Last week, I came across an interesting thesis expounded by a reporter in a Boston paper. He says the biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn't obesity or smoking, but loneliness. Middle-aged men let their friendships lapse, experience depression as they age, and spiral downward from there.
I'm certainly guilty of letting old friendships stagnate, but I probably have a better excuse than most. I moved around a lot and far away after university, before there was e-mail and social networks to make staying in touch effortless, not that most of us do. I now live half a world away. I calculated that in the last 25˝ years, I've only seen my best friend from university a total of less than two weeks. I went eight years without seeing him after college, though we stayed in touch by phone, and another seven years from the time I left the US to the time I returned for my first visit.
Seven or eight years ago, when I was living in a beach resort town in Thailand, I made a concerted effort to have Guys Nights Out at least once a month. Three to five guys would show up, enough to make it worthwhile and still keep it personal. All the better if one of the other guys brought along someone I didn't know as long as the occasions remained a night out for just the guys. As time progressed, some of the other guys didn't take the nights out seriously. One brought his prostitute-like 'girlfriends.' People didn't make the time, they started moving away, and the nights got shelved.
Once I got to Bangkok, I tried to reinvigorate a meetup amongst two of the corps in the old group who'd also relocated here, Artur and Bean. These gatherings were sporadic, and if I didn't push for them, no one else did. I'm no longer in touch with Bean, and Artur seems to grow flakier and more insular by the year. I've given up on resuscitating a Guys Night Out with this crew.
One factoid in that article hooked me. Women can maintain their bonds talking over the phone. Men bond by doing things together. That activity could be playing cards, going through military training, graduating college, co-founding a company, or attending regular Guys Nights Out evenings. Doing shared things together defines a relationship.
And the corollary: doing shared things together, regularly, maintains that relationship.
I was on to something with those Guys Nights Out without even being aware of it.
Old friendships remain the exception. Their age keeps the bond at minimum strength without the need for additional work. An old friend always warrants a couple of days of catching up whenever you're in the same town. S/he is a marker to an earlier period of your life, and you are the same for him or her.
Could an old but lapsed friendship ever be resuscitated to its former splendor? Maybe, maybe not. I'd wager that few of us have ever dusted off an old best friend and given him or her the same attention they once received to put this question to rest.
Old friendships, once laid dormant, rarely get a re-boot. My wife has two friends she's known since junior high school. One is an airline stewardess who lives in nearby Hong Kong and works for Cathay Pacific. This stewardess can get free flights wherever Cathay flies and coming to a common hub like Bangkok would be easy. Nonetheless, in all the years I've been with my wife, she's only gotten together with Cathay a handful of times. The other friend my wife may see for a lunch every year or two whenever we make a trip back to Korea. They never call each other, send emails, or exchange social networking posts.
My brother moved back to our smallish hometown in Ohio briefly in the mid 2000's. One calendar year, he went until December before he saw one of our close friends, Hugack, from high school. Hugack lives in that same town with his wife and kids. He always has except for four years when he left town to attend college. Now my brother lives in California, but when he went back to Ohio for a short two-week trip in 2016, he saw Hugack more often in that brief period than he saw him in all of 2005 when they lived 10-15 minutes from each other.
Urgency with Hugack brought on expediency. On the remote chance my brother ever moved back, there's no reason to believe he'd burnish the Hugack friendship to its high school sheen. Nor would my wife with her ancient pals.
Tastes change. Would your favorite song at the age of 6 even rank in the top ten of your favorite songs today? Would that amazing family vacation spot you visited when you were 10 remain so magical if you revisited it today (apart from the nostalgic feelings it evokes from the past)? Would the foods you enjoyed as a junior high school student be as delicious for you now? Would the girl/guy you dated at 17 continue to be a prospect you'd date tomorrow if you were single?
For a few of us, tastes change very little. The foods eaten as a child are the goto dishes in the present. The lake vacation getaway is the same vacation getaway every year. The childhood sweetheart becomes the spouse.
For the majority, our tastes broaden. We are exposed to more so we're able to look back at our past and realize what was missing. We may still enjoy the song we loved at age 6 but we put it on a different scale now. We still like the Sloppy Joes we devoured at 12, but we seldom eat them because of all the new and better-tasting foods we've discovered since. The cute but shy girl we dated at 17, who seemed to offer so much then, is now more accurately seen as a woman who couldn't fulfill us emotionally and mentally today.
And yet with friendship, we operate in an ironic paradigm. Our best and most loyal friends, whom we're probably not much in touch with anymore if we no longer live in the same city, are people we chose decades ago when we were different people. There is some value to be placed on longevity, of course. One real test of a friendship, more important now than ever in our disposable pop culture universe, is how long we've managed to keep it going.
