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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

To Have a Friend

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,

but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother”

(Proverbs 18:24).

By kindergarten, though I could never have voiced it then, the trust and behavioral issues that I had resulted directly and indirectly in a lonely childhood and teenage-age social experience. Genuine friendship alluded me.

My dad was the only person I had confidence in. Thankfully, because he had faith in our Heavenly Father, I did too. I loved my mom, but I was strongly resistant to correction from her or anyone else. I think my mom struggled with low self-esteem. Though I didn’t quite understand this then, she seemed to see herself as an inadequate wife and mother. I’m sure I added greatly to the poor perception she had of herself. She was lax with me and mainly passive in my upbringing, except on rare occasions when I did something especially naughty. Then she might threaten to put a wooden spoon to my bottom. But it was usually just a threat. It was extremely rare she would actually do it. I can only remember a couple of times. I didn’t feel secure with my mom like I did with my dad. I think I needed to have firmer boundaries.

My dad, who worked full-time, also attended classes at Colorado University. He was in church leadership, too, so he was not home or available very often. Before church one day (my dad was at church already), I was feeling especially contrary. I was resistant and talked back to my mom all the while we were getting ready for church.

Once we got to church—later than usual—while I was still feeling contrary and acting out, my nursery teacher reprimanded me. Instead of doing what she asked, I hid under a table and wouldn’t come out. Eventually, because I was so uncooperative, she put me out in the hallway—the ultimate punishment—and told me to stay there by the coat racks outside the room door.

Instead, I went and found my mom and told her the teacher made me stand outside the classroom. My mom, in a mix of exasperation and frustration, brought me back to the classroom. The teacher said she’d let me stay in the room if I would cooperate until classes were over. I’d felt very defiant toward the teacher until then. But I didn’t want to be kicked out again, so I reluctantly did what she asked. Though I wasn’t happy about it, it was also a relief. Over time, I developed some respect for this teacher, because she was kind, but she also did what she said she would do, and she appropriately disciplined me when I didn’t cooperate.

Meanwhile, whenever I misbehaved in nursery class, I was embarrassed for myself because, of course, this all happened in front of the other children, who, in my eyes, were generally cooperative with the teacher. Later, looking back on this, I’m sure other children also misbehaved and that I simply didn’t see it, being in my own little world feeling apart from others. And I did feel like I was different (which, now, I also don’t think is that uncommon in children). From then on, I was shyer than ever about playing with the other kids and kept to myself a lot. I felt defiant during group activities, which activities I did, but at the same time didn’t want to be a part of. I didn’t want to be seen in contrast to the other children. My behavior and self-perception wasn’t conducive to developing friendships.

At the end of those preschool years, came kindergarten. The image I had of myself as a loner continued. Many times at recess instead of playing with the other children, I would sit on a bench. I was put on the bench the first time for breaking one of the rules. I wasn’t the only one who had suffered this discipline. But after the teacher put me there the first time, even when I wasn’t required to sit there, I often would sit there anyway, sullen and angry. I’d do this instead of playing with the other kids—just to defy that teacher and her methods. Or to show any kids who might wonder about me, that I didn’t care what they thought of me. I was a “justified” loner.

Eventually, this would get old, and I’d get truly lonely, so I’d try to join in playing with some other children on the playground. Until the next time something or someone would trigger my contrary little soul.

When I got to first grade, then on into the second grade, another recess experience became traumatizing for me. It had to do with a game the children often played during recess. It was like tag, only, once caught, a captured girl would be kissed—generally on the lips—by the little boy who caught her. The boys always had their favorites. Sometimes, one very pretty little girl in particular had several boys chasing her around the legs of the swing set, the slide, and the monkey bars. She would always get caught on the longer trek around the merry-go-round or one of the sets of see-saws.

This game was bewildering to me, both when I wasn’t chased and kissed and when I was. I did and I didn’t want to be chased or caught or kissed.

During childhood with my peers, it was an unspoken rule that if you called “time-out,” it meant no one could touch you because you weren’t officially in the game. Most days, I would call “time-out” and go sit on a bench against the school building whenever the other children started playing this game during recess. I would sit by myself feeling lonely, frustrated, and somehow dirty about even wanting to let a boy catch and kiss me. I’m not sure whether or not our teachers were aware of this game, but it was distressing to me for a long time.

In my second-grade year, one little boy, I’ll call him “Danny,” began inviting me to play even while this game was in progress. I really wanted to play, but I was very reluctant at the same time. Finally, Danny’s invitations turned into challenges, and this gave me motivation and even some courage. At first, we did just play together on the swing and slide and teeter-tooter. Then he started threatening, then chasing me at recess too, but he let me outrun him every time. I’m pretty sure there were times Danny could have easily caught me. I think he was too shy or respectful to follow through. I wondered, but either way, it was a relief. Once I began to catch on to our unspoken agreement—that we could play together, and that when he would chase me, he would not catch and kiss me—I started looking forward to recess. He was a real friend. And I was developing a soft place in my heart for this boy. But this agreeable arrangement was short-lived.

