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What if I can’t “find my tribe?”
The other day I was listening to a podcast. At the end of it, the interviewer asked the interviewee to share advice for women going through hard seasons of life. “Just find your tribe,” the interviewee remarked. I winced. If only it were that easy.
How many times have you heard this? Of course, the heart behind “find your tribe” is a good one. The phrase essentially means, “Find strong friendships, cultivate them, cherish them, and stay in relationship with them.” The idea is to find people who you can do life with. To find community. Yes! Community is a great thing.
However–and this is a big however–where do I land if I can’t find my tribe? What then? As many of you know, it has been (and continues to be) a winding journey to find my footing and get rooted where we live. I have struggled deeply and desperately with loneliness. I have gone months at a time with no one close by to call, no one to talk to outside of Riley and his family. I haven’t had a tribe. At all. I’ve been tribe-less!
This “find your tribe” thing stings in particular because it makes finding friends sound easy. Like, first find a dentist and then find your tribe! It’s easy! In adulthood, “finding” friends is elusive and difficult. I’ve experienced it, my friends have experienced it, and I know that so many of you have experienced it too. If tribe-finding was easy, none of us would be lonely, would we? And yet, many of us are lonely. What does that mean for us?
It’s okay to feel lonely
First of all, I want to give a voice and a space to loneliness. In our “pick yourself up and brush yourself off” culture, there’s little space for loneliness, grief, or other hard emotions. We’re a bunch of sweepers, pretending our feelings don’t exist. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Brush them under the rug. Ignore them. If we pretend we’re not lonely, we won’t be right?
You guessed it: wrong! There is rarely (if ever) a time in life when true forward progress can be made without acceptance first. Acceptance, then growth. That’s the order.
It’s hard to admit to feeling lonely because–at least for me–it makes us look weak. It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us, like there’s a reason why we can’t “find our tribes.” A couple of years ago, I was talking to my mother-in-law (who I am very close to) about what I hard time I was having. She empathized, “It’s really hard to feel lonely,” to which I quickly replied, “Well, I’m not lonely! I’d just like some friends.” Retrospectively, I see what denial I was living in. If we can’t say we’re lonely, how can we fix it? No one looks for a solution to something that’s not a problem. Sister, it’s okay to feel lonely. I would venture to say (with great confidence) that every woman has felt lonely at some point in her life; if you feel lonely, you are not weird, you are not strange, there’s nothing wrong with you.
Push into the awkward
I’ve experienced more awkward moments in the past couple of years than I’d ever like to relive. It is deeply challenging to be in a place where you’re looking for friends and community–you’re looking for a tribe–when it feels like no one around you is looking for friends too. In our small town, this has been the case. Almost everyone here already has a tribe, a deep-rooted tribe, a generation-after-generation tribe. Here I am, an out-of-towner, small town Texas accent-less, and not at all a part of the local small-town culture. I often feel like I stick out; but then, I’m also desperate to fit in.
I’ve had to proverbially “get over myself” and push into the awkward. I’ve asked women to go on coffee dates when I knew they’d never ask me (see above: they have tribes and aren’t looking for more “members”). Said coffee dates have sometimes been strange and uncomfortable. I’ve tried volunteering and have hit wall after wall. I’ve attended Bible studies in the area where I’ve felt so out-of-place and uncomfortable that I’ve cried big tears on the drive home.
All this, but I keep trying to press into the awkward. There are no new friends to be found sitting at home. In my introverted-ness, in my discomfort, I’ve had to force myself out of the house and into awkward situations. I recently learned that statistically, lonely people are actually less likely to attend social functions than their not-lonely counterparts. This doesn’t surprise me at all! It’s hard to be lonely in a crowded room; somehow the crowd makes the loneliness feel worse. All that said, it is critical to push into the awkwardness and “put yourself out there.” There are no new friends to be found sitting at home. (I repeat that to myself often.)
Remember that seasons come and go
Before this tribe-less season, I lived in Austin and had the strongest, most supportive tribe of my life. The people around me were truly like family and I trusted them implicitly. When I got in a terrifying car crash, I had someone to call. When I broke up with my longterm boyfriend, I had someone to call. When I met Riley, I had someone to call. In that season of life, God graciously gave me people to meet me in every part of my life. With my biological family across the country, I had mother-figures, father-figures, sister-friends, and brother-friends all living within a few miles of me. To say my Austin tribe was awesome is a massive understatement!
