Read Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World Online
Authors: Jennie Allen
No! Some of my dearest friends live nowhere near me. But the fact remains that I need somebody to bring me a casserole when I am floundering in crisis or stress, and I need someone who can look me in the eyeballs and call me out on what I’m not saying. I need someone who pops in spontaneously, makes me get dressed, and pulls me out to have some fun when I get depressed. And my people need me to do the same for them. So, while I will never lose my longtime, long-distance friends, I can’t function well without friends who live close by. Neither can you.
The power of a plan and patterns for living is that they set you up to live well, wherever you are. As someone who just started over, I can tell you that this plan has worked for me. So even if you have to execute this plan at lightning speed because you
won’t be in your current location long, do it. No point in living lonely, even for a year.
I get it. Some people don’t have this capacity. Move on, keep trying. Don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. Don’t give in to fear. Just go to the next person. If that doesn’t work out, go to the next person.
Remember to look for your people in unexpected places. Life stage doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. Find the people who are following after Jesus, and then go with them.
I HAVE A HARD TIME TRUSTING.
I’M AFRAID I MIGHT NEED MORE THAN I CAN GIVE.
I’M UNABLE TO LET GO OF OLD FRIENDSHIPS THAT HURT ME.
I’VE BEEN REJECTED SO MUCH IN THE PAST.
I FEEL LIKE A BURDEN, SO I JUST DON’T GO DEEP.
I FEEL LIKE I HAVE TO PRETEND THAT I AM OKAY OR BE JUDGED.
I HAVE LOST FRIENDS BECAUSE I
haven’t done what I am about to tell you to do. I wrote this chapter through many tears, knowing that I am terrible at what I am going to ask you to do here.
I’ve been racking my brain, trying to remember how the conversation came about or why we were talking about such a deep and meaningful thing in the first place. As best I can recall, my friend Jessica and I were wrapping up an interview for my podcast by talking about how much we missed each other after my move to Dallas. I think she said something about being worried about losing our friendship across the miles. “You’ll never lose me!” I said to her, meaning it. She was one of my most beloved friends when we both lived in Austin, and with barely three hours’ drive time separating us, I figured we would keep a good thing going for years.
We were both kind of laughing—in that sentimental way that women do when they’re saying something important but don’t want to start crying—when I posed this question: “Jess, tell me how I can be a better friend to you?”
I thought she’d reply with something along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t know, Jennie, how about we set up a weekly phone chat?” Or, “Let’s get a girls’ weekend on the calendar.” Or, “Text me more often than you think you should.” I thought she would answer my question with a task list of sorts, a few things I could do for her.
She didn’t answer that way at all.
“You never need anything,” Jessica said. “You never need me. You never need anything from me.
I want you to need me more.
All the oxygen emptied from my tiny recording closet. Tears filled my eyes as my hands fell to my lap. My mouth was hovering over the microphone, but no words were coming out. What was I supposed to say to that? What could I possibly say? What one of my dearest friends needed from me wasn’t more attention, more camaraderie, more support.
What she needed from me was more of me.
The one problem? I wasn’t sure I could say yes to that.
As badly as the end of that conversation went, the worst was yet to come. Stopped at a traffic light on my way home from the office that afternoon, a haunting feeling came over me. I’d been sickened by Jessica’s response because it told me that the entire time we’d been friends, she’d felt like the road between us was something of a one-way street. But more agonizing than this first realization was the second realization that hit:
I’ve had this same conversation before.
were painfully familiar. I’d lost other friendships for this same reason.
Eighteen months earlier my friendship with Courtney had blown up. And the reason she’d cited then was the same one Jessica articulated now: “I hate that, to know what’s really going on with you, I have to read your Instagram.
You never need me.
She went on to say that she needed a break from me. “I don’t think I can be in a relationship like this,” she explained, “where I’m the only one who is being authentic, where I’m the only one who ever has needs.”
I remember being confused.
Am I really such an impossible person to be friends with? Is this her deal? My deal? Are we equally to blame?
For days—weeks, maybe—I reeled. I felt embarrassed. I truly thought of Courtney as one of my closest friends. And also, I felt ashamed. How had I become so closed off to people I cared about?
Where had the transparent part of me gone—and when?
Here is who I appear to be: gregarious, extroverted, chatty, inclusive, outgoing, generous with time and heart, loving, caring, a connector, great at parties, comfortable with people, content in my relational world.
