The Value of Time Tested Friends

Recently, I have been considering the value of time-tested friends. As I have grown older, my need for secure and lasting friendship has also increased. While I have a large number of acquaintances, I crave for my inner circle of closest friends. Somehow, I need friends to complete me. I want to spend time with them, though I may not necessarily see them on a daily or weekly basis.

In this post, I write about the character of the relationship I have with my long-lasting friends. At the end of this post, I offer a seven-point checklist detailing the main characteristics that are important to me. As my thoughts unfold, I hope that you will identify the components that you consider essential for your friendships and that you will be encouraged by what you find. I invite you to share your insights via the comments.

In our lives, there is a natural turnover of friends with each passing decade. In a decade, we may turn over multiple friends. As an experiment, I spent a few moments recalling those who were in my life, ten years ago, and ask “Where are they now?” Those who have retreated from my circle of friends tell me that one or both of us have changed. 

In my case, having a stress breakdown, becoming depressed and leaving my work made a significant impact on my ability to maintain my friendships. One or both of us has found it impossible to sustain what we had. Losing people from our experience of life is natural, if painful at times.

Keeping long-term friends is also natural, and I call these friends “sticky friends”. These sticky friends, once made, stay with us long-term. We share a resilience that enables us to build a loyal and robust relationship together. In a 2015 article, How relationships help us to age well, published by The British Psychological Society, authors Laura Soulsby and Kate Bennett consider the substantial evidence that relationships help us to age well.

What I am interested to learn about what creates and sustains friendships. So, how do we keep connected for the long haul? And what are the threats? 

In 2016, The Guardian newspaper published a thought-provoking article, “Do people start losing friends at a certain age?” The piece, curated by Sarah Marsh, begins with the idea that after the age of 25, we begin to see a decline in our friendship count as life changes around us.

A change of status, such as a relocation or illness, or a drastic upheaval, such as acquiring sudden wealth or committing a serious crime is frequently the main reason for the severance. Yes, I did have a friend who committed murder, but that is for another post, maybe. Significant sudden change rarely leaves our world untouched, and when it does, we must expect collateral damage.

At one time, I felt that I should have as many friends as possible. These friends were people I knew from our shared experience, perhaps through work or some other kinship circle. Some I saw regularly; others less so. For instance, I might see someone at an annual conference or when travelling. Friends I made in this way were easy to relate to, and with whom there was common ground. 

The common ground might be a shared history; for example, my school friends. I left school nearly fifty years ago, so there are not many left now. I wrote about losing a friend in a previous post, How Life Transitions Affect Us. Those that remain assume a higher value. 

Or, the shared experience might be a family connection. I’m proud to be part of a natural family that has stayed in touch with each other. My twelve cousins meet together once or twice a year, in what I call our tribal gathering. Our genes bond us.

Whatever the circumstances, bonding experiences will chime with our values and deepest needs. It is from these experiences that our sincerest friendships arise. Some of those with whom we share meaningful moments will become time-tested friends. Sticky friends emerge from what is shared.

My illness and eventual retirement caused me to think deeply about my friends. I wrote about my journey to peace after retirement, in my post, Retirement re-calibration. At the end of 2017, I asked myself searching questions about the nature of my relationship with my friends. 

Conversely, I suspect that the same queries arose about me. Was I toxic? Did they want to be near me with so many issues? Of course, most of my time-tested friends just hung in there, not knowing whether I would emerge from the ‘dark night of the soul’ or not. Change tests relationships. 

In a 2017 article published by Psychology Today, Temma Ehrenfeld writes about the health benefits of friends in our older years. Ehrenfeld postulates that local friends trump distant family in meeting our friend needs. Interesting.

To round off this post, here are seven characteristics that have shaped my understanding of our sticky friends:

  1. Sticky friends have travelled with me on the long road to today;
  2. Sticky friends are small in number;
  3. Sticky friends are mainly contemporaries;
  4. Sticky friends offer reciprocation, as I do;
  5. Sticky friends are low maintenance;
  6. Sticky friends can withstand long silences;
  7. Sticky friends stand by me, to encourage and support, in all weathers.

In my next post, I write about the importance of face time and how social media is no substitute for time together, though it adds a useful dimension to keeping in touch.

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Retirement re-calibration

At the age of 61, I retired from my work as a Church leader. My retirement was sudden though it had a long lead. Retiring after thirty years of leadership, I was utterly exhausted and in poor health. Since that crisis, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my work life and to consider what comes next.

