Jim went off to university aged eighteen. He’d grown up in his hometown, been popular in school, his sports team and in church but leaving home was one of the rites of passage that he was looking forward to, even if it meant not being able to stay in touch with a few of his friends as much. At university he was thrown into halls of residence with about 200 other first year students, and soon was socialising most nights of the week with them, or with his new sports team or church friends.
“Halls” as they were known, were the social hub that couldn’t really be replicated again in life at any point. Everyone wanted to make friends, everyone felt vulnerable, everyone had huge amounts of freetime (between lectures, and particularly as first year grades didn’t really matter), and there were thousands of other people nearby, just like Jim.
3 years of his degree flew by, and soon Jim faced the reality of the working world ahead of him. Very few people stayed in the city they lived in for university. Jobs weren’t abundant and although relational roots seemed deep, the tie to the geographical place was nothing more than a fond memory, and perhaps a church community. Campus was only good when you knew the people on it. The city was only special when you were there with friends.
And so Jim moved again, off to the capital for his first ever full-time job. Settling into the capital was far harder, as not everyone was in the same position as he was and he only knew a few people and they still lived over an hour from him. Back again at square one, it felt like a lonely world without the “halls” experience, and by the time Jim made friends in a new church, a new sports team and the odd person at work, it was a year or two onwards.
One of the big challenges of that period was to know whether to embrace loneliness or to run from it. To run from it (the socially acceptable option – no-one wants to appear lonely!), would be to constantly try and live life in his previous communities – going off to visit the lads from uni, or popping home to visit childhood friends, family and church. All could be very good uses of time, energy and intentional spiritual/missional living, but none would connect him long-term to a community locally in any real way. Was he to embrace loneliness for the sake of making friends and settling in his new home?
But Jim decided that he’d never settle in a job or a place, if he didn’t intentionally make friends and connections in his new setting, even if that meant he couldn’t see so much of his uni friends and church. So he committed to being around at weekends to find a new church community nearby, and he tried his best to make friends at work (awkward as that always is) and to join a local team (even when making training after work was nigh impossible at times and friendships were slow to form).
Like many have found, he soon was surrounded by a warm, welcoming church community that felt like family to him, which was a huge relief, after months of embracing loneliness in his new setting. No longer needing to appear to be a social reject with no friends, he now had Christian friends (even if they were a little weird at times and didn’t like his politics). Occasionally he felt a bit guilty when anyone in church brought up the topic of evangelism – who did he meaningfully know who wasn’t a Christian? But quickly he excused himself…perhaps he could speak to his awkward work colleagues? And besides, had anyone tried to move to a new city and start new church, new work and new friendships all at once?
Judy also grew up in a smaller town with no university or college nearby. When she reached 18 she was the first in her family to ever go to college, as seemed the norm for everyone to do these days. As the family weren’t well-off and couldn’t afford separate accommodation in the university city nearby, she instead got the bus in and out to college each day, travelling 90 minutes each way. To finance her course and whatever else she wanted in life, she worked a part-time job with a local business who she’d worked for as a teenager.
Her friends remained the same (most of them also going to this uni). Her family were still there (even if that annoyed her at times). And her church remained constant (even if she’d rather have been treated a bit more like an adult by them). Making friends wasn’t really a priority at college for Judy, as she already had many deep friendships with old school friends and at the local sports club back home (who she still played for). In fact, between work, sport, church and travelling to college, she barely had anytime for herself, let alone anytime for adding more people into her life. It meant that although she helped at the local campus ministry’s international cafe, befriending international students, she was never really able to spend much time with any of them.
Upon finishing college, she had enough saved up from her years working part-time that she decided to spread her wings and go for a round-the-world trip on a budget, alongside one of the few new friends she’d made from her course at uni, Jordan. The world was their oyster as they thought about where to go. And there’d be no rent payments, car insurance or parents breathing down their backs – freedom! And far cheaper than staying at home. They even got to visit a few of the international students from the college international cafe too!
That year they had the time of their lives. Backpacking in Australia and New Zealand. Visiting the paradise islands of Vanuatu. Helping an orphanage in Thailand for 3 months. And a host of other breathtaking experiences. And as well as that, everyone they met on the road seemed to be quality people – just like them. Maybe travel does that too you? Makes you more open-minded and less judgmental.
Judy arrived back home after a year on the road and immediately had the travel-bug and wanted to be away again. After a few short trips round Ireland and across Europe on cheap flights, she resigned herself to her parents’ nagging – better get a “proper” job! No-one seemed to understand how amazing her year had been, and she didn’t want to be “that” person who never shut up about it. But she really struggled to settle back into life at home. Even some of her close friends seemed to have moved on a bit, although they welcomed her in again of course, as much as they saw her between her trips.
For many winter evenings, Judy would while away the hours chatting to friends she’d met all round the globe. Many of them were Christians and gave her a taste of faith that went beyond her culture. At times her church at home seemed quite dull compared to many of the vibrant flavours of Christianity she’d experienced round the world – was this really all church was meant to be?
Jim and Judy’s stories are combinations of stories I’ve heard, seen and experienced for years in the student and travel world. Hyper-individualism is combined with the online world opening up boundaries, and good intentions for living out our faith. It often leaves many of us with questions that don’t appear to have easy answers. Here are just a few statements I’ve regularly encountered:
- “I’ve just too many friends. How can I keep in touch with them all? I certainly don’t want to meet anyone else.”
- “I’ve thousands of followers, but I seem to have lost the deep friendships I had in childhood. Strangely, despite this, I still lack the motivation or mental strength to get out to meet people in person.”
- [full-time Christian worker] “I feel like I have to stay in touch with all these hundreds of people – they support me in prayer and I hope some of them may financially support me. But it exhausts me. I’m paralysed by it all.”
- “I’ve moved cities several times now, and my work are talking about moving me again – I feel like a nomad who struggles to form deep friendships, because people know I will move on soon.”
- “I feel like I have to keep trying new things and playing new circles if I’m ever going to meet someone I want to marry – there’s soo many people in the world, and I know everyone in my town already.”
- “My family want me to do this, but we don’t get on amazingly well – I’d far rather spend the holidays with my friends.”
- “Church people are so naff. I mean, they’re lovely and I love them, but I’d never introduce them to my friends in life – they’d make them run a mile!”
- “God’s given us amazing church community, and I really struggle with the things my colleagues talk about and do, so I’d rather just focus on the few friendships I have in church.”
Society has changed.
Previously, a few generations ago, you might have grown up in the same town, with the same people and not had a choice in what job you had. The questions about friendship probably would have been very different. Elsewhere I’ve noted how the same individualism that brings us choice, also paralyses us. Amidst the great benefits from the freedom to travel, come the hard consequences for friendship that I’ve never really heard anyone offer us any help with. What truth might there be in the statements above? But what problems are arising or might arise if we fully went with any one of the statements?
I’d love to hear if you know of any good resources on friendship that speak into our individualistic western culture and help us grapple with what true friendship should look like for traveling people.
Or does travelling fly in the very face of having true friends?
Answers on a postcard! Creative guest posts welcome.