Authors: Jennie Allen
Early on, I told you my mission with this book: I want us to trade lonely and isolated lives that experience brief bursts of connectedness for intimately connected lives that experience only brief intervals of feeling alone.
If you have been stuck feeling lonely for a long time or if you have been a little lazy when it comes to your relationships or a little bit obstinate and rude toward your friends, it can be
to change those behaviors.
I hate to break it to you, but much of our problem isn’t with other people. It’s with us.
We must become the people we want in our lives. So how do people change?
Are you up for a little experiment? For the next five weeks, I want to help you connect with five people you’re not deeply connected to at present.
As I mentioned in my book
Get Out of Your Head,
you and I tend to think the same negative, toxic thoughts day after day. In fact, 80 percent of our thoughts, researchers tell us, are negative. Studies also reveal that 95 percent of our thoughts are repetitive.
The same is true about our relationships and our behaviors. When we think the same thoughts, we manifest the same behaviors, and those behaviors impact our relationships in similar ways.
In the next section of this book, we’re going to fight back against the isolated pattern of our lives by installing five practices that, coupled with God in the center of those interactions, will build healthier, deeper relationships.
When we moved to Dallas and started from scratch, I considered how I could re-create what I had seen around the world, how I could find my people and live in deeper, more regular, and life-giving community with them. I found five patterns that were consistent in villages and can be a part of our lives anywhere we live, from suburbs to Manhattan to apartments to small towns to college dorms.
Here is what we are going to build into our lives if you come with me on this journey:
Communal fires have been in the center of village life, bringing neighbors together to cook, to celebrate, to gather after dark and connect. Who do you see most often, and where?
Most of the world has never lived with locked doors and fences. And while that might be a necessity in our homes, it isn’t a necessity in our relationships. Who can you most truly be yourself with?
Accountability to Others.
In many villages this looks like tribal elders, people who have permission to wallop you over the head when you are being an idiot! Village life causes you to live accountable to others. It isn’t comfortable but it is transformative. Who are you living close to that has permission to wallop you when you need it?
A Shared Purpose.
Living together and working together creates bonds and is how most people
have lived in community. Who is near you already, working beside you, and how could you bring more purpose to the friendships you already have?
It takes time to build friendship and connection. We have to clock hours together over years. In Jesus’s time, each school was made up of a small group of boys. We are the most transient generation of all time. How do we stay and commit and spend regular time with people, even if they hurt us?
In the chapters to come we will evaluate how these five simple practices could redefine the way we live in relationship to others. We’ll look at the history of what made these simple practices within village life so instrumental in developing a sense of belonging and nurturing deeply committed, lifelong relationships. What brought them together? What kept those relationships tight all the way until the Industrial Revolution? And what can we graft into our lives to create a village existence of our own?
Let me be clear again: These practices are not the end goal. They are only tools to help you connect in deeper ways.
My big dream is that the patterns we’ll be adopting will weave a culture of community into our daily lives, a way for us to put into practice this challenge from 1 John: “Let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
That way of life is possible—with God.
So let’s imagine together what that might look like.
What if we chose to do life in close proximity to each other?
What if we lived less guarded and more openhearted with each other?
What if we chose people in our lives who challenged us to be better each time we were together?
What if we shared a deeper purpose in our relationships?
What if we stayed instead of quitting each other when it gets difficult?
We are going to talk about it all. But I also am going to ask you to take a risk with me. At the end of each chapter in part 2, I’ll give you an assignment. And if you take five weeks and engage with these five activities, I believe at the end of it you will have new friends.
You want to change your life? You want to stop living lonely? I’ll hold your hand.
But you have to show up and put one foot in front of another here.
If you come with me, you will see change.
Let’s do this.
I REACH OUT, BUT PEOPLE CAN’T COME OVER. THEY ARE TOO BUSY. I FINALLY STOPPED ASKING.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS TAKES A LOT OF TIME AND ENERGY THAT I DON’T HAVE MUCH LEFT OF.
I MOVED AWAY FROM MY PEOPLE FOR A BETTER JOB, AND I MISS THEM SO MUCH.
WORKING FULL TIME AND BEING IN A NEW CITY AND AT A LARGE CHURCH, IT IS HARD TO CULTIVATE DEEP FRIENDSHIPS.
I TRY TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH MY FRIENDS, BUT HONESTLY, THEY’RE TOO CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN LIVES TO TAKE MUCH OF AN INTEREST IN MINE.
BETWEEN WORKING FORTY-PLUS HOURS, TAKING CARE OF A HOUSE, COMMUTING, FAMILY, HUSBAND, THERE IS JUST NOT MUCH TIME LEFT. IN THAT LITTLE TIME I DO CARVE OUT FOR A FRIEND, IT IS REALLY HARD TO TAKE THAT FRIENDSHIP PAST SUPERFICIAL CONVERSATION INTO DEEP CONVERSATIONS.
WHEN THE DOORBELL RANG AT
7:30 p.m., I had already eaten dinner, changed into my long, comfy robe, and begun to unwind from a stressful day.
