Last weekend, my husband and I schlepped the kids to the park and as we unloaded the kids, the dog, the bikes, and every other bit of unnecessary gear from our vehicle, a passenger van pulled up next to us. The doors opened and out poured a half dozen kids looking to expend energy on the playground. The driver of the van, a woman, made eye contact with me and commented about how unusual it is to see another large van like her own. A conversation between the three adults ensued and I learned the woman was brand new to the area, has ten children and doesn’t know a single soul.
My heart went out to her.
I’ve been in her place: a transplant to an inhospitable area of the country. I know what it’s like to have a slew of kids and not have a single friend. I know what it’s like to feel isolated in a rural area and so before I could talk myself out of it, I said,
“Listen, why don’t you give me your phone number? Some of my friends and I are going to sneak out to dinner this week and I would love for you to come. You could meet some other women and make a few connections.”
I walked to my van to get a piece of paper to write down her number and when I returned she said,
“I don’t really need friends…” she paused for a minute and then followed up with, “but my kids do. Unfortunately, I don’t let my kids go anywhere unless I know the family but yeah…ok, you can take my number.”
I felt an invisible wall go up.
This interaction came on the heels of a similar experience I had just a few days prior. I belong to a 10,000-person parish and our women’s ministry hosted an event for all the ladies. For weeks prior, we handed out flyers after Mass in order to promote the retreat. Many people responded positively to the flyer but many also looked at it and then said, “I don’t have time for this right now. I’m not really interested.”
Whenever one of the strangers responded like this, I felt that same wall that I had experienced that day with the woman at the park, a wall that blocked any hopes of interpersonal relationship.
In Gaudium et spes, Pope Paul VI wrote, “But God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen. 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential” (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes #12).
Paul VI is clear—we humans need each other to live our best lives and to develop into our best selves.
Scripture is also clear about the importance of community in our lives:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
“We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
One of the great lies of the modern day era is we are self-sufficient; that we don’t need community because our basic human needs are met. Our money, comfort, and technology isolate us to such a degree that many believe we simply don’t need the help and companionship of others. Today, it is more common to be on guard and suspicious of those open to friendship and community than it is freely engage with people we meet.
But we aren’t meant to live in isolation.
We are meant to be in community, as uncomfortable and as difficult as community may be sometime.
Unfortunately, people don’t even know they need other people anymore!
We are deadened to our human need for connection and attachment. Our smart phones and constant technology use prevent the authentic, honest conversation for which we long. It is much easier to hold up a polite hand and say, “No thank you. I’m good” than it is to jump into the messiness of human interaction.
But we are called to the messiness.
We are called to persevere in relationship, even when it brings us out of our comfort zone or is painful or inconvenient. We are not called to isolation!
We need each other to grow in faith. We need prayers and support and the witness of others. We need our friends to point us back to Jesus when we wander away from Him.
So how are disciples of Christ to respond in a world of self-sufficiency and isolation?
How are we to cultivate friendships in a world that seems almost hostile? What are we to do when you extend an offer of friendship and someone responds, “I’m good. Thanks, anyway.?”
We start simple and we keep trying, even when we are rejected:
- We smile at strangers.
- We talk to our neighbors, even when it’s inconvenient and time consuming.
- We reach out to new people, even if they imply they don’t need us.
- We invite new people to our house.
- We ask a friend to go to Mass with us.
These small acts of kindness, of course, leave us open to rejection. People may tell us, “No thanks.” Rejection is most certainly a risk we take when offering friendship, but I like to think of reaching out to others as a risk I take for Christ.
Like one of my favorite authors says, “It is better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.” (Steven Pressfield, The War of Art) Quite frankly, I would rather get stomped by the bull in the name of Jesus, than smoking in the parking lot, comfortable and afraid.
So I will keep reaching out to others and I will keep calling people into friendship and community, even though friendship and community can be painful and hard. I will keep extending the invitation to others on the off chance there will be one person who says, “Yes, that sounds lovely. Thank you for inviting me.”
Because an encounter with Christ is an encounter that can change the trajectory of a person’s life.
I know because encountering Jesus changed my life and I want to share his invitation to every soul I meet.