“Am I truly ‘okay’ with short-term friendships?” the question nagged me as I curled up in a chair in my hotel room at the Tysons Corner Marriot after the end of the Families in Global Transition conference I attended last month. A steaming cup of instant hotel coffee in my hand, I exhaled slowly. The questions continued. “What does it mean to invest in others well? And how do I do so while still protecting myself from painful goodbyes?”
These questions were prompted by a writer’s forum I attended before FIGT’s opening keynote speaker. This pre-conference activity, led Nina Sichel and Patricia Linderman, focused on inspiring writers through small-group discussions and prompts.
During one of the small group discussions that I joined, each attendee was asked to share advice based on what we had learned from living overseas. One woman highlighted the importance of acknowledging each other’s stories. “Each person has a story to tell. Ask for their story,” she said. Another woman spoke about building cultural bridges. Although I was impacted by all of the advice, this simple, yet profound, sentence lingered in my mind long after the closing keynote address at FIGT:
“Some friendships are only meant to last for the duration of a term. And that’s okay.”
“Some friendships are only meant to be short-term.” It was a sentence I hadn’t heard before. And to be honest, I was filled with mixed emotions as I grabbed my journal and began to reflect on FIGT that day in my hotel room. This sentence troubled me, relieved me, and made me question how ‘okay’ I am with my relationships. Third culture kids and expats have many short-term friends. Our lives overseas brim with ‘hellos.’ But these ‘hellos’ are almost always followed by a painful, and many times unexpected, ‘goodbyes.’ Our lives change constantly, and so do our friendships. I resonated with this quote from a book I am currently reading: Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn Gardner.
“Trying to work through the complexity of being willing to get to know someone only to let them go is a challenge,” Marilyn writes. “We often feel like it’s not worthwhile, that the goodbyes are too painful.”
A recent conversation with my mom quickly came to mind.
For the past two years, my sister and I have planned on attending Torchbearers, a Bible college, in Europe for six months before we return to the US for university. We initially decided to spend the first three months at Torchbearer’s Germany-based college before finishing the semester at their England-based college. We felt confident that this was the right decision until our mom confronted us a few months ago. She encouraged my sister and me to spend the entire six months in Germany. Why? Because she knew that we wouldn’t invest in building friendships. By separating the semester between Germany and England, our time at each school became too short. She realized that my sister and I wouldn’t attempt to engage in friendships because of the end result—more painful goodbyes without certainty of another connection. So why invest in short-term friendships when inevitable goodbyes are already looming?
I never expected to connect with a recent short-term friend. She had come to Hiroshima to work alongside my parents for a brief time last year. It was only for a few months. We knew we didn’t have much time together. And I had subconsciously chosen not to connect too deeply because I didn’t want to say another goodbye.
But this short-term friend was single, alone, and experiencing a difficult cultural transition. My parents ‘adopted’ her into our family and, slowly, we began to become friends. Over the following months, we journeyed together, sharing our life and faith. Our conversations deepened, and we soon connected on a heart level. When she left a few months later, our goodbye was incredibly painful. But our time together was rich, meaningful, and insightful.
As I continued to reflect, I’ve realized that short-term friendships many times mirror two paths that cross. They are an intersection of journeys. A brief and bittersweet overlapping of stories. Goodbyes are inevitably part of a third culture kid or expat’s life. But it’s how we live and who we are during these crossroads that teach us, grow us, and shape us. Though important to acknowledge, it’s not the ending ‘goodbye’ that truly matters. It’s the moments in between–those weeks, months, or years when our paths cross–that define the extent and the depth of our love, teach us lessons we never expected to learn, and allow us to invest in another’s journey while they unknowingly invest in our own.
Impending goodbyes should never determine the depth of my short-term friendships. My willingness to connect should not change depending on the length of our time together. I am learning to approach each new short-term friendship with vulnerability, a desire to invest, and a determination to journey together whenever our paths cross.