In the middle of my second-grade year, when my family moved from an urban to a rural suburb of Boulder, I had to change schools.

However, at the same time, I saw that a new school was a chance for a fresh start. I worked up the courage to join some of the other children playing different games during recess. But over time I never felt like I really belonged to any one of the groups of children playing together. Then, a little girl from our church, I'll call her "Dawn," befriended me. We spent time together during recess, by ourselves on an elongated knoll overlooking the playground, just talking—which seemed to be what Dawn wanted to do most.

Her friendship, however, was very sporadic, and sometimes the time I had with her was very brief. It was divided between me and another girl from our church, I'll call the other girl "Kelly." Kelly didn’t seem to like spending time with me. Many recesses, Dawn played with Kelly and left me to fend for myself. She usually sat with Kelly at lunchtime as well. I understood this. They had been friends before I came along.

But I had also noticed that most other children seemed to already have had at least one other close friend, and sometimes more before I came along, and they also mainly stuck to those friends. Despite understanding this, I began to feel like there must be something repulsive or wrong with me. Dawn was only my sometimes friend, and not consistently. And she seemed to be my friend, when she was, mainly because she was so kindhearted. I was semi-sure that none of the other kids really wanted to play with me. I wasn’t always certain Dawn was an exception. This belief was easy to feed, and I began to adopt it as part of my identity.

Strengthening this belief was my own behavior towards other little children that I saw as undesirable companions. Other little children my parents would want me to play with when our family was invited to their homes. Children that I didn’t have an interest in being friends with, that I didn’t want to play with, that I found very boring or obnoxious. I felt I must be like this to the other children at school.

I still see my fourth-grade teacher as a Godsend. She encouraged me and made reading fun. I loved our weekly library hour more than any other time at school. It was the beginning of a life-long hunger for learning. When I was reading, I could live in a whole different world. It was a great escape. For the introvert I was, voluntarily and involuntarily, it was a little piece of heaven. It was a wonderful respite from the focus on myself and my undesirability. Instead, I could experience adventure after adventure through another’s eyes and live vicariously through them. I could also experience friendships vicariously.

In the fifth and sixth grades, dance and sports were introduced. I found I enjoyed dancing, especially square dancing. And of the different sports, I especially liked softball and track and field. I was pretty coordinated and had fun learning the skills involved. I began to find there were other children who liked dancing or the sports I liked, too. And while we were doing them together, we were like friends. Reading and sports became things I could also do during recess at school. Life was getting a little better socially.

In junior high, a new phase of my life began. We were able to choose electives for our long lunch hour. I chose leather work, metal work, bowling, and ice skating during those years and made friends in each of these classes. Again, these friendships consisted in being partners with other young people in doing the same things together. These weren’t friendships that extended beyond class time, except maybe saying “hi” to one another in the hall between classes should we see each other. There was one exception.

In seventh grade, a boy in my metal working class asked me to “go steady” with him. This meant he wanted me to be his girlfriend. He even made a ring for me and gave it to me, all of which made my young heart sing! He was my first “real” boyfriend. Sometimes he would hold my hand when we were walking in the hall in the same direction. He was very sweet, and he would occasionally send or write me a short note—which he would generally deliver through the vent in my locker or through his friends—never in person. They would say something like, “I’m glad we have a class together so I could meet you.” “I’m glad you are my girlfriend.”

We didn’t end up having the same lunch break or any classes together, except for that first metalworking class. And sometimes it really seemed like he was avoiding me. I didn’t know what to think about this. He was the only boyfriend I ever had who didn’t try to kiss me. In retrospect, I think it took every ounce of courage he had just to hold my hand the few times he did. He did ask for my phone number.

The following summer, he called me, maybe two or three times. I wasn’t at all satisfied with that. I’d heard—or maybe just imagined—that most boyfriends called their girlfriends almost every day! He also never made any attempt to get together during the summer, though he did tell me about an area with bike trails near where he lived. I made a couple of attempts to see him, by nagging and then convincing my mom to bring me and my younger siblings who could ride bikes, to this area. I told him we would be there and when, but I never saw him there. This felt really forward and pushy on my part. I didn’t like how that felt.

When school started again, in eighth grade, I returned his ring and “broke up” with him through notes and his friends. His friends were all mad at me and said I broke his heart. I didn’t believe them. However, from then on, for the rest of my junior and senior high days, reading books and wishing for a “real” boyfriend replaced seeking or maintaining real friendships.