Sudden retirement is less than perfect; a lot less than ideal. I had hoped to continue working until I was 66 years old, but illness intervened and forced my hand. Previously back in 2009, I had had a nervous breakdown. Frankly, I have always carried a fragility of health and found that I had not and could not recover sufficiently to continue as if nothing had happened.

My work was as a Baptist Minister and be can be surprisingly demanding. I felt like a distressed bi-plane meandering down the runway of life without sufficient power to take off again and battered by the crosswinds of culture. Largely, under-resourced in the work, I was utterly exhausted. I needed to abort another take-off attempt and consider my options. That did not happen. The future has a way of choosing you. I officially retired five years early on 31 May 2016, thirty years to the day since I started my work as a Church leader.

Although retiring in these circumstances added to my distressed state, it also provided me with a way out what was proving to be a toxic work experience for me. I did not have the personal resources to choose a new way forward for myself. I felt trapped by my role.

A way out of one life is a way into another life. This other life did not yet have a shape in my mind. The landscape I faced was featureless, or so it seemed. I did not know anyone else who was where I had found myself, and I don’t think I could yet speak the language of this new place. I was a stranger in my own body. I was, bluntly, blinded and disorientated by my plight. In a moment of desperation, I was able to write my resignation letter to my Church. I was no longer fit for work, no longer an asset to the kind people of the Church.

Despite my perilous state, two significant events propelled me towards a new outlook on life and have proved to be instrumental in defining my new world. The first thing that happened was that we needed to move house. My housing was attached to my previous role as a church pastor. Fortunately, a Charitable organisation was able to help find a new home for myself and my wife, Maggie. We moved into our new home some six weeks after my official retirement.

The following week, I had surgery planned. I needed a new knee. The surgery went well, and it took a few weeks before I could mobilise sufficiently to potter around the house. Happily, my knee continued to improve, and in less than a year, I could say with complete honesty that my knee was just like the old one but without the pain. The only time that I know that I have a chunk of metal in my leg is when the temperature falls to below zero then and only then does it feel like a chunk of metal. I count it a privilege to live in an age and in a country where knee replacement surgery is routine.

The first year of retirement consisted of long periods of physical rest. Physical rest opened the door to psychological and spiritual rest. All three kinds of rest are vital if I was to find renewal. For instance, the more I quieted my inner chatter, the more I heard. As one of my granddaughters said to me, “Sometimes granddad you have to shush yourself.”

I was, and perhaps still am, re calibrating. Thrust into a new environment takes time to familiarise with the new country. In this new country, the rules of life, the language, and the pace at which my new world unfolds are refreshingly slower. As a Myers-Briggs ENTJ, and a workaholic, I made my life more complicated than it had to be. I had to wean myself off being an adrenaline junkie.
In the three years since my immigration to my new country, I have found shape, purpose and meaning. I can now see many things that it was not possible to see when I furiously ran my Ferris wheel.

Here are six things that have emerged out of the tumult of three years ago:

  1. I write. Every day, well almost every day. In 2016 I started my Commentarium, my private view of my life. In my Commentarium, I write around 500-600 words a day on what I see and feel. It is therapy.
  2. I blog. As you may know, I have re-launched my blog Russ Parkes Live. Russ Parkes Live is an extension of me. I am writing once a week or so on a more thoughtful aspect of my experience of life.
  3. I research. I am keen to put my educational disciplines to work through researching my family history. To me, it is endlessly fascinating to discover the lives of those who have gone before. There is much to learn, both from failures of life as well as the successes.
  4. I invest. I like to invest in toilets. With the advent of the internet, I can invest directly to buy an individual or community a toilet somewhere in the world and feel that I have made a small difference.
  5. I walk. I walk for health reasons. One of my new found goals is to stay age-related fit. That no longer means pursuing athletics, cricket or the football of my youth, long since cast aside. It does mean that I can muse and reflect as I walk. Walking is good for my mental health and well-being.
  6. I garden. As part of the development of our house, I invested in a greenhouse. Pottering in the greenhouse planting seeds and watching them grow is therapeutic for me. I am reminded that God does a great deal of work in gardens. I feel close to God in the greenhouse.

I have now spent forty-three months in retirement. That is one month of reflection for each year I worked, and I have learned a great deal about my self. As Christ-follower, I have confidence in the future and increasingly so as I discover more about my new life. The six aspects of my life cannot ever be a static list. As time marches on, I expect other interests to emerge. I could have added others to my list but have decided to keep my powder dry for now.