Logically, it seems that we'd be better equipped to choose more compatible friends today than when we were twenty-five years younger, but we don't. If the stats are true, we have fewer real friends in middle-age than we did in as youngsters, despite having had all those years in the interim to accumulate a larger pool. One common excuse, and I've used it, is that people just don't seem as friendly and open at 40 tas they did when they were 20. It becomes all too easy to judge the collection of people in your youth as higher quality, more interested in getting to know the real you, than people we encounter today.
Is that really true?
Perform this brief exercise. Think of all of your old friends, the people you once saw regularly enough to form a real bond. Pretend you never befriended them. Move those same people in their current guises to the present as people you've just met at a mixer.
Would you befriend them now?
You probably never actually had as much in common with them as you think you did. You just happened to go to the same school during a formative period. You were both in the same church or baseball league. That was enough back then. As an adult, you get more discriminatory in your contacts. You have to when you have less time to fritter away.
The buddies you befriended in college or in your mid-twenties you probably have more in common with than the buddies you befriended earlier in grade school. Still, I'd reckon decades on that you see the grade school friends more often if you see any of them at all. You've shared more experiences with the older friends over a longer period of time. You grew up in the same town and one or both of you may still live there. You spent more of your time together when the friendship was at its peak. Your parents may continue to be friends with their parents.
At 20, you could say your college buddy Chris was a more compatible friend than your grade school pal Jaime. Decades later, Jaime lives ten minutes from your parents' house and college Chris has moved away to Barcelona. Who are you more likely to catch up with?
Availability means more than compatibility at the end of the day.
Sadder still is that you probably wouldn't befriend either Chris or Jaime today. Those two entered your life during a period when there were numerous opportunities for seeing people regularly over multiple occasions. In college, I might continually run into a person in the dormitories or the dining hall. Perhaps we were in chemistry lab together. We got to know each other, not because we consciously decided to, like we'd have to today, but because circumstances dictated it. We were forced to do our due diligence. Nobody would bother with that now. Time is more pressing. We have yoga class, the gym, our spouse, our kids.
Your workplace is the main venue left for seeing people regularly over multiple occasions. Possibly, over time, you'll establish a tight friendship with a work colleague, but I think that's not as common as it should be. People are more often friendly with the people they work with rather than friends with them, although there doesn't appear to be much of a difference when everyone is your friend on Facebook. The difference becomes apparent once you no longer work together. The real friend is someone you'd go out of your way to see later. You'll schedule time for them. If they've moved away, you'd make a trip just to go see them or add them as an itinerary stop on a larger trip.
Not many of our work colleagues qualify for genuine friendship status. This is to be expected. You don't have the same latitude to pick and choose your work mates as you did your friends in your youth. As a mature adult, you acquire the skill of getting along with people you may not particularly enjoy. Naturally, when you're no longer working together, you can't say adiós fast enough, but you say it with a smile and a going-away gift.
Other than work, we have few regularly shared experiences where we can get to know another person's character and assess whether we'd like to be friends. Joining a weekly squash club outing or a social meetup might help to build up some kind of a network, but it doesn't truly cement deep friendships if what you're doing together is trivial and requires little in the way of ongoing commitment. Anyone can sign up for this month's entrepreneurial talk or champagne crawl. It's not a trial. Next month's similar event will attract an almost completely different set of attendees.
To form and maintain a real bond, you must actually do something REAL together regularly, such as go on an extended kayak trip. Or train for an athletic event over the course of several months. Or put on a show. Or star in TV series or movie. Or work on (not for) a business. Or, to repeat myself, have Guys Nights Out with a consistent core group.
How many of us get these opportunities or make these efforts?
If you attend one improvisation workshop, you'll learn a little about the art of improvisation. To go deeper, you have to attend regular classes and get on stage to practice your skills.
You can only form real friendships when you start attending "classes", but most middle-aged people juggling their middle-aged responsibilities feel like they no longer have the time to go to class. Instead, they enroll in a workshop; and you never develop intricate knowledge or friendships in a workshop.
It makes you wonder that if you had the opportunity to enroll in ongoing classes in your older age, to observe a wider cross section of people than you ever could have back in your salad days, how many more of these people might possess the raw ingredients to become your good friends, better friends perhaps than any of the people you met when you were less picky about your time and your company?
The friends from our past weren't special because they were of any higher caliber than people we meet today. They just existed in a time and place when they were meetable and socially available, two factors that come in increasingly short supply as we get older.
If only we'd known.