Although the person traveling alone may travel fastest, the company of friends allows the traveler to go further. So says South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, in his 1993 essay in the New York Times Book Review. Justin Barringer (in the previous Sanctuary blog post) also advocates for journeying with the accompaniment of friends. As you reflect on your own experiences of friendship, what difference has the accompaniment of friends made during your life journey thus far? In what ways has friendship been a source of mutual practical, emotional, and spiritual support?
Friendship can be a challenging word to define; ways in which friendship is understood and practiced can vary based on geographical and cultural contexts. Essentially, friendship is a social relationship characterized by mutuality in care for the wellbeing of the other and action on behalf of the other. It is a relationship that serves as a “school” for a broader love of others, the world, and self.
Unfortunately, in cultural contexts focused on productivity, spending time with friends can be seen as a luxury, or even a waste of time. Friendship has been trivialized, privatized, and devalued within contemporary consumerist and individualistic cultures. Friendship is often viewed as an escape from responsibilities to society. Yet, as depicted in my 2022 book Towards Friendship-Shaped Communities: A Practical Theology of Friendship, friendship has the potential to contribute to communities where all can flourish.
Friendship is an important relationship in the context of everyday life. Friends are a source of joy, companionship, and wisdom. They make space for one another and help one another recognize their own value and worth. Friendship is also critical in times of crisis, which can reorder personal or community circumstances and may even threaten a person’s faith. As Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe notes (and as many of us have experienced), in times of crisis “the friendships that undergird daily life with presence and companionship can be the key to survival itself” (Wisdom’s Friends, 78). In his post on The Sanctuary Blog, Justin Barringer speaks of the difference that the accompaniment of friends can make when it comes to living with anxiety and depression. When it comes to mental health, the support of friendship—in daily life and in times of crisis—provides a degree of protection and resiliency.
Friendship is also integral to being a follower of Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus both models and encourages the laying down of one’s life in friendship. Specifically, in John 15, Jesus instructs his followers to remain in his love, and to love one another as he loved them—that is, by laying down their lives for their friends. What does it mean to lay down our lives for our friends?
As Sharon Ringe responds to this question, she takes her readers back to the sheep and shepherd imagery of John 10. Various aspects of the shepherd and sheep imagery point towards friendship: “The shepherd’s patient spending of time with the sheep—sharing the circumstances of their daily life, nurturing and caring for them, coming to know them by name, and, if necessary, risking his very life on their behalf—is the life of a friend among friends” (Ringe, 82).
Jesus asserts: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11). The laying down of life takes place during the many hours that the shepherd spends caring for and protecting the sheep. As followers of Jesus, we have opportunities to likewise lay down our lives for our friends through life-giving accompaniment.
When a friend is experiencing a mental health challenge, we can be a source of life-giving accompaniment as we journey alongside, extending care through listening to the experiences of our friend and through intentionally making space in our life to help meet our friend’s needs. Accompanying others is not always easy, but brings many gifts, sometimes in unexpected ways. We may discover that journeying with friends in times of need helps us, also, go farther than we would have alone.
Cover Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash
Anne-Marie Ellithorpe, Ph.D.
Anne-Marie Ellithorpe is a practical theologian; her research focuses on themes of community and friendship—personal and civic. She is the author of Towards Friendship-Shaped Communities: A Practical Theology of Friendship (Wiley Blackwell, 2022). Originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, where she worked as a teacher and educational consultant, Anne-Marie currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. Along with parenting, mentoring, and befriending, she is a Research Associate at Vancouver School of Theology and adjunct faculty at Corpus Christi College. Anne-Marie holds a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.