Happy Spring everyone! I don’t know about you, but winter is always tough for me, and was especially so this year. New York was particularly dreary and rainy this time around and my recent move to Queens left me more isolated than I’d been used to. But I think there’s more than that. At this particular point in my life arc, and perhaps the arc of our society, I’ve been feeling a lack of true friendship, and it’s a feeling that’s persisted a while. I’ve been digging at why that could be, and a few of the usual suspects come up. People go through phases – they get boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives, kids, careers – and their priorities change. This is especially common at my age, and it’s a pretty frequent complaint that it’s hard to make or have time for friends in your 30s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but a few things do warrant concern, especially with existing friendships that don’t feel the same anymore. Sometimes we don’t sit down and have the conversation about how priorities have changed, and we hold off on setting new boundaries and expectations. And even when we do set those expectations, they aren’t always respected, so the friendship becomes a one-way street that’s convenient for one party while leaving the other longing. The friend says that they’re “busy” and still care, but “busy” is just another way of saying they care about other things more than they do about you. Truth is revealed in action, not words, even if the person actually believes the words they speak.
I also began thinking, “What actually creates the deep connection in a quality friendship?” A book I’d read on depression pointed out that an essential part of our existence stems from shared experiences with other human beings. I think with friendships, an important aspect is that the experiences are “challenging”; perhaps physically (climbing a mountain together) or mentally (creating an art installation on a tight deadline). Another part is whether the partner is someone who is “emotionally available”. When a friend offers this, they become a go-to person who’s there to be your sounding board, to hear you out, to give you perspective, to be the reliable one, and to smack you when you’re in a dumb mindset. They create an environment where you can be vulnerable, be honest, be able to release emotions trapped inside, and be yourself. There’s a sense of trust underlying these two parts, and it takes a lot to build a foundation like that. (As an aside, romantic partners can totally fulfill all this and count as quality friends, but because such relationships have their own complexities, I find it helpful to have additional quality friends in life for perspective, especially when it comes to discussing challenges involved inside a romantic relationship.) So why is this so difficult? There are a lot of factors, but three specific areas come to mind right now: showing face, technology, and work.
Showing face – We want to appear a certain way to other human beings, which in turn prevents us from being our real selves and limits the depth of our interactions. We’ve become so sensitive to appearing sensitive to others that we’ve lost the ability to actually be sensitive. By being careful not to offend other people, we’re no longer honest with them. And by trying to always look like our lives are wonderful and everything is happy-go-lucky, we no longer have the space to be vulnerable. There’s more to say here that I haven’t thought through yet, but it’s definitely related to the next two parts.
Technology often gets the blame in creating social problems. After all, it’s these damn phones with the texting and social media that are keeping us from having deeper interactions with others, right? But I think it might be the other way around: that people already have this void, and they’re using the quick hits from this technology to fill it. The use of digital communication in this way is more a symptom rather than the problem itself. Besides, technology is simply a tool without any inherent sense of goodness or badness, and any tool can be used to enhance life or to degrade it. I’ve seen so many instances of digital communication tech help fill people’s souls. For example, I often see immigrants video chatting with relatives on the other side of the world, and they have the biggest, most genuine smiles on their faces. And I personally love using social media to get a bird’s eye, big picture view of the life arcs and trials and tribulations of the many people I’ve met over the years. The big difference with these cases is that technology is being used to ADD a social experience where one did not exist or wasn’t otherwise possible, while a lot of the downsides of digital comm tech happen when one substitutes or REPLACES an “analog” experience with a “digital” one, which often results in less quality interaction. That said, technology makers do need to accept some responsibility for damaging personal relationships, because the makers intentionally bias these things to steal our attention in every way possible. On our end, we need to be mindful about using technology and setting boundaries. In 2008, when I purchased the first Android phone, I set a clear cut rule that it was never to come out of my pocket while I was hanging with other people in real life, except for when it would enhance the immediate social experience. I also keep notifications to a minimum and keep my device on silent most of the time. The tools are there, but we need to use our brains with them and not let them replace our brains.
