It’s very strange to coach someone else through the process of making friends. I’ve never felt particularly good at making friends myself, so walking Addie through the process is teaching me new lessons and forcing me to face a few deep-seeded fears. For instance, to make a friend, you must first speak to someone else and they have to listen to you. And then, you have to keep speaking and they have to keep listening, and vice-versa. All very difficult for a formerly “shy” child like me.
I was a slow-to-warm sort of child, observant, soft-spoken. I liked to watch the action a little bit before I felt comfortable enough to join in. This, of course, made me appear snooty, aloof, shy. Along the line, that word – shy – was attached to me as if it were part of my name. I wasn’t just Rachel; I was Shy Rachel. I guess that’s ok, in some ways. I acted shy a lot of the time, so to the outward observer, it must have been natural to assume that I was shy. Eventually, though, whether because of labels others put upon me or not, shyness became central to who I believed I was. It wasn’t just a way I felt or acted; it was a label that identified me as incapable of engaging with others in a healthy, normal way. I carried that lie with me for years, filtered every interaction through that lens, and I saw the world as a big scary place filled with intimidating people and situations.
As an adult, I am still observant and somewhat soft-spoken, though I’m not sure many people would classify me as shy these days (only took 30 years to get to that point). Now, though, I find myself revisiting this issue again in our daughter. Addie is definitely not shy, and in many situations she warms up immediately and shows her true colors immediately, both the good and the not so good. However, in no less than a dozen situations over the last few months people have called her shy – with her listening to them intently – and have thus labeled her as a shy child.
I know she heard them and took what they said to heart because she told me the other day that she is shy, to which I responded that she was not shy. And we argued about it a bit. “Yes, I am shy,” she insisted. But instead of even saying things like, “You’re just acting shy” I have switched my word choice to avoid that word altogether. In my mind, the word has a bad connotation to it that I don’t want her to associate with who she actually is. (Synonyms include timid, diffident, afraid, fearful, distrustful, reluctant, sheepish, nervous).
Perhaps I’ll tell her she is demure, thoughtful, and intentional. Or perhaps I’ll just tell her that sometimes it takes her a little bit of time to feel at ease with people. I want to teach her to be friendly and polite and to respond to people when they engage her, to not be fearful of unfamiliar people or situations, and to be confident in who she is, whether she is loud and gregarious or observant and introspective. And I’ll tell her that it’s ok to want to be alone, that it’s ok to need to be alone, and there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7). But more difficult than that, I am earnestly trying to live out the best advice on how to make friends that was ever given: treat others as you would want them to treat you (Luke 6:31). In other words, to have a friend, you must be a friend.
Friendship is a sticky business because relationships are hard. Establishing them, maintaining them, growing them. It takes vulnerability, follow through, and a great deal of risk. Things could go wrong, things could get messy. Someone may not accept you right away. Someone may eventually reject you. Haven’t we been living this lately as we build friendships with new people? I hope our own efforts are showing her that friendship is worth the risk of rejection. It’s worth the work. It’s worth the occasional inconvenience because in the end, we would want someone to love us enough to be willing to be inconvenienced for us.
Addie has a good number of friends, young and old, boys and girls, near and far away. She asks about them, checking in on them when she hasn’t seen them in awhile, and she even prays for her most special ones, unprompted. This girl is anything but shy, and I’m sure that in the coming years, she’ll show that truth in ways we can’t even imagine.