One of my earliest fears for Penny, and consequently one of my earliest prayers, had to do with her ability to make friends. My fear has softened over the years. There are the buds of friendship she's growing in kindergarten. There is the ongoing friendship with William. And there are the stories I hear about adults with Down syndrome and their friends, whether those friends are typically-developing or have disabilities of their own.
With that said, I'm also aware that many children with disabilities don't have friends. Louise Kinross, editor of Bloom, wrote an essay about her son Ben: "My Child's Dream: to Have Friends." Louise cites various sources on the importance of having friends, while at the same time she demonstrates the difficulties children with disabilities face in making friends. Moreover, as the Atlantic's cover story attests (Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?), even those of us who don't face the particular limitations of Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or Asberger's face a growing problem of making true friends. Stephen Marche writes,
Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years.
He goes on to cite data to back up his point, and then to demonstrate the way we have outsourced the needs that friendship once met. Instead of talking with friends about our problems, we see therapists. We are becoming a culture that is increasingly lonely and yet avoids solitude, and a culture that struggles with the flip side of loneliness, narcissism. The answer–real friends. For those with disabilities and those without, friendship matters to health and happiness, and yet our culture is increasingly designed to make friendship difficult because we value autonomous individuality. Again, to quote Stephen Marche:
The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.
The rest of this week will be devoted to guest posts that tell a story of friendship, of Americans who are willing to pay a different price, to sacrifice comfort and convention for the sake of meaningful relationships. First we'll hear from Benjamin Conner, a youth pastor and theologian who works with adolescents, about the possibilities for typically-developing kids to befriend kids with disabilities and vice versa. And then later this week, we'll read a post by Tryn Miller, who has Down syndrome, about her friendship with Anna Broadway, a virtual friend of mine who also writes for her.meneutics. Finally, we'll hear from Anna about her friendship with Tryn.
I wrote last week about my hopes that the church will be a place marked by unexpected friendships, true friendships that cross dividing lines and reflect the reality that God has befriended us. I hope and pray that Penny will have and make friends, true friends, friends in whom she can trust and depend, friends who trust in and depend upon her. I know it is a tenuous hope. But I want to offer some signs that the hope is not in vain.