Work – Another factor to consider is the encroachment of the work world into into our personal world, particularly in corporate type settings, beyond the 24/7 emails. If you’ve worked at such an organization, you’ve more than likely taken part in a team building event. Perhaps a trivia night or drinks with the coworkers or some food thing. These things are getting more and more common. And It’s essentially an exploitation of our desire to meld with our tribe. After all, for most of human history, we operated as tribes and worked alongside the people we lived with and shared friendship with. Our brains are evolved for this environment and companies are taking advantage of this to foster a false sense of being part of something bigger, despite the fact that they can just dismantle your “tribe” in a heartbeat or fire you with no notice. Now you might say, “So what? There’s nothing wrong with being on friendly terms with people at work.” There are a few problems here. First is that it’s extremely challenging to develop an intimate friendship – with honesty and vulnerability – with coworkers when there’s a need to simultaneously “be professional”. Second, work often pressures you to take part in these social events, and abstaining puts a red flag on you as being someone who’s not a team player, leading to career damaging consequences. And third, you’re spending social energy (and a lot of it to maintain something that’s clearly not genuine) leaving less for real friendship. We need more people to stand against this bullshit. I often turn down taking part in such activities when a work client offers, and I’m honest that I’d rather spend the time with my friends or other pursuits. I understand that I’m in a privileged position by being a freelancer with highly regarded work, and even then it’s not easy. That said, it is possible to forge friendships through work, especially if there exists a less hierarchical and more free flow structure. Still it’s important that we understand that forcing “friendship” in a professional setting does in fact negatively affect one’s real friendships.
Perhaps this sounds a bit depressing, or that I’m off on a rant (I won’t argue against this), but I do have some inspiring things to say. At the start of this year, I set an intention to focus on quality friendships. This wasn’t a simple thing and has some very challenging aspects. The first thing I did was continue to prune out lower quality friendships, either by breaking off ties with certain people, by setting explicit boundaries regarding my interaction with them, or foregoing social events that were unlikely to create that deep shared experience. All this was especially difficult because some friendships were formerly quality ones, and it’s hard to let go and not succumb to the temptation of a quick hit of interaction with them, knowing that it won’t produce the deeper connection anymore. This step is important though because it creates space and energy to give to higher quality friendships, and you need every resource to do so given the challenge of creating new friendships in light of what I’ve said above. But I began reaching out more to friends that showed the seed of quality, even if they lived far away. And I created or took up opportunities to speak with them more, see them as frequently as possible, be more vulnerable with them, and offer my own self in whatever ways they needed. I want to tell you about some of these people.
One is Trish Alexander, who runs the Skate Instructors Association. In addition to working closely with her on projects to improve the skating world, I’ve come to enjoy who she is as a person, and who I am around her. It became clear to me that creating more space for a friendship with Trish would be worthwhile because she’d often call me regarding skate teaching logistics, but would always begin first by asking how I was doing, and she meant it. Beyond phone calls, I’ve already had the chance to spend time with Trish three times in 2019, despite the fact that we live on opposite sides of the country. While each of these instances was related to a skating event, they’re events we each consciously made the effort to attend (and at least in part for me because I’d get to spend more time with her), and we created space or time to hang with each other – whether it was choosing to share a meal together when we could have done so with 100 other skaters, or by going on leisurely dog walks because we arranged buffer days around the events. I’m sure the shared experience (and challenges) of running skate instructor certifications together helps a lot to create a bond, but it’s doubly so because we’re each keen on personal growth in a way that produces emotional availability that we then share with each other.
Uncoincidentally, Trish wasn’t the only remote friend I’d already seen three times this year. Last week my skating brother from Atlanta, Parker (a.k.a. Trenter), and his girlfriend, Susan, came to visit me. I’d been hesitant because of their timing as it was right after I’d already skipped doing work for my main client for a week, but I thought, “Fuck it, this is more important to me”. I sent an email to my client being straight up as to why I’d be unavailable a few more days and the main boss said, “Friends are good :)” – I was glad he understood and that I had taken the honest approach. I had an awesome five days hanging with Parker and Susan. We spent the days skating and taking classes in dance and acroyoga, and nights practicing what we learned from class (in my living room while in our underwear) and sharing intimate conversation. It’s really something to let oneself be vulnerable and share things about your life that you’ve never shared with others before. Having Parker and Susan over was the best early birthday present I could have received!
I’m practicing being more open, honest, and vulnerable beyond just these friends. It’s definitely an uneasy feeling especially when that level of trust or intimacy hasn’t been developed, but it also works wonders to create the trust and intimacy. Conversely it’s a good way to gauge whether someone is capable of providing a deep connection, and if not, I can make the conscious choice to limit the extent of my interaction with them. But for those who respond in kind, it’s an incredibly uplifting feeling, and I’ve already found a few special souls.
Look into your own friendships. Are they giving you a sense of deep connection? Do they fill your soul? Are you finding opportunities to be open, honest, vulnerable, and yourself? Are you creating and sharing intense experiences? Or are you putting time towards superficial relationships? On the flip side, are you offering the best of yourself to a few special human beings around you? True companionship costs time, energy, and conscientiousness, but in the end it’s more priceless than anything else in life.