Here is who I really am: all those things, until it goes deep. Then I hedge. Or distract. Or bail.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to go deep about you. I’m just
not that interested in divulging the truest parts of me. It feels selfish somehow. Greedy. Needy. Wrong. It feels like I’m wasting your time. Or sucking up too much oxygen. Or saying more than is prudent. Or talking when I should be listening. I guess maybe, too, I hate not being understood. What if I share the deepest parts of me and you look at me confused? Or worse, you try to fix me or change me?
These are all my reasons for asking you the probing questions and listening with sparkling eyes, shoulders hunched toward you in interest, mind hanging on your every word. But the fact is, I’m guarded. The truth is, I’ve been hurt.
Back when we were just kids, Zac heard about me from a friend of his, who said, “Zac, you’ll love her. She wears her heart on her sleeve.”
The friend meant it as high praise. If I felt something, I said it. I owned it. I was an open book. Zac wouldn’t have to guess how I was doing; I was openhearted and honest. That really is who I was back then: forthright, defenseless, unafraid. But that kind of living kept burning me. As a young mom, being honest with a few friends about how hard parenting and our marriage had become resulted in judgment instead of understanding. Because I was a pastor’s wife, the struggles I disclosed to a friend in private became fodder for church gossip and were used against both Zac and me in uncomfortably public ways. I once shared about a success with a friend, aching for someone to celebrate with me. Instead, my motives were immediately questioned. I recall dozens of other occasions when, despite my good intentions, things I said came back to haunt me.
Over time, after relational hurts stacked themselves high
enough, something in me hesitated when someone really wanted to know me. Inadvertently I started a building project. Without much thought, I erected tall walls with locked doors around my life. I’d reveal enough so people felt close to me but not give anyone enough to use against me. I’d cut out little windows here and there, so people felt like they knew me, but I lost my openheartedness and began to live in a protective way.
It would be easy to keep reading about my friendship dysfunctions and not apply anything to your life. But since we agreed to take this journey together, I’d like to give you a more active role. And so, I will ask you: What are your past relational pains? In what ways have you been hurt?
Have you opened up to a friend, only to have that friend use what you shared against you?
Have you drawn close to a group of friends and eventually found yourself on the outside of that group?
Have you felt judged because you didn’t measure up to some standard, spoken or unspoken?
Have you shared a struggle only to receive a sideways glance of judgment, made to feel like you are the only one who really struggles?
Have you invited and invited and shared and shared and invested and invested, and then when you need something, no one is there?
“After being burned, backstabbed, lied to, and otherwise betrayed,” one of my Instagram followers told me, “I have a hard time trusting anyone…letting them come inside my walls.”
Yep. I get the
thing. It’s safer behind those walls.
Walls are a luxury, a privilege. I learned this in Haiti while standing on the hill that overlooks a tent city, located a short two-hour flight from the coast of an affluent part of Florida. Blue tarps flapping in the wind concealed thousands of souls who, years after the big earthquake, still were displaced. They don’t have walls in that community.
I’ve noticed a similar reality in Africa, where I’ve visited dozens of huts. Guess how many huts have permanent walls, let alone doors with locks? None I have seen. Beyond the lack of physical privacy, vulnerability and transparency are an intentional part of village life. People who are simply trying to survive the rigors of daily life don’t have the capacity to both hold pain and shut others out. They don’t have the luxury of a closed, locked door…of tall, thick walls…of staying alone.
They need each other, and they know it.
But here is what I want to tell you: While it’s true that those people living in tough spots all over the world don’t choose vulnerability as much as vulnerability chooses them, it’s also true that vulnerability is choosing you and me. It’s asking us to come out of hiding and engage. To quit living behind our walls.
While admittedly painful—excruciating even, depending on the day—the lesson I’m learning right now is that
vulnerability is the soil for intimacy, and what waters intimacy is tears.
Real, raw, gut-wrenching honesty about the fight that made you want to leave your spouse last night, or the
addiction to pornography or sex that is eating you alive, or the abortion you have never shared, or the small stuff that makes you cry, the anxiety you feel when you think of your kids going to college, or the ache you feel to be married.
I wish I could tell you it worked the other way. I wish I could tell you that a friendship built solely on laughter and fun and lighthearted gatherings and good times would stand the test of time, would nourish the needs of your soul. I am good at all that stuff, you know?
But bare-my-soul intimacy? Not so much.
And yet whenever I hide behind my walls with the doors locked tight to keep out the potential of being misunderstood, or wronged, or devastated, or disappointed, or disillusioned, or mistreated, or hurt, I’m also keeping out the good things—everything we are built to crave: being encouraged, being held accountable, being seen, being loved, being known.
We all crave friends in the trenches who call us midcry and whom we call midcry, friends who don’t quit and don’t judge, friends who make us feel understood, seen, and challenged and remind us of our God and our hope, friends who compel us to get out of our robes and into our lives and callings—and none of that is possible until we risk letting our walls fall.
We must risk pain to have this kind of deep connection in our lives.
The enemy loves us to self-protect, and sometimes he will use our pain and sometimes he will use our shame. If you read my
Get Out of Your Head,
you’ll remember that, alone in the dark, the enemy can tell us all kinds of lies about ourselves, our God, our reality. He lures us behind walls with a sneaky word that sounds true and worms its way into our thoughts to become a belief about ourselves.
If you’re like me, you just winced when you read that word. You don’t risk transparency now because you’ve shared your struggles before and “friends” punished you for being so real.
One of the enemy’s favorite lies is the lie of shame, because the cost of shame is connection. I said earlier that, in the beginning, Adam and Eve had everything they needed from God. They were loved by God and were perfectly safe with each other. And still, they went off the rails. They chose their own way and broke their relationship with God and one another.
Satan. A choice. An apple. Shame. Immediate shame.
And how did they react? Genesis says they hid. They covered their shame and nakedness with leaves. They didn’t want God to find them.
But, of course, God found them.
God wanted them to come out of sin and hiding and shame and come back into relationship with Him. But God is just and righteous, and He could not tolerate sin with no consequence. Sin required payment, and the price was death. That day He set in motion an answer to it all. He covered the nakedness and shame of Adam and Eve with clothes made from animal skin. It was a picture of the gospel, a promise that one
day the blood sacrifice of a Lamb would cover our sins once and for all.
This remains God’s desire, that we would be in right relationship with Him.
This is the story of God. He loves us so much that even when we turn away, He fights to get us back, to make us right with Him. He values us so much, and He has set us in our places and created us for connection and purposes that are beyond what we can imagine. He does all that because He is good. He is so loving and powerful, and He wants to share Himself with us.
Since all this is true, we need never again be in bondage to shame. We have been made beautifully and totally free.
But we forget that this is so. We listen to the devil’s lying whispers that lead to shame. Add to that shame the pain caused by others, and even if in our hearts we believe God’s truth, we decide it’s safer to build the walls. Sigh.
This is why when a friend texts a last-minute invitation to hang out, you decline, crawl into your bed, and turn on Netflix again. It’s why even when a safe friend asks how you’re doing, you spit back a reflexive (and generally untrue), “Great! How are you?” It’s why I built walls without realizing it and continually made sure to be there for friends but never let them be there for me.
Shame is also why it feels like you get hit with arrows when you dare to peek out of your carefully built protective structure. Because shame can make people mean. While some of us hide behind walls of kindness and hospitality, others seek protection through hardness and cruelty, preemptively striking to avoid being hurt yet again.
We think the root problem of our isolation is chronic
busyness or tech addiction or broken families or the Church,
but the problem is inside all of us.
It was, and it is, and it will continue to be, until Jesus returns.
Is your marriage difficult?
Are you stuck in pornography or an obsession with your appearance?
Have you held on to hate and unforgiveness toward someone?
Are you trapped in debt that no one knows about?
Are you chronically angry toward your kids?
Do you doubt the faith you grew up holding?
The enemy’s strategy is to push us deep into shame and sin and to make us feel so isolated and guilty that we would never admit our struggle aloud. Research tells us that we begin feeling shame between fifteen and eighteen months of age.
Meaning, we experience shame before we even have words for it. Over time this tendency erodes our trust in God and fractures our relationships with people.
The devil is good at his job. Not only does he use shame to strip us of connection and community, but his whisper invades our thinking and multiplies the pain:
It’s your own fault that you’re alone.
It isn’t enough to feel alone. We feel guilty that it’s our fault!
Pain and shame compel us to hide behind walls of self-protection.
Eventually, we grow lonely behind those walls and venture out.
But other hurt, sinful people are wandering out of their walls and—
—we get hurt again.
So we go back to hiding and the cycle spins on.
How do we break free?