Tennis... and it's relationship to well, relationships

Today I played tennis with my next door neighbour. It was a good game because it was a hopeless game. In fact, it wasn't actually a game at all. We just stood at opposite ends of the net and tried to hit the ball across it to each other. Most of the time we managed a serve, return and mad scramble for the ball. Once or twice we got a rally of six returns going, but in general, we were pretty bad.

We both lack ball skills, motivation and concentration. We are both unable to simultaneously judge the position of the ball, run to the right spot, focus on meeting the ball with the racquet, think about where a strategic return might be, and then actually make the ball go where we aimed it.

But it was still a good game. And the reason it was good was because both of us are as crummy as each other. We were taking equal roles and equal shares in the game.

Now I can practice all I like, but I'll never be a really good tennis player. If I play with someone better than me, we will not take equal roles or shares in the game. The person better than me will have to think more, hit cleverly, restrain themselves and be gracious in my failures.

It got me thinking about friendship again*.

One of the big questions about friendship is: what about the difficult people? You know - the people who are a little bit odd, a little bit different. The ones who don't seem to fit in, who don't get the right jokes, or make the right jokes. The ones who are just that much harder to love, harder to get on with than everyone else.

Do I still have to be their friend? And even if I want to, how can I be their friend without going crazy? Isn't it just easier to ignore them?

The connection with tennis is this.

Like tennis, relationships require a lot of what is called 'regulation'. Two parties both need to take some responsibility for the give and take, the back and forth, the regulation.

In some relationships, regulation is naturally unbalanced. A parent will always take more responsibility for regulation in a relationship with a child. A teacher will regulate for a pupil. A powerful person in any field must regulate more when relating to a less powerful person.

Peer relationships are where regulation is balanced and is equal. Usually this kind of relationship is between people of a similar age, but there can be differently aged people who are peers in knowledge, in ability or in status.

It is definitely easiest to relate to peers. We all seem to naturally seek out people who are similar to us. My daughter is an ace at finding her peer group no matter where she is. Regulation is easy because it is balanced.

Any friendship with a peer is going to be easier than with someone who is not a peer, whether that's because of a difference in age, ability or interests. Regulation becomes less natural - we have to think harder and work harder.

The 'difficult people' that we all find so hard to relate to may look like peers, but they have a different ability in social relationships, which makes it difficult to know how to regulate with them. We have to think harder. We have to work harder and it takes more out of us.

But that's no reason to avoid or ignore the difficult people. In fact, if we can recognise that it is a problem of regulation, it may make it easier to relate to them.

I enjoyed my tennis game with my friend. But sometimes I'd like to play with someone who is better than me. I'd love to be shown how it's done and be given a chance to stretch myself. If I could find someone who would be gracious enough to regulate their game for me, I'd really appreciate it.

In the Christian family we are bound by love to each other. We might be naturally better friends with some people - our peers - with whom we regulate easily. And we might go to those people for a refreshing and fun 'game of tennis'. But we have a responsibility to love and relate to those who are not peers as well. Regulation with them might be more energy-consuming but it's important and it's crucial.

*This is for some talks I'll be giving in July to returning Missionary Kids at a camp.
** If you think I haven't explained what I mean very clearly, I'd love your comments. My head is twisting a little trying to get this out.