Who could possibly be ringing our doorbell right now?
I opened the front door to find Lindsey, Kirk, and their three kids, the whole lot looking like they’d just stepped out of the pages of a magazine: perfectly coordinated, every hair on every head in place, smiles as wide as Texas. “We just had our family pictures taken,” Lindsey explained. “I should have texted you, but we were driving by, and I’ve been wanting Kirk to see your patio furniture because we’re wanting to get something similar, and, well, can we just take a peek and then let you get back to your plans?”
I obviously didn’t have “plans.”
At the time, they were still newish friends, and I was very
aware I was in my robe. Glancing down at my attire, I had to laugh. “Come in!” I heard myself say.
The whole pack of us swept through the cluttered kitchen and living room and went outside to the patio. Zac and I insisted that they sit down and stay. They insisted that they didn’t want to bother us, that, really, they should go.
Zac started a fire in the firepit, and we all sat down together, and they stayed.
They interrupted our nothing night, and their kids crawled all over us while we talked, and I never changed out of my robe. All of it was more heaven than my new-to-Dallas heart could contain.
About two hours into that fireside conversation, we realized we needed snacks. Lindsey and I went into the kitchen to grab whatever junk we could find and then returned to the fire, to our families, to the conversation at hand. I look back on that night now and realize that the unplanned nature of the whole thing took our relationship to a new level, a deeper level, a level that said, “Yeah, I know we don’t yet know each other well, but I am going to be
of friend in your life.”
The kind of friend who drops by unannounced.
The kind of friend kids can crawl all over without being told to stop.
The kind of friend who looks past your bathrobe and messy house.
Since the Stone Age, we humans have been building fires, and while there are plenty of practical reasons for this—we wanted
cooked food, we needed to forge metal, we were hoping to stave off a bitterly cold winter, and more—one of the primary benefits of those fires has been the simple ambiance they afford. Firepit flames seem to mesmerize us, and we can kind of get lost in their trance.
Given that we spend most of our days strategizing, planning, working, and following through, there is a natural pull to sit down, to relax, to calm the mind, to chat. A fire gives us a place to do all these things. “Gathering around an evening fire is…an important opportunity for calm information exchange,” wrote Christopher Lynn, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama.
During the day, biological rhythms produced by elevated cortisol and other stress hormones keep humans awake and provide the pre-coffee bump needed to be motivated and get things done…. But as cortisol levels drop in the evening, we’re able to sit and relax. We’re in a mood to tell and listen to stories.
I remember reading of an anthropologist who spent nearly two hundred days living with the native people of Botswana and Namibia. She discovered that, while about three-fourths of the tribe’s daytime conversations centered on work-related talk, more than three-fourths of their nighttime conversations—always held around a fire, incidentally—centered on spirituality or what the researcher called “enthralling stories.” The tribespeople talked about adventures they’d had. And about elephants they’d encountered. And about politics, religion, and the dreams they had for their lives.
Throughout history villages have gathered around fires to cook, to plan, to dance and sing, to be together after the kids are in bed. Yep. Fire has been the communal spot since the beginning of time. According to research published in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
“ending the day around the campfire, where songs, stories and relationships blossomed, ultimately shaped cultures and perhaps even helped develop some of our ability to understand one another, cooperate and internalize culture.”
Fires bring us together.
Real life, face to face, no phones, together.
It is not really an exaggeration to say that for the first months that we lived in Dallas, we were not invited anywhere. You know how when you’ve been living in the same place for a while, your biggest concern—assuming there’s not a global pandemic—is knowing what to say yes to and what to say no to? Life feels so busy that at times you’re sure that if your kids have one more thing they are required to attend, your whole universe might spin right off its axis.
So, take that reality and turn it, oh, 180 degrees, and you’ll know what Dallas was like for us the first year we called it home. Zac and I rarely did anything. Our kids never did anything. Excitement was movie night at home.
One afternoon, on my way home from the grocery store, where I’d seen nobody I knew and had exactly zero
conversations with another human being, I drove past a senior-living apartment situated half a mile from our house, and before I could stop them, tears sprang to my eyes.
I’ll have no friends to live there with someday, because I have no friends.
Drama. I know.
I toyed for half a second with the idea of becoming a modern-day hermit, right there in the densely populated community of North Dallas. Who needed friends, anyway? Think of all the time I’d have, how much cleaner life would be. Things would be far simpler. No disappointments. No relational pain.
I could have done it, honestly…maybe…except for one detail I just couldn’t shake:
we were not created to live alone.
I thought about those Rwandan women who had a whole village worth of camaraderie, dozens and dozens of lifelong relationships at their disposal. And there in the seat of that rundown van, I thought,
If I could just have a fraction of that connectedness, I’d be happy. Five friends in five miles? I would totally settle for that.
Five friends in five miles.
This became my Dallas Friendship Plan. I set about looking for friends who lived within walking distance. I might not be able to rack up scores and scores of relational wins in Dallas, but surely I could at least find five friends who lived close by. I could make this work.
