It occurred to me last Monday during a quiet time, quite out of the blue and without any particular prompt, that my house phone had not rung once all weekend. Not once. A few texts had come in on the cell phone, but they were inconsequential: a sale notification or a prescription drug pick-up. I suddenly realized that I/we don’t, as a rule, get many phone calls anymore, unless you count robo calls, which I don’t.
That led me to realize that the underlying reason I don’t get calls is that I don’t have many friends anymore, at least not local friends with whom I speak and interact often, much less daily. My whole life, I have had an active social life with circles of close friends, not necessarily overlapping circles mind you, but people whom I saw regularly, talked to daily or often, and with whom I was in more or less frequent contact. Those friendships have been cultivated from playmates in childhood, classmates in college, colleagues at work, and co-workers in various community endeavors throughout my adult life. While I am happy to say that I have maintained most of my closest friendships over these years, I do not now have a local cadre of close friends where I live whose company and conversations I can routinely enjoy. And I miss that.
Part of the reason for this is that I am retired. Yes, I moved back to my home state of Texas, but most of the people I was close to in my youth have also long-since moved away and created new lives elsewhere, as did I. My one dear, oldest childhood friend, who lived nearby in Austin and whom I was thrilled to once again be able to spend time with, quite suddenly died of cancer about a year after I moved back. Unfortunately, I have lost several close friends over the years — some at unusually young ages — to accidents, illness, and other unforeseen events. As one ages, of course, death becomes the great “robber baron” of friendships.
Another result of being retired is that one is no longer actively thrust into the social activities automatically generated by career and family; if geographic relocation is also part of a move to retirement, then even the casual friendships developed within local organizations, churches, and other activities are suspended. Suddenly one must actively seek out new ways to connect with others of similar interests and proclivities, commonly done by joining clubs or doing volunteer work. Now I’ve never been much of “a joiner,” and I’m not even much of a networker, especially since the passions I pursue (reading, writing, art quilting) are rather solitary endeavors. I will occasionally attend a professional conference or make a one-time commitment to a community service project or volunteer effort, but I am really not interested in being regularly scheduled for anything. I just don’t seem to have a yearning to belong in that sort of “tribal” way.
Developing real friends, meaningful friends, is an individual enterprise and it takes effort. It can be exciting to venture into a relationship with someone new, but it demands a dedication to openness and exploration, and it requires time and attention. These days, when people are so divided and even conversations about the weather can turn into arguments over global warming, I simply don’t have the patience or the time to be polite. I want intellectual rigor and real discussion, not inane conversation. Maybe I’m just too old to endure the tedium of trying to establish a context from which reasonable people can establish real communication. There is simply no easy way to adequately explain a lifetime of experiences to a new acquaintance and yet, without some frame of reference, how can two people possibly get beyond the banalities of casual conversation, much less forge a real friendship. Who wants to hand out resumés in retirement?
My friends are my family and they have been for many, many years. They are the siblings I didn’t have as an only child, but they are better than siblings because I have chosen them — and I am very selective. We choose friends for different reasons. The idea of a BFF aside, no one person can be expected to fill all needs: some are supportive, some are challenging, some are intellectual, some share common interests, and some are just plain comforting. I am proud to say that my life-long group of dear friends is a very diverse group of people who are nothing like me in terms of the accidents of birth — nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, regional backgrounds or political affiliations. After all, confirmation bias in choosing like-minded friends is no more conducive to personal growth and understanding than it is to discerning the truth from news outlets. We need others to expand our horizons, not constrict them.
All relationships take work to develop and sustain, but the effort is worth it. I have friends, close friends, of 40-50-60 years or more. They have been a lifeline for a lifetime for me. People who “knew you when” often know you best, so there’s no need to explain or pretend. They know what you’re made of, they get your humor, they see your soul. They will cheer you when you’re right, support you when you’re down, and call you to account when you’re wrong. The best of them will always help you be your own best self, but they will also accept you when you aren’t.
“Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are,” the old saying goes. I will gladly, proudly be judged by that standard. And it’s okay if my phone doesn’t ring as much as it used to. I’m starting to like the silence.