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The Mystery of Sleep

Sleeping man with infant

Falling asleep is one of my great joys. It starts with the readiness for rest, usually lying down and closing my eyes to permit myself to slip from this reality and into another. As I do, I soon begin to silently move from the awareness of my surroundings. Without any effort on my part, I find that I am drifting into another world.

In this in-between state, I am gradually separated from my immediate thoughts and concerns. As I separate from usual reality, I enter into a different kind of world.

I embrace the arrival of the misty dream world of sleep. I’m in a peaceful state and move effortlessly into the unknown world of sleep. The change from the conscious and awake to sleep and the unconscious is calm, gradual and gentle where one gives way as the other laps in.

I can’t write about what happens next in a linear or conscious way since I am not there, at least not there as I am when awake. Somehow I have transitioned from one sort of reality to another kind of reality. But I also know that some features of this different world are truly amazing.

Science tells us that our bodies and minds are active during sleep. We know that our body repairs itself and our brains are busy organising such areas as memory. Toxins are removed, tissues repaired, memories made sense of and that some memories are transferred from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. Our breathing and heart rates slow. Our temperature changes through the night. The depth of our sleep can be measured by brain activity.

Time does not pass in the same way as it does when we are fully conscious. Take, for example, when we wake – we are not aware of the minutes or hours that we have slept. Sometimes, I wake sufficiently in the night and take a glance at my bedside clock. If I wake again later, I readily believe that I have dozed only for a minute or two, only to discover that two hours have passed since my last peep. My ability to gauge time is unreliable and does not work well when I am asleep. I can measure time internally when awake but not when I am asleep or if I hover between the two states.

As I begin to wake, it is as if I’m rising out of a submerged state. In the depths of sleep, my conscious world is suspended. Even time passes without measure and any sense of watching the clock of reality is lost. Time no has power over me as it does in my conscious day. But as I wake and draw closer to my wakeful state, my internal periscope is raised, and I begin to check in with my self and my surroundings. It’s a new day. I want to know where I am, the time, light through the curtains or a glance at the clock all to confirm my safe arrival to a new day. But how did I get there?

A good night’s sleep successfully punctuates my existence in the physical world. We accept this world as our ordinary human reality. But at times, I wonder whether this is quite the right perspective. If sleep is a temporary state punctuating my physical world, could it just as rightly be said that my physical experience is brief punctuation of my otherness?

On its own, this thought is intriguing. If sleep is part of a larger other reality, then it is possible to see sleep as the gateway to my otherness, an existence in another state. It is at this point we are aware that something quite beautiful has happened. If our sleep has progressed without interruption, we will wake refreshed and at peace in readiness for a new day. In this sense, our visit to our other reality punctuates the rhythms of daily life and is essential to our good health.

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Passion: Make a Difference

Have you ever noticed that passionate people often get things done? For me, godly passion just about trumps most qualities for getting things done. A passionate person cuts the passive middle ground down to size and gets people off the fence. Yes, passion isn’t always well received but a passionate person creates a conversation in surprising ways. A passionate person has something about them that cuts through ‘stuff’. Passion makes a strong appeal to the emotions and in the presence of a passionate person, we find ourselves being stirred. Jesus was passionate. Peter was passionate. John was passionate. Paul was passionate. Here are six things I’ve noticed about passionate leaders.

Passion energises: When I become passionate about something, I throw off the kind of caution that is born out of a fear of failure or self-consciousness or just being plain timid. From somewhere deep within, a new awareness and an ‘it really does matter’ attitude emerges. Mostly it comes from something or someone getting through my normal reservations and touching what really matters to me. I find myself willing to do what I was unwilling to do before, enthusiastically.

Passion refuses the status quo: Part of passion’s energy comes from a flat refusal to allow the present state of affairs to continue. The fact that something is accepted as normal, the way we do things loses its validity for not doing something. It has been said that ‘we will only move forward once the pain of staying where we are becomes greater than the pain of moving forward’. A passionate person has the ability to make us feel uncomfortable in a way that helps us to move on.

Passion is infectious: Passion is first caught. True, a passionate person needs to make more than an emotional appeal to make a difference. An emotional appeal is not enough on its own, but it does grab our attention and stir our hearts. To broaden its appeal, passion must partner with reason and be carried by a person or team that has credibility with integrity. Passion and reason are powerful when friends but they do not always start out well together.