And then I moved four hours away to get married. And as I’ve shared a dozen other times on my blog, no amount of love or “catching up” over the phone can take the place of actually doing life together in the same place. And so, sadly, over time, my Austin tribe disintegrated.
Just after we got married, I remember eagerly anticipating my new tribe here. I thought of all the new relationships I’d get to cultivate! All the new people I’d get to know! After getting married in late July, I remember thinking how cool it would be to see who would be around the table for my birthday dinner that December. That’s five whole months away, I thought, surely I’ll have a tribe by then. Five months came and went, and Riley was the only person at the table for my birthday dinner. Well, I thought then, it’s only been five months. Surely next year I’ll have a tribe! It’ll be great to see who my people are then. The following year passed, my birthday came again, and again Riley was the only person at the table. Another one of my birthdays is around the corner, and though I have a couple of friends I could invite to dinner this year, I am still greatly struggling with finding my people and my tribe.
But! This is just a season. I will not feel like this forever. There will come a time in another few months or years when I’ll feel like I have a tribe again. I cling to that hope like my life depends on it! If you’re in a similar place, you must remember this lest you become hopeless and miserable. Nothing lasts forever. You may be going through a hard time now, but you won’t have a hard time forever. This doesn’t negate the difficulty of being tribe-less, but it softens the sting for sure. Life is a winding journey, and we all have seasons of community and seasons of loneliness. If you’re in the former, cherish, cherish, cherish. If you’re in the latter, I’m with you sister, and we’ll cling to the hope that this won’t last forever together.
Suffering accomplishes something
We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry. Not only do we dwell in the land of plenty; we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? Lock up our souls? Why do we limp? Why do we straddle issues? Why do we live feebly, so dimly? Why aren’t we saints?
Each of us could come up with individual answers to all these questions, but I want to suggest here a common cause. The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all of these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are starving for. Real Presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers.
There is nothing–no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain–that cannot be harvested and used for nourishment on our journey to God.
What I am suggesting here is that everything in your life is a stepping-stone to holiness if only you recognize that you do have within you the grace to be present to each moment. Your presence is an energy that you can choose to give or not give. Every experience, every thought, every word, every person in your life is a part of a larger picture of your growth. That’s why I call them crumbs. They are not the whole loaf, but they can be nourishing if you give them your real presence. Let everything energize you. Let everything bless you. Even your limping can bless you. (A Tree Full of Angels by Macrina Wiederkehr, emphasis mine)
The last thing to always, always, always remember is that suffering has a purpose. No one gets through life unscathed. But our suffering can be, as Wiederkehr puts it, harvested and used for nourishment on our journey to God. What does this look like practically?
I’ve lived through pockets of loneliness in the past, but never profound and long-lasting loneliness like I’m wading through now. This period of time has cultivated in me a deep compassion and sense of empathy for others who are lonely (more about this here). I used to see a lonely woman and think What’s she doing wrong that she has no friends?; now I think, What can I do to be her friend? This shift is massive and it’s because of suffering! I will never be the same because of this period of hardship.
“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 1:4 NLT
When you’re walking through junk, think how your mess can become your ministry. Do you know what comfort you’ll bring to someone in the future when you can put your hand on their arm and say “I’ve been where you are. I know what you’re going through. And I’m going to be here for you through it?” This kind of knowing breeds grace like you wouldn’t believe. So, when you are suffering, when you can’t find your tribe, when you feel lonely and broken, remember: suffering accomplishes something. We must let hard things teach us.
Support and love to you
If you can’t “find your tribe,” you are not alone, sister. I stand with you. I wish I could give you a big hug and we could get coffee together and talk! I hope these words encouraged your heart in this challenging season. If you’d like support, don’t hesitate to email me or write me a letter. I will write you back. Much love to you!
// Have you had a hard time finding your tribe in this season of life or in the past? What have you learned from that challenge? What do you wish people knew about “finding a tribe?”
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