Women drive me nuts.
Some years ago, following an act of civil disobedience, I spent several days in a makeshift jail with hundreds of women protesters. Before long, a couple of them approached me where I lay on a hard Army cot, trying to get comfortable enough to read the copy of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa my husband had managed to deliver. What better opportunity than jail time would I ever have to read the longest novel in the English language?
It was not to be. Instead I was asked to step up as a leader to address the squabbles and discontent arising among so many women of diverse personalities in such cramped conditions. Suck it up, ladies! I wanted to scream. But I didn't. As requested, I played the role of diplomat.
I emerged from jail with greater gratitude for God's creation of two sexes than I'd ever had before or since. To this day, I avoid to just this side of causing offense nearly any event preceded by the label women's: conferences, Bible Studies, retreats, Home Interior parties. I was even a bit skeptical at first about writing for a women's blog.
My difficulties with women go further back than this experience. Because I married young and went directly to graduate school from college, I had a hard time finding real peers. The other women in my graduate program were hostile toward Christianity, something I was ill-equipped to handle gracefully. And while my church included other young women who worked or were going to school, most of the married women did not. I spent a lot of time declining invitations to jewelry and kitchenware parties and softball games, not because I wasn't interested in those activities, but because I felt stressed and guilty about spending time on anything besides writing papers and reading books and journal articles.
I wanted women friends, badly. I tried to find them. I prayed for God to bring me to them. And, in his time, he did.
Of course, in all fairness to God, I didn't make it easy for him. I am pretty picky. On the other hand, in making friends, I seem naturally to follow the advice of Socrates: "Be slow to fall into friendship; but when thou art in, continue firm and constant." I don't form friendships quickly or often, but when I do, they stick.
Friendships come in many forms, but nothing can replace friendships with true peers. Because we are both physical and spiritual beings, I see as a true peer one with whom we share both of these aspects, physical and spiritual, of our being—in other words, people of the same sex and of the same spiritual identity and belief. While certainly one can be good friends with members of the opposite sex, or of different beliefs and values, such differences tend to be a barrier to the sort of kid-gloves-off treatment necessary for iron to sharpen iron. In fact, I've often noticed that those who resist deep friendships with true peers—women who say they simply "connect better" with men (well, duh!) or with people not their age or religion—tend to be avoiding the unique accountability that genuine peers offer.
Seeking out such accountability, even when it is contrary to one's disposition, is the subject of a brave and important essay Noel Piper wrote recently.
Piper's essay was brave in baring aspects of her experience simply as a Christian woman, but even more so as the wife of a prominent pastor (John Piper). It's much easier, as many women are tempted to do, to hide under a veneer of a seemingly perfect life and ministry. But Piper exposes the myth of what I like to call the "Shiny Happy People" version of Christianity that prevails today. For one thing, Piper discusses seeking help from a counselor, something many Christians benefit from but don't like talking about. Yet despite our wishful thinking, sometimes more faith, more prayer, and more sacrifice aren't enough. (If it were, then much of the New Testament need not have been written.)
But this was not even the point of the essay. Rather, Piper brings up the counseling as the catalyst that forced her—at age 60—to seek something in her life that Scripture tells us we need and that she had been avoiding. Not more holiness, not more Bible reading, not more quiet time, but friends. Not prayer partners, or accountability partners, or team members, or coworkers—although friends can be all of these—but simply good friends.
Fellow blogger Enuma Okoro writes that friends are "essential" to "any holy enterprise." And studies show that the benefits of friendship include longer life, increased brain health, and a lower risk of obesity. For women, particularly, friendships have proven to reduce stress and to produce natural calming effects. Even the workplace benefits from friendships there—which is a good thing since my closest circle of friends consists of women who are my colleagues, too. Whether we go out to dinner, a movie, the theater, or on one of our annual road trips, we can trust one another in sharing our joys and frustrations in the classroom and in life as well as our views about the latest news, politics, and trends. Over the years, we've attended weddings, funerals, and countless student performances together. We are bonded by faith and fun, and we sharpen one another.
My life would be so less rich without my girlfriends. I thank God for them.
What about you? How has your life been enriched by friends?