Passion influences people: One person’s passion can be dismissed. But two people’s passion causes more probing questions to arise. Together these have more than twice the power to influence people. When we are part of a passionate church or organisation things will change. Change means getting things done and that helps construct the future that we envisage. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is an example of a passionate ministry. Things change quickly to bring growth and improvement. Why has CAP influenced so many thousands of people? Because their founder John Kirkby is passionate, therefore CAP is passionate. I cannot remain indifferent in his presence, my passion is soon stirred.

Passion narrows choices: Passion shifts the balance of power between ‘can’t’ and ‘can’ more than anything I know. Passion brings focus and focus brings productively. Focus narrows choice to bring about results. Whenever I have been tempted to bring too much change at a time I have found that it is much harder to carry people with me. They might come with me out of respect or loyalty but this is undesirable in and of itself, and produces limited results. Passion helps to deliberately narrow choices, to set priorities and this massively improves our chances of getting longed for results. Passion correctly and wisely handled makes an impact that invites others to join emotionally and rationally. Both are crucial ingredients.

Passion leaves a legacy: You have to die to leave a legacy. OK, you may not physically die (just yet) but we must die all the same. To be a passionate and consistent person takes a great deal of moral and spiritual courage. It is no longer about you. When we die to self we make a huge investment in others. They become our living legacy and carry the inner essence of the passion that we have imparted to them. We give it but we do not own it. This kind of authenticity is for others to use and build with. The world needs passionate people. The world needs you at your passionate best and in so doing you can make a real difference.

Great Leaders in Short Supply

Great leaders are in short supply. Beware of imitations; they are on sale everywhere and at bargain prices too. Wherever great leaders show up they define the season, the climate and the history. So what makes a great leader? The answer, I believe, is found in the authenticity of the person. It’s not found in technique, qualification, or experience although these things can be great add-ons.

Today, we are suffering from hurry sickness and from the corner-cutting quick fix. There is no such thing as a quick fix. Becoming a person of authenticity is a life-long commitment – no short cuts, no days off. Here’s some things I’ve noticed about authentic leaders.

Authentic leaders are not trying to look good: They are secure in who they are and know the contributions that they bring. They build the climate, set the tone and are deeply concerned for the welfare of those they lead. They are not in the business of looking good. But neither are they content to just work the system; no, they seek to change it or create it. They are prepared to risk short-term unpopularity in pursuit of that greater dream. They are not dependent on the approval of others for their self-worth but neither are they unconnected from their followers. Something within them burns for that greater dream.

Authentic leaders play for the long-term: They know the power of the compass and usefulness of the map. The compass sets the direction, the map the detail. In life we need both, but the authentic leader knows which to use and when. They know themselves; they are self-aware, knowing their strengths and the site of their limitations. Self-aware leaders are not ashamed of their limitations but they use that knowledge to find others who are strong where they are weak. Every leader needs headroom and a clear space to work. They thrive on building, creating space and offering their creation to others to work with.

Authentic leaders create the climate: These leaders know the importance of being climate creators. When they engage with people they set the weather. Their weather is infectious; always uplifting, encouraging and has high influence on others. They are in the business of creating the environment in which others will thrive. And they know that this climate fosters great individual and organisational behaviour. It is the leadership climate that fathers the working culture. That’s why your people become like you – you infect them with who you are.

Authentic leaders seek the welfare of team members: They don’t talk ‘me’, they don’t criticise others, and they don’t prattle on. Instead they give their attention to others, talk with their eyes, and affirm through gestures and actions. They operate through personal openness offering themselves ahead of knowledge or experience; this is how they offer their support and they are loved because of it. This kind of leadership is called ’emotionally intelligent’ leadership (EQ) and is now credited as a far better predictor of authentic leadership than IQ. Emotionally intelligent leaders care for their teams.

Authentic leaders create authentic followers: No one is a leader who does not create a following. And the simple truth is that the followers will behave like the leader. It’s an awesome truth, yet powerful. Be the person you want others to be; be yourself, be the light and others will follow. Acts 4:13 reads like this: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Jesus the authentic leader birthed authentic followers and still does today.

Finally, authentic leaders attract a following because of their character. They are humble, have a tested integrity, and are accessible socially and emotionally to others. As I have grown older I have understood that my leadership impact is defined by these things so much more than stellar performances. Yes, I want to leave a legacy and I want it to begin before I am no more. Our epitaphs are decided by others – compressed summaries of our lives inspired by who we really are in the eyes of others. Enoch ‘walked with God’, Simeon was ‘just and devout’ and Barnabas was said to be a ‘son of encouragement’. Great leaders breed great leaders. Live your legacy today.