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Friendships are a beautiful and enriching gift from God for our lives. But we shouldn’t simply sit on those friendships and not do anything to grow them or keep them strong throughout the years. Trina Lee, 4word Mentor Program manager and 4word: Portland leader, gives her tips for cultivating and maintaining friendships across different seasons of life.
Do you think social media has helped or hindered how we keep up with people in our life?
In college I studied communication, so I see any new communication device or platform as just a tool and neutral in nature. How we elect to use communication tools will determine if they’re beneficial or distracting, healthy or unhealthy, helpful or hindersome in our lives. Never before have we had so many tools with which to stay in touch with friends, family and former colleagues, but we also have never had so many alternative ways to fill our time either.
Social media can allow us to know things we might not otherwise easily know and then to respond in tangible ways. For example, a few years ago I learned through Facebook that a former team member’s father had passed away. While I hadn’t seen this friend in years, this person had been an important part of my life for a season and because I believe in the importance of showing up in times of both joy and sorrow, I attended the funeral service for his father. This wouldn’t have been possible without social media.
We need to be mindful, though, of how we’re using social media and the impact that’s having on us. Do you feel like you’ve caught up on what your friends are doing, but you haven’t really had any meaningful connections with them? Are you listening more than sharing and vice versa? Are you struggling with comparison because you’re just seeing others’ highlight reels?
For me personally, podcasts have had more impact on my friendships than social media. Before discovering podcasts about nine years ago, I would spend nearly all of my drive time calling friends and family. I drove significantly more in previous seasons and this was one way that I maintained a significant number of relationships over time and distance for a good decade.
What has been the hardest part for you in keeping up with friends across seasons of life?
It’s been a combination of things for me. As friends moved, got married, and had children, their availability and relational priorities naturally changed. I have also noticed for myself that it’s harder to be the friend I’d want to be to others when I’m going through seasons of stress, change, or simply not feeling great about my life. And I know that the same is true for others as well, which is why I try to practice giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best. I might not have heard from a friend in ages, not because they don’t sincerely care about me, but because there are many things going on in their life that I’m just not in close enough proximity to see.
Are there any relationships you weren’t able to keep up with that you can now see where you might have been able to?
I had a great season of maintaining a lot of relationships, followed by a season of doing it horribly. I’m coming out of the latter and am working to better align my heart and intentions with my time and actions.
When I’m being honest with myself, a lack of time has never been my reason for not maintaining relationships. It’s been allowing other things, even good things, to take greater priority in my life. I’ve also allowed, more than once, not completing a gift I was creating for a friend become the reason that I’ve lost contact with them. And more often than not, it has simply been out of embarrassment that I’ve been out of touch, since I was the person who didn’t reply to their emails or return their phone calls.
I also strongly believe that our true friendships don’t have expiration dates on them. We can reconnect with friends with whom we’ve lost contact, and it’s never too late to be the type of friend that we want to be to others.
What advice would you give to someone trying to maintain relationships in their life?
Be intentional. Start with making a few lists. Which relationships are current in your life? How do you connect and care for those relationships? Are there any ways you’d like to be more intentional with your current relationships? Then reflect on those with whom you’ve not connected within the last six months, year, or decade. Consider making a friendship “hit list” of those who’d you like to reach out to again. Then make a plan and write it down. Will you try to reach out to one old friend a week? Three friends over a weekend, etc.?
Be strategic. While in college, I recall learning that Susan Murphy, our VP for Student & Academic Services, annually spent one week a year vacationing with her family and one week a year vacationing with a group of her sorority sisters. What a rich and fulfilling tradition this must have been for Susan and her friends.
What rhythms and traditions can you create with your relationships? Who can you call when you’re doing routine tasks, like folding the laundry or going on a walk? I once had a routine of calling my cousin Betty on Tuesday evenings, while I was driving to my Bible study and she was cooking dinner. When life changes these routines, we need to strategically look for new ones.
