We have had the subtitles on our television stuck in the “on” position for a while now (we put them on for a friend and have forgotten how to take them off!) As a fast reader, having the subtitles on is a nightmare; every joke, every killer line is ruined by me reading it before the characters have a chance to speak. My husband, on the other hand, relishes subtitles because, in his own words, “Some programmes are not that clear anymore!” (I have gently pointed out that he may need to have his ears tested.) But while subtitles are annoying, this week they have made me think.
Have you noticed how much easier it was to make friends when you were young? As a kid you could run up to anyone in the playground and be best friends within 10 minutes, and even in your teens and twenties you could click pretty quickly with someone at college or church or work. There was no backlog of years to cover, no need to fill in the details. You didn’t need to stop the story you were telling to explain who each person was and why each one reacted the way they did. But as we get older in life, friendships can take longer to build because there is just so much that people don’t know about us. You have a long history to fill your new friends in on before they can really understand who you are. You need to switch on the subtitles.
I recently spent a couple of days with friends that I had lived with when I was training to be a teacher, over 30 years ago. As I travelled home on the train, I was struck that the time we had spent together was particularly precious for one reason: no subtitles. We had met at a time in our lives when we were living away from home for the first time, learning how to be independent and making decisions about how we spent our time and what little money we had. Everything was new and we did it all together; sharing our highs and our lows, developing the ways that we thought and deciding how we were going to choose to live. We did this against a background of exam pressures, study demands and teaching practice stress.
When you see someone at their best and their worst like that, you get to know them at a level that lasts through the decades. Thirty years later we had a different set of joys and demands, but we talked them through in just the same way. We were no longer independent but had the challenges of work, marriage and parenthood. We were dealing with supporting ageing parents, the single life, bereavement, family illness and mortgages. We were spread from Peterborough to Singapore. But as we talked I realised that these conversations flowed with an ease that is not always present in friendships you make later on in life. My friends didn’t just know the person I am now; they knew who I was and how I got here.
Thirty years of friendship meant there was no need to explain why we felt the way that we did, reacted in a certain way or found things particularly hard. But friendship without subtitles is not just about putting the years in; underlying our conversations was the fact that we knew in this circle we were loved and accepted, not despite our insecurities and faults but because of them. It was a safe place to say whatever we wanted. As George Elliot once put it:
“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
During this time away I experienced friendship without the need for subtitles and I was very thankful for it, and then I thought: isn’t our relationship with God like that? Isn’t that the ultimate friendship without subtitles? With God, we can express whatever we are thinking without the need to explain because he knows our history, our character, our hope and our fears. He knows all the times we got it badly wrong and all the times we tried to get it right. In fact, he knows our thoughts before we even think them and he knows what’s on our hearts before we do. It is a relationship without the need for subtitles, of pure understanding and love.
I’m not saying I don’t value and appreciate the friendships I’ve made in recent years. And my husband has a point; sometimes having the subtitles on makes it easier for people to understand exactly where you’re coming from. But I am so unbelievably thankful that my relationship with God requires no explanation on my part, and I’m grateful that he allows me to experience a small taste of that love and understanding through relationships with old friends.
Written by Rosalyn Satchell