I remember a time when my friend Emily and I would spend each and every Saturday together.

We would meet at one of our respective homes, armed with our pocket money and bags to walk the 1.5 miles into town. We would wander around, mooching around Claire’s Accessories in search of jewellery, or Topshop if we had saved enough cash. We would probably stop by a tacky cafe and get lunch before wandering back to spend the afternoon together chatting away in mine or her bedroom.

We would often end up having dinner with the family, watching a film and then sleeping over before church in the morning. As we got older our trips into town became trips into Leeds, getting the train in together and then having Chinese buffet for lunch in the city centre.

I’m not sure when our Saturday routine dwindled away: maybe when I moved school and had more friends to spend time with. Maybe when I got a boyfriend. Maybe when exams started and our routines began to change.

I think back on the time and reflect on its sweetness & simplicity.

We all want a friend like Emily.

Someone that is a figure of stability in our lives, a friend in which we can come and go with like family, with whom we can spend endless hours with and be at total ease. A friend that is honest and direct and loyal. 

Friendship for me has been a rocky road with valleys and peaks; Sometimes full and sometimes lonely.

I think it’s a story we all know.

I, like so many before me, have experienced the pains of unmet expectations and disappointments in my friendships. Some of these relationships have left me feeling bereft, isolated, and let down.

I have at times questioned my worth and value as a friend — that age-old question that slips into my mind unwanted; am I enough?

I have longed deeply for faithful friends that stick by through thick and thin; that are willing to be transparent and vulnerable with me. I have longed for this but I also am deeply aware that I have not always been the friend I wish to have. I have selfishly desired for people to walk alongside me for my benefit: High expectations leading to crashing disappointments.

An inability to let people just be people - full of mistakes and faults just like me. 

This rocky journey is one I decided to purposefully pursue.

If I didn’t, I knew I would live my adult life in peaks and troughs of disappointment and hurt. That is not a burden I wish to carry.

I think for the past 18 months now I have chosen to tackle it head-on. To face up to the disappointments, expectations, hopes and fears that the word ‘friend’ brings up in my heart. It has been and is, a journey of healing.

It began with me reading ‘Messy Beautiful Friendship’ by Christine Hoover. In no way am I going to an attempt to rewrite her wisdom; just go read that wonderful book. As I read her honest, direct and yet gentle words, I let myself face up to my disappointments and fears and expectations in friendship. I faced up to my own failures and childish requirements. In doing so I felt the hard parts of my heart soften and expand and grow.

By God’s grace the year that I read the book, I gained the kind of friend I had been longing for. Loyal, loving, faithful, equally as interested in the relationship and most of all one who always pointed me heavenward. It was an image of grace for me. Showing me that yes, good friends - the kind you hope for - are out there and will bring life to your journey. I learnt that year that as our seasons of life change, so do those that surround us. Whilst there are some that last the test of time over years and continents and oceans and babies and job changes and the crazy of life, most come and go with seasons and that is ok.

My view of what a friend is is changing.

As my mindsets shifts, my heart feels the freedom that comes with it.

I strongly believe we are made for people.

We need them in our lives, all kinds of people. Family and spouses and kids and brothers and sisters, mentors and colleagues and bosses and pastors and peers and of course, friends. These are the people that help us grow and rub off our hard edges. They challenge us and bring up the worst in us and bring out the best whether we realise it or not.

Friends are ones we choose; The people we can (if we are willing) allow into our hearts to walk through life’s ups and downs. 

There has been a point for me on this journey of laying down. Ed and I have mulled this one over many times over the past few months. We overlooked the Indian ocean, beers in hand, eating fresh Biryani with chapatis, stray dogs lazing by our feet in the sand, mosquitoes buzzing round. We talked about all the disappointments that we have experienced in friendship. It’s a hard conversation but a releasing one too.

We talked again, sitting by the moat surrounding Old Chang Mai, Thailand, the afternoon sunshine on our backs, the shade of the tree creating beautiful dappled shadows. This time there was more freedom. Choosing to love instead of fear, to be openhanded and believe the best of people even when they have let us down. Choosing to accept the season of life we are in, that they are in and just letting it go, forgiving freely.

I am learning that fear and love cannot co-exist.

When we hold onto the disappointment, and unmet expectations and hurts (fear) we cannot be open fully to loving freely and receiving freely.

I metaphorically lifted my head to see who camped around my fire and saw there were many more than I realised. I had been disappointed by friends and felt a sense of hurt and isolation, focusing only on that and not seeing the beauty of those before me. I am learning to be grateful for those that surround me right now, in this exact season of my life. 

I write this from Australia, a million miles away from all the ones that I love and yet I feel more connected to my friends now than I probably have ever done.

It’s down to honest communication, taking time to show each other that we care and being open to the unexpected friendships that come my way.

For example, Natalia who I met in India, I probably spent in total around 10 hours with her. She speaks a little English, I speak zero Spanish. Somehow amidst the hours of handing out medications in the slums, we connected over faith, marriage, family. The rest of our relationship has been via WhatsApp and yet each week I feel loved and encouraged by her as she messages me with words of life and friendship. 

Then there's Leah, who I spent 10 days with and yet we know each other's stories to the point of family. We text almost daily and I could admit my fears and hopes to her and she just gets it.

Ruth & Andy: 2 weeks in their home living life as family. They were so open and honest about their ups and downs and struggles, parenting and marriage and leading and pastoring. I feel like I know them more than some of the people I have lived alongside for 5 years. 

Our newest friend Lauren, we’ve lived with her for 6 weeks, connecting over games, films, coffee, food and laughs. But deep down she’s family. She’s one of the (very) few people who know what it’s like to be asked the question ‘Where are you from?’ and be left feeling a little confused over the answer. Another Pakistan born baby, into a family of missionaries, our stories are so similar, our families so connected. She’s a friend for life, I can feel it. 

Then, of course, there are the ones I have been building over time, the ones I have chosen to pursue over this long journey I am on. We talk honestly about our needs, about how in touch we are, about how connected we feel. We ask each other what do you need? What is going on? How can I be there for you?

It is life-giving. 

I am learning that you cannot force friends.

As much as you want people that you love to be as ‘in’ to the relationship as you are, if they are not actively doing their part in seeing the friendship grow, you cannot make them.

You are responsible for you.

You and I are responsible for expressing our needs, for going above and beyond, for being loyal and consistent and brave when (especially when) it’s hard, but you cannot make someone else do the same.

That is truly freeing.

Friendships will not always be like Emily, simple and sweet. The ones that are in our lives now are probably more complex, different to us in a million ways, but they can be deep, lasting and more life-giving than you could expect. 

As I look up to see those that are around me in this particular season, I am incredibly grateful. I am rich. I am full.

I may not have thought that two years ago, one year ago even, focusing only on the hurts. But now as I see those people that God has circled around me I am confident of his goodness and faithfulness.

Next year, next season it may look different. It probably will look different but that is the beauty of life. Different people enriching our lives and journeying with us through different times and roads, through the ebbs and flows that inevitably will come and believing they are the ones purposed for us. 

Author: Bethany Walker