Boyfriends and girlfriends weren’t expected to be real friends. They were more like an ornament one put on and took off, in order to be “in” and to try out being with someone of the opposite sex in a “romantic” way. It generally only meant there was a temporary physical attraction between two people of the opposite sex. Making out (French kissing was "in") in the hallways with a popular individual was the big show of how “cool” someone was. I didn’t like “making out” in front of other people, and I really did want to be friends as well, so maybe I was an exception in those ways, but I wasn’t an exception in using and being used by one boy after another in this way—especially in senior high.

Now, I know it wasn’t just me being so utterly self-absorbed and insecure. It’s part of the hormonal changes and stresses that come when a person enters the teen years. It commonly takes quite a bit of time to find any balance, if one ever does as a teenager.

As this trend of self-absorption continued into high school, boyfriends and books continued to be the extent of my social life. I won’t bore you with details at this point.

Then, in my junior year, I made my first, real best friend, I’ll call "Gina." Gina and I met when she joined the Mormon church and started coming to an early morning class, called Seminary, that we attended at our church before school. We would also sit together whenever we could at lunchtime at school. We also had art classes together for a few semesters and sat next to each other whenever we could during those classes. We were both busy and lived about forty-five minutes away from each other. Both Gina and I were also working part-time when we weren’t attending school, so we weren’t able to get together that often. But we enjoyed the time whenever we did get together—at least I did. There were times I imagined that Gina didn’t, and this ended up straining our relationship a few times unnecessarily.

Gina was a true friend. She was a compassionate person and a good listener. Something I grew to deeply appreciate about her was her ability to confront me in honesty without it being a threat to our friendship. She taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a good friend to someone else.

Often, since then, I’ve wished I’d have known to spend more time during those teen years learning to be friends with boys and girls instead of always allowing myself to become so attached to one young man after another in order to have a boyfriend and be a girlfriend. Some “twenty-twenty hindsight.” As it was, I didn’t end up being a very good friend or a very good girlfriend on a long-term basis to anyone, except maybe Gina, from elementary school all the way through senior high.

As good a friend as Gina was, it wasn’t until my first year of college, that I really began to learn how to be a friend myself. The beginnings came about through a remarkable experience, which experience I plan to share more about when I get further along in my story. However, for this part of my narrative, it is enough to know that it wasn’t until I met my forever friend, Jesus, that I finally started to understand true friendship. Meeting Jesus brought about a major change of heart in me in every regard. For now, however, I’ll simply share some essentials of friendship Jesus gave me during my college years.

Though I didn’t know this intellectually, and as if I had felt nothing before this, when I met Jesus, I knew I was no longer alone. Later, I more surely and thoroughly also became intellectually convinced through God’s promises in His Word—Jesus and the Bible that testifies of Him—that I would always belong, both to Him and to the family of God through Jesus.

Feeling alone is the most common human condition. And without God, I was alone, even while in the midst of many people. But through Jesus, I would never be truly alone ever again.

I would also realize I am part of the family of God with born-again brothers and sisters all over the world. A family meant to be there for each other providing “mortal” support. God designed and desires His people to live in the unity brought about by looking to Him for help, strength, and the direction to go in the love of His Spirit.

Another truth I learned from Him, through His Spirit, during my college years, is that in order to have friends you have to be a friend. He taught this in different words, but they mean essentially the same thing when it comes to friendships: “ everything, do to others what you would have them do to you...” (Matt. 7:12). As Jesus gave me more and more empathy for others, my ability to forgive began to grow. I saw more and more how, just like myself, others in my past were also hindered in being a true friend by circumstances and thinking only in reference to themselves. Now, instead of seeing how I have been neglected or mistreated by others, Jesus reminds me to consider whether I, myself, am in fact doing the same—neglecting or mistreating the people in my life in similar ways.

Another beautiful thing that came out of this perspective during my college years was how I began to view the young men who wanted to date me. Seeing them more through Jesus’ eyes, I began to treat them as they were: someone else’s cherished son or brother, even possibly someone else’s future husband. God changed my heart, so that I had more of His love for these young men and was responding far less out of my own flesh or desire to be loved.

Also, having occasionally used my skills to the utmost in the past, I knew very well how, naturally, men are made to be visually attracted to the opposite sex. With the love of Jesus in my soul, I also became much more careful about how I dressed. I began to see dressing more modestly as a way of showing Jesus’ loving kindness to men in general, whether they were single or married—and to women who are married or who couldn’t afford to dress in the latest fashion. The need to call attention to myself greatly diminished.

Ever since I met Him, Jesus has been the most wonderful friend and example of a true friend in my life. The truth is, He is the best friend the world has ever had. The way He came to restore our friendship with God, whom we had otherwise alienated forever with our sins, is beyond compare and often beyond our comprehension. Come what may, even when I don’t totally understand or remember how, I know I can trust in Him and in His friendship beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Speak to Him thou for He hears

And Spirit with spirit can meet—

Closer is He than breathing,

And nearer than hands and feet”

~ Tennyson


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