The Importance of Friendship Across Differences

Lisa Rieck

I don’t remember setting out to develop friendships with women of all different ages and stages. It wasn’t ever an item on one of my (many) to-do lists, nor did I have a list of diverse females mapped out whom I wanted to get to know in order to be a well-rounded person.

The truth is that I really love to learn. And I could tell, as I met women in different spheres of my life, that each one had important things to teach me.

But beyond my own desire to learn, I’ve discovered another motivation. The rampant political and cultural polarization in our country (and in the church) over the past eighteen months has taught me the absolute necessity of getting to know people different from me. Forging friendships with women across ethnicities and ages and life stages has broadened my thinking, deepened my faith, and changed my perspectives on a whole host of things — things I might have already made assumptions about without seeing the full picture. Here are just a few of the friends who have expanded my vision:

Janine is a White woman in her fifties, married with three adult children, and an artist. She teaches me about prayer, the creative process, faithfulness in her craft, and parenting.

Laura is Chinese American, and her family comes from the Philippines. In her thirties and an introvert like me, she has been married for three-and-a-half years and teaches me about organization, beauty, leadership, and honoring others.

Amy is also Chinese American and newly thirty. She is my polar opposite on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, so she helps me be more spontaneous (Lord, help her!) while teaching me about justice, faithfulness, and good coffee.

Marcia, a White woman with a master’s degree in nutrition, is widowed and in her sixties. Having been an editor now for many years, she sharpens my vocational skills, recommends delightful books, and teaches me about hospitality and generosity, as well as what it looks like to live a vibrant single life.

LaKendra is an African American woman with a master’s degree who is married and my same age. She challenges me by her involvement in the community and teaches me how to pray and lament (as well as how to stay safe as a female in a parking lot at night).

Alongside these women are many others I don’t have space to name who are also gifts in my life—moms of young kids, empty-nesters, immigrant women, mothers of teenagers, biracial friends. It’s impossible to trace the ways these women, with their different life experiences, have shaped and influenced me.

Of course, I have friends in my same life stage too, who understand present challenges and joys. I need them as well. But now that I’ve experienced the riches of friendship with a diverse group of women, I know that if I ever look at my life and only have friends who look like me and see the world like I do, I’m missing out on blessings and important skills for living out my faith in the current cultural context. I need married friends to show me the good and hard of marriage, older friends to show me what it looks like to be faithful for the long haul, younger friends to challenge my stubborn ways of thinking that might need to flex (and teach me how to use Snapchat!), friends with master’s degrees to guide me in my own upcoming journey toward an MFA, and friends of color to teach me about courage and justice and new ways to pray. I need Republican friends and Democrat friends, Anglican friends and Pentecostal friends, friends who make more money than I do and friends who make less.

So how do we go about meeting friends in different ages and stages, with different perspectives? As I look back, I can see a few steps I took that led to the variety of friendships I have now.

  1. Be intentional. Diversifying your circle of friends will take effort on your part — especially because churches can sometimes be intent on putting like people together and dividing us up based on life stage and age. You will likely have to be the one to initiate relationships and seek out others different from you. So be courageous in sending a first email or text to someone you want to get to know, whether that’s a faculty member you admire, a student or colleague in a different department, or an older member of your church. And don’t be offended if you have to initiate the second meet-up or the third. Women in different life stages or circumstances might be surprised you want to spend time with them and may assume you won’t want to keep getting together after an initial lunch or coffee date. But your persistence will communicate interest in them and affirmation of them, so keep on initiating, even if it feels for a bit like you’re doing more of the “work” in the friendship.
     
  2. Start with a common interest. The desire to get to know others who are different from you is good, but nobody wants to be a token friend. Look for ways to connect with new people over something you’re already interested in, whether that’s getting coffee to discuss a more specific sub-topic in your field or program with someone else who’s also interested, studying in a library or coffee shop in a different part of town than you normally hang out in, volunteering in your community in an area you’re passionate about, or joining a rec sports team. And then let friendships grow with individuals out of those shared interests and experiences.
     
  3. Persevere through initial awkwardness. There’s a reason we gravitate toward people who are like us: it takes less energy to be in relationship with them. We’re less prone to offend, quicker to understand the other’s situation, and often able to operate out of a shared set of values or assumptions. Getting to know others of different ages, ethnicities, and life stages will take more work. It requires us to ask more questions and listen with more humility. But once you push through what might feel like awkward small talk, you’ll likely find a rich web of stories to share.
     
  4. Be vulnerable. It’s easy for me to feel intimidated by others who are different from me—older and thus more knowledgeable about things, more adventurous, married, etc. And that can make me assume there’s nothing I can offer them. But I’ve found that my willingness to name my fears and failures or lack of knowledge invites them to do the same, and leads to us both learning from each other and correcting perceptions we each might have had about people in other life stages.

Friendships with a diverse group of women have been among the most important gifts in my life. I hope you find — and offer — the same to other women, in every stage you find yourself.

Lisa Rieck is a writer and editor on InterVarsity’s communications team. She worked at InterVarsity Press for over nine years as a proofreader and Bible study editor (and, as it were, resident limerick-writer). She is continually inspired by the beauty of the sky and loves good conversation with family and friends over steaming-hot beverages.

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