The Gardener vs The Arborist

working with young adults offers ample moments for reflection.  As I work to understand them, I learn a lot about myself, both my current self and the person I was 20 years ago.

I’ve been thinking for a few years now about the nature of friendship. Humans are wired for companionship — Donne was right that ‘no man is an island’; Countee Cullen declared that one man’s grief is another man’s crown of healing.  But sin cuts us off from each other. Friend-making and friend-keeping are fraught with obstacles, false starts, wrong turns, false hopes, and our own mistakes.

I’d like to think that adults have an easier time in the friendship game, but truth is — we don’t.  Our advanced experience gains us the advantage of avoiding a lot of mistakes that young people make; life itself tends to rub off our selfishness and make us a little more palatable to the average human. On the downside, adults rarely have as many opportunities to build strong friendships. Our years of common experience (college) have passed; our time is entirely absorbed with making a living and/or raising a family.

As I wander the world of adolescent hormones and teen relationships, I have noticed one significant difference between their friendships and mine:   Teens garden. Adults prune.

Kids begin tons of relationships, and do so quickly and easily. Friends of convenience (someone to hang out with at social events); friends of proximity (classmates); friends with mutual interests (music, dance, movies, cars); friends with romantic potential (‘ooooh… she’s hott”); friends out of mere circumstance (sat next to them on a bus one time).  They rarely stop to consider whether the friendship they just began is viable, practical, or long-term. It’s like a garden, and every seed is worth planting. You never know what might grow.  Investment in each other — if its even on the radar — isn’t really the point.  Friendships are almost haphazard, though they bear an incredible significance when they do develop.

Adults (as far as I can tell) have all the same types of friends — proximity, convenience, mutual interests, circumstance, whatever — but we lose that gardening optimism. I’m not interested in pursuing every acquaintance for something deeper. Like a careful arborist, I find myself pruning relationships down to the few that seem to be actually growing.  In the rare occasion that someone begins to invest in me as a friend, I take that really seriously. Growing a friendship requires a lot of work but, done well, yields remarkable joy.  Losing a friendship after it’s taken root grieves me — there’s a literal mourning period.  I hate it.

I’m not trying to make any huge deal out of this; just thinking out loud.

I think these contrasts are thrown into sharp light when an adult and a young person try to build a friendship:  Young adults are used to being invested into; it’s what people have been giving them for nearly 20 years. Adults are used to a more even give-and-take, and we prune out the relationships that aren’t growing (by our definitions).

Putting together a gardener and an arborist can provoke a clash of expectations. An experienced person brings a deep well of experience and hard-earned wisdom to the relationship– a ‘bigger’ soul, in a sense (to borrow from Holmes’s idea in “The Chambered Nautilus”). Young people bring enthusiasm and interest.  They enjoy being ‘poured into’ and getting the chance to start giving back in a meaningful friendship, but the well isn’t as deep (either for giving or receiving).

Young people can come across as apathetic and insensitive when they’re merely investigating a different area of their ‘garden’ for a while.  Adults can pour out so much that they drown a teenager. Smothering isn’t loving.

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