Welcome back to Part 5/5 on crafting a remarkable Post50 Life. We explored Geography of Place, Freedom and Career Arc Extension. Today we focus on Personal Intimacy & Health to reveal that a strong social architecture is the nucleus of a long, productive and healthy life.
“So,” I say to my husband as we enjoy sunset on the terrace of our newly constructed Panhandle dream home.
After two months in our chosen and well-loved ‘Geography of Place,’ we can count using one index finger the number of people we can call ‘friend’ – our architect.
“How many friends have you made this week?” I inquire.
The question lacks sweetness. We’d moved to a place where we knew no one. We needed friends and finding them was more effort than we’d remembered.
Soon we’d be on a corner with a sign, “Will you be our friend?” or scouting the produce section of Piggly Wiggly for foodies to be dinner guests.
Just because I’m more extroverted doesn’t mean my husband is off the hook. “Find some friends,” I say. “You need to help.”
Cigars, Scotch and a local bar was his strategy followed by golf, more Scotch and cigars.
Today my husband has more friends than I do.
Not ‘best’ friends. Not people you are tight with or give bear hugs to.
More like fist-bump people.
- The kind of friends who get in their boat (because the roads are closed) and call you in Atlanta where you’ve evacuated to wait out Hurricane Ivan to let you know they are right now in front of your house and “it’s still standing.”
- The kind of friends who attend your wife’s book signing when it would have been so easy not to.
- The kind of friends who show up at a local bar for your last minute birthday celebration and then are late to the Bluegrass State Clogging Competition. Later someone tells you he won last year and his cousin is Harper Lee.
These are ‘middle ring’ friends – different, diverse and attentive just enough. BFF’s and family, they’re important. We know this.
But what about individuals who live differently? Who cultivate perspectives and interests unlike ours?
The ‘middle ring’ relationships.
Those are scarce.
May I Borrow a Cup of Honey?
“The Vanishing Neighbor,” a new book heralded as a lucid guide to more than 60 years of social science research, scrutinizes America’s togetherness.
Author Mark Dunkelman, Clinton Foundation senior fellow and journalist, illustrates the effect of one of the most significant changes in the U.S. in recent decades – the decay in ‘middle ring relationships.’
Using the metaphor of Saturn’s rings, Dunkelman surveys our relationships:
- In your inner-ring are your most intimate relationships – family and close friends – people who love you no matter what you think.
- Your outer-ring relationships are relationships that are “passing to transactional,” a result of “a single shared interest or experience.” Examples are professional acquaintances, Parrotheads, social media connections with people who share your passion for vigorous environmentalism or the people in the reserved section for the Texas Rangers.
- Your middle ring relationships are familiar but not intimate, “friendly but not close.” Think of neighbors you wave to, parents of your children’s classmates, the “regulars” at Starbucks you see every morning or your Saturday cycling group.
To be clear, we haven’t neglected our relationships. During the last twenty years, we’ve built the social architecture of our lives in two ways:
- First, we’ve taken more of our time and invested it in our most intimate acquaintances – our spouses, children, parents, and best friends.
- Second, we spend time with people we know only across a single affinity. Homogenized groups stock our lives with social, happy, fun and meaningful interactions.
“What’s been lost,” according to Dunkelman, “are the relationships that are of an intimacy ‘in between.’”
An intimacy that’s different say between you and your best friend or yahooing alum.
While affinity groups aggregate people who are like-minded with similar values and beliefs, middle ring relationships reverberate with diverse points of view.
These are individuals who have grown up differently. They may not be poles apart from your way of thinking yet it’s distinctively