color, beautifully raw. To recognize a bare tree is not dead, rather is doing exactly what it is designed to do. And spring — she comes! Flowers galore that burst into green leaves. The cycles are good and natural. That, however, still leaves me baren in the winter.

I love Suzanne Stimard’s research on how trees talk. Underground is a network of roots. Trees communicate with each other — who doesn’t have enough light and thus enough nutrients, who is and isn’t diseased, who is healthy and flourishing. Then they take this information and share their resources. I can’t help but think of the early church in Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” What a picture of shalom!

My friends are the strong trees when I am lacking vitamin D. When I’m not okay, they show up. With food. With texts. With hugs. Simply with me. It’s amazing how good carrot soup tastes during a truly hard time when it shows up at your doorstep with a hug. Each bite tastes like I’m not alone.

Maybe that’s what we need. To know deep within us we are not alone. Whether we’re one in 50,000 at a large university or simply navigating student life in the aftermath of these last two years. It is well; it is well. My soul sits with yours. Yours with mine. Isn’t that what the Spirit is? With and for us. Our comforter and protector. Our intercessor when we don’t have words for our deepest groanings. Our Anam Cara.

John O’Donohue, an Irish poet who popularized the notion of anam cara, once wrote, “One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen.”

To my sweet friends who have seen me, thank you.

To those who long for companionship but have yet to find it, may the Lord be kind to you. May such beauty and goodness find you. May you be gentle with yourself in the waiting, wrapped in a blanket of grace. And suddenly and inexplicably find you are seen.

Let it be so.

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