Since “heal” is my word of the year, I want to keep exploring this theme in my life and notice where it shows up. One instance of healing from hurt in a relationship where I wrestled with how to experience peace over it came to mind today. I’m reading a book by the author Donald Miller called Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy. I always spend time stopping and ruminating on the concepts an author expounds upon when I’m reading non-fiction, and this book provides plenty of those stop-and-ponder moments.
The relationship–and the hurt within it–that surfaced in my mind today lived and died about 9 years ago. When I was pregnant with Woodrow, and Mike had I had newly returned from our year in New Zealand, my friend Anne invited me to join a women’s Bible study she’d begun leading. Through that group of women, I met and befriended an older woman we’ll call Alma (because that isn’t her name). Her children were all grown and married, and she had several grandchildren, whereas I was just beginning my journey into motherhood. Even so, we had much in common, with some particular family relationships and challenges therein.
After the Bible study ended–and I’d birthed Woodrow and begun to establish life as a mother to a newborn–I thought about Alma and wanted to spend more time with her. So, several months after the Bible study group had thrown me a surprise baby shower during my first pregnancy, I called Alma and asked if we could get together and visit. I wanted the influence of an experienced, mature woman, growing in her faith and relationships, in my life. She was keen to meet up, as glad as I was to spend time together.
Over the next year or so, we met several times, sometimes over meals–once at her house, where we shared cinnamon rolls and prayed together. We talked about meaningful and personal parts of life. Then, about the time I got pregnant with Garfield, some things in my life started to crumble. Mike and I were in counseling, and I was hurting. In fact, I’d felt blindsided by most of what was causing the hurt, and I realized it would get worse before it could get better. So I reached out to Alma–I wanted her input and her advice. I wanted to lay it all on the table and ask, “What do you think?”
We talked on the phone, and we got together for a meal at Panera. I remember her treating me to dinner that night and asking if I wanted onions on my bagel sandwich–she didn’t know, she said, because she wasn’t sure I’d prefer eating onions while pregnant. Throughout these conversations, Alma expressed thanks that I trusted her with difficult and burdensome struggles. She said she was humbled that I would turn to her for insight. I knew Alma had much to offer, and she seemed grateful to be able to share her life experience.
After a few times meeting together–which was sometimes a feat to accomplish, given her work schedule and my caring for a toddler–she urged me to email her with news about how I was doing, how she could pray for me. I hesitated at first, thinking much would get lost in an email conversation. But after she encouraged me twice to do that, I took her up on it, thinking this would help fill in the cracks between the times we could meet face to face.
One night, I wrote a message to her, explaining some of what I had been processing and going further in-depth with some questions she’d asked me previously. A day or so later, Alma responded with a three-sentence reply, barely addressing what I’d mentioned. She concluded with, “Let me know when you want to get together again.” I felt surprised and unsure how to respond. I suppose if I want to see Alma again, the onus is on me, I thought.
My personal life became more confusing and painful, and we had a miscarriage scare with Garfield, and still I didn’t hear from Alma (not that she knew about the near-miscarriage, since we hadn’t talked). At some point, I realized we hadn’t spoken or visited with each other in months. I wondered what had happened, and I felt discarded. Did I miss something? Had she not actually been as eager for the friendship as she’d seemed to indicate? I wondered.
As I continued to wade through the chaos of life, thoughts of Alma faded to the background. I assumed the friendship had run its course–that maybe God had allowed her to be in my life for a time, maybe to help hold me up as I limped along for a bit, but that the season of friendship with Alma was finished. Then, one day about 5 months after our last email exchange, I saw a message from her–another 3-sentence message. “I’ve come to collect my Worst Friend award. Ha, ha,” was how it opened. It concluded with something along the lines of “hope you’re OK” and “maybe we can catch up sometime.”
If Alma had never written that message at all, if I’d continued assuming we’d simply gone our separate ways, I would have been fine. But her breezy, casual paragraph–with her “worst friend” quip–wounded me to the quick. I think it actually left me breathless for a moment. A day or two later, I still hadn’t responded, because I’d been thinking about what to do. Then I realized I wasn’t going to write back. True, I hadn’t called her or asked for a time to meet up during those months of silence. But I’d taken her at her word, poured my heart out via email as she’d suggested, then felt brushed off and ignored–by the person who earlier had been so grateful for my trust and vulnerability.
Telling somebody “If you need me, give me a holler” is in an entirely different orbit than showing up in a person’s life and declaring “I knew you needed me, so I came.” I didn’t think Alma and I had anything to share anymore; I just didn’t think there was much friendship left. So I left her message unanswered.
Over the years, I have come to extend grace to her in my heart and mind–understanding that we all fall short of loving unconditionally, and certainly I’ve let down friends myself at times. I wish her well, and I’ve prayed for her on occasion, particularly in those times when I felt I struggled most to forgive her. But in certain moments, I’ve doubted myself about not responding to her last email, about not giving her another chance–even though I’m convinced (both then and now) it was a healthy boundary for me to set, even if others would have handled it differently.
Today, though, God revealed something else: the peace in what I DIDN’T do. I didn’t get back in touch with her so I could punish her for rejecting me. I didn’t pretend to keep the friendship alive so I could make sure she paid back a debt she owed. I didn’t string her along with the promise of forgiveness if she were sorry enough.
In what I DIDN’T do, I find peace, even resolution. I forgave Alma, let her off the hook, and said good-bye to a friendship that I realized didn’t have any life left in it. I haven’t seen Alma in almost a decade, but wherever she is, I hope she’s well and experiencing healing of her own.