I read through the cheerful email addressed to our regional homeschool group from a new family who had moved into the area. Our children were about the same ages, I noticed. She had used all the code words to declare her preferences and to tell us exactly what kind of homeschooler, what kind of Christian, what kind of parent she was. They weren’t the same code words I would have used to describe my family. We clearly had different approaches to almost everything.
After reading the whole message twice and considering for a few minutes, I ended up not reaching out to invite her and her children for a playdate. Maybe I disapproved of her choices. More likely, I was afraid she would disapprove of mine. It doesn’t really matter which one of us might have disapproved of the other — the outcome is the same. We’ll never really know, will we?
Despite the many advantages of technology in relationship-building, sometimes I wonder if it was actually easier to make new friends before the internet … back in the days when seeing another family at the park with similarly-aged (or even differently-aged!) children would have been enough of a reason to have a conversation or set up a follow-up playdate. I remember being approached once by another mom one day just because I had a stroller next to me at the park, even though she couldn’t see what was inside it (my infant twins). We ended up talking, got together a few more times, and became good friends. Although her family ended up moving away a few years later, our friendship meant a lot to me. Had I known that day at the park how many significant differences in perspective and beliefs we had, I might not have pursued a friendship with her. That would have been a great loss, as I learned a lot from her because of (and not just in spite of) our differences.
There is great value in making friendships with people who are like us. For years, I prayed for a like-minded Catholic friend with whom I could be vulnerable and who would challenge me to grow spiritually. Friends who share our faith end up forming a kind of inner sanctum, creating a safe zone in which our cultural practices and beliefs are reinforced and strengthened. I treasure my small tribe of Catholic homeschool mom friends for this reinforcement. We celebrate feasts together. We support each other during pregnancy and postpartum by sharing meals and child care. We pray with and for one another in good times and in bad. I would not trade these women for all the friends in the world.
But I treasure my non-Catholic, non-homeschooling friends, too. They don’t always see things the way I do. Sometimes Church teaching doesn’t make sense to them. We don’t always hold the same views, and sometimes our choices about how to navigate social issues with our children are different. Still, they broaden my perspective. They challenge me to be less complacent about my beliefs and assumptions. They care about me and my family, and they offer support and loyalty when times are hard, not because we’re exactly the same, but because that’s what friends do.
Differences are important, and we should pay attention to them. The ones we choose to notice can tell us as much about ourselves as about the people from whom we find ourselves distinct. In this time of instant worldwide connectivity, though, it has become so easy to surround ourselves with increasingly specific groups of people with whom we feel affinity. The things we identify as important about ourselves are things we might be seeking in supportive friends, too.
Just in scrolling through the groups I’ve joined on Facebook, I can see this trend. I’m part of a Natural Parenting group, a Naturally Parenting Twins group, a Catholic Mothers of Multiples group, and a Catholic Homeschooling Moms group. Facebook makes it easy to find circles of people who like the same things and believe the same things we do (The Catholic Homeschooling Knitting Moms Who Run and Parent Twins Plus Other Children and Drink Decaf Tea in the Afternoon While Reading Aloud from Hardback Books But Aren’t Good At Making Homemade Bread Group, maybe?) The problem with these labels is that they are all self-assigned. In finding people more and more like us, we separate ourselves from people who are not like us … and the smaller I draw these circles, the more people I exclude.
Maybe instead of encouraging me to develop new relationships, the internet has been limiting me.
Instead of gradually getting to know someone and finding out ways in which we are alike and different, we now can find out up front whether someone agrees with our positions on nearly everything. We can decide that someone’s political affiliation or shared Facebook meme disqualifies them as a friend before we have spent more than a few minutes together. What if my decision to pass over that woman’s email caused me to miss out on a great relationship? What if I cheated myself or my children out of the chance to make a friend, just because I was too busy judging the way the message was presented?
What if underneath all the code words, the real message is, “I’m new, and I’m looking for friends to share the journey?” I can easily imagine the tingle of vulnerability and hopeful excitement mixed with a smattering of fear that goes along with sending a message like that. And if I can imagine the courage it takes to reach out, I can also imagine the surge of joy that comes with receiving a friendly, open response.
Remembering Saint Paul’s wise words to the Galatians, I wonder if he might tell us today that “in Christ, there is neither public schooler nor homeschooler, there is neither Methodist nor Catholic, there is neither working parent nor stay-at-home parent, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
After giving it some more thought, I’ve decided to respond to the message after all with a friendly welcome. Maybe we will end up becoming friends, maybe not … but at least I will know that I didn’t let the labels we assign ourselves keep me from trying.
Copyright 2017 Abbey Dupuy