Five friends within five miles. Ready, set, go.
Now, before you put a For Sale sign in your yard, let’s look for the friends who might be right under your nose.
The most common explanation I hear from people about why they don’t have friends is they are too busy. But what if, instead of scheduling occasional lunch dates or starting some new monthly club, you looked around at what you already are doing and who you already are with?
My sister-in-law Ashley recently went on a four-day silent retreat, and while I suspected she was going to hate the experience, in an act of impressive self-restraint I held my tongue until she returned. “Well, what did you think?” I asked as we settled in on my back porch to analyze it all.
“It was…silent,” Ashley said. “And also, pure torture.”
“I knew it!” I beamed. “I
that’s how you’d feel.”
We are both extroverts, and while I’ve been on plenty of silent retreats alone to write or to pray, trying to survive in silence with real live human beings around would be agonizing at best. I can do the “alone thing,” no problem. It’s just that when I’m supposed to behave as if I’m alone when there are perfectly lovely people around, I just can’t relax.
to short-circuit when we are surrounded by people we aren’t engaging with.
to make us feel tortured inside when we act alone in the context of perfectly good people we could be hanging out with and loving well. We should come away absolutely hating any experience that
by design distances us from other human beings instead of helping us to draw near to each other. And yet far too many of us have adopted this as a lifestyle. We go through life barely noticing the people God has put right in our paths, insisting that we’re all alone in the world, that nobody cares, and that we’re doing just fine on our own. The truth is this: we are meant to be emotionally close to the people we are physically close to.
Be close to those we’re close to—that’s my goal for us. And it’s admittedly a stretch goal. Because most of us choose to hold on to friends from past residences and past lives, believing that since nobody who is right here in front of us will ever measure up to those precious people, why bother making new friends?
Or we say we are too busy to build new relationships, when we are actually around people that could be more than acquaintances if we invited them into our lives.
Or we center every moment of every day on our nuclear family members so that we never even allow ourselves to dream about having caring, intimate, non-family friends.
Or we believe we need to have absolutely everything in common with people and be in the same life stage before we even consider they could become close friends.
Or we move constantly, we never settle down, and we are always looking for the next adventure, next roommate, next
church, next job. We don’t truly commit to a place and a handful of people.
If you are trying to make friendship an addendum to your busy schedule, it will never work.
You have to build it as you’re going. Relationships should arise out of your everyday places and your everyday activities.
Proximity is a starting place for intimacy.
Yes, I have deep sister-friends spread all over the country, but those relationships will always take more effort. It’s hard to “run a casserole over” when the world falls apart for one of them. Many of my long-distance friends are forever friends to me, and I have a handful that I will never let go as long as I live.
But we all need a network of regular people who are present in our daily lives.
Hebrews commands us to consistently make time together: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The writer is speaking here of the church, which we will discuss in greater detail later, but when this exhortation was written, “church” was defined as a group of people, not a building for a once-a-week gathering. The Church was a local group of interdependent people who loved God and each other. They did everything together. They ate together, prayed together, encouraged each other, and sold goods so that they could take care of each other.
To build a lifestyle in which we are consistently present for one another like this, we need to do three key things.
Consider the people who you see regularly at your school or your church or your job or your neighborhood or a kid’s sports team or a book club. Could it be that there are close friendships waiting for you there?
Right now, get a blank piece of paper and draw scattered circles for each of the activities and venues you frequent over the course of a given week. Label each circle with the location or activity. Next to each circle, write the names of people you interact with in each place. Now think about each of those people in terms of potential friendships.
Who do you enjoy being around?
Who do you share some things in common with?
Who seems genuinely interested in you?
Go back over your list of acquaintances and highlight ten names of people you could see yourself investing in on a deeper level. Pray over those ten highlighted names, and ask God to help you decide on the three to five people to pursue deep relationships with. Who are those people? Circle each name with a red pen.
Your map might look something like the example below.
The truth of my relational situation when I moved to Dallas was that I knew some friends. The problem was that, while those people all lived in Dallas, few of them lived within a half-hour drive of our new home. As is the case with Austin (and hundreds of other metropolises throughout our country), Dallas is an urban sprawl made up of countless bedroom communities, subdivisions, neighborhoods, and parts of town, each connected to the next by tangled spaghetti mounds of interstates and freeways. To drive from one side of the city to the other takes planning, strategy, and time. Had I settled for simply reconnecting with all the people I already knew, I would have been replicating the terrible reality I’d fallen into in Austin: namely, living so far away from my people that they never felt like my people at all. If a friend—or I—was having a meltdown on an average Tuesday night, we needed to be able to get to each other—fast.
I realized I had to quit viewing everyone in my new neighborhood and at my kids’ schools, church, and Conner’s football games as nameless strangers.
I needed to start viewing them as friends in the making.
So, that’s step 1 for both you and me: Start seeing the people right in front of us as friends—or
friends, at least.
This next part is where things get a little awkward.