What standing dates can you make? With one couple with whom I’d lost contact, even after moving to their part of the state, over a year ago we instituted a monthly Saturday dinner date at 7:30 p.m. They have three young children, the youngest of which I have yet to even meet, because we strategically plan to have a later dinner and adult conversations after their children are in bed. We start the evening by putting our next dinner on the calendar and this rhythm has been life-giving to us all.
How are (or aren’t) you spending your vacation time? When traveling for work, with whom can you connect? Can you add an extra day to your trip for friendship time? I realized last year that I had dear friends that I hadn’t connected with in some time and while they’d come to Oregon to visit family, those visits were not conducive to deeply connecting with them. Instead, these friends were so important to me that I have budgeted and planned to fly to California twice a year to see them and their girls.
Is there a way you can annually gather your friends together? A couple I know, Niles and Emily, have annually hosted a BBQ around the 4th of July. It’s created a space for those of us who used to be in weekly contact with each other to gather and reconnect. For years I organized an annual birthday dinner for myself at my favorite Thai restaurant and more recently have shifted to an open house Saturday brunch. These gatherings were annual rhythms to introduce friends to each other and for circles of friends to spend time together.
Leverage technology. Create recurring calendar reminders to remember your friends’ best and worst days. We often do a great job of mourning with our friends after hard things, but they won’t forget the second or fifth anniversaries of their hardest days.
In addition to calling, texting, and email, consider using an app like Voxer or Marco Polo to send messages back and forth. Add notes to your contacts about what your friends like and dislike, what their top love languages might be, and things you want to ask them. Have a running list of gift ideas. Use Facebook for birthday reminders and don’t just say “Happy Birthday,” but verbally affirm what you appreciate most about them or one of your favorite memories of them.
Is there ever a point where you stop trying to maintain a relationship?
Throughout life, there are times when we realize that a friendship might mean more to us than it does to the other person or that a friendship has run its course. I think that it’s healthiest to assume the best and to give the others the benefit of the doubt. But there may come a time when a relationship needs to change or no longer be maintained. We can still have gratitude for the person and fondly recall what the relationship meant to us.
I know I’m relationally the healthiest when I’m asking God and myself, “How can I best be the friend that my friend needs me to be?”, not when I’m asking, “Why isn’t my friend being a better friend to me?”
Even in seasons of transitions or fewer friendships in close proximity, we do not have an absence of people in our lives to whom we can show kindness and care. There is the grocery store cashier to fully acknowledge and make eye contact with, the colleague to encourage, and the relative to call. Friendships are not spontaneous and they take time and intentionality to build. You never know when a new friendship might begin by simply being present to those with whom God has already placed in your life.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Don’t let guilt or shame prevent you from reaching out to old friends. When someone comes to mind, let them know. Send a text versus doing nothing. Gretchen Rubin also advises getting into the habit of saying, “This made me think of you.”
Keep a stash of cards and stamps on hand. In an age when handwritten letters or notes are a rarity, the effort made to write and send a note is warmly received.
In 2009 Bronnie Ware wrote an online article called “Regrets of the Dying” about her time as a palliative care giver. One of the five regrets from those who were dying was, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” It was not until they were in their dying weeks that some of her patients would come to realize the full benefits of old friends. This truth reminds me of a friendship song I learned in Camp Fire. The opening line is “Make new friends, but keep the old; One is silver and the other gold.”
I believe our friendships that span time and distance can serve as our best mirrors. These relationships can beautifully and graciously reflect back to us both who we’ve always been and who we’ve become. Allow God to show you His unconditional love through being a friend to others.
Who are you being prompted to connect with today?
Trina Lee is a non-profit professional. She leads the U.S. sponsorship team for Africa New Life, which is transforming the lives of over 10,000 students in Rwanda. Trina is also part of the 4word team, manages the 4word Mentor Program, and has personally paired over 500 mentor pairs together. She’s been part of 4word since 2011 and serves on the 4word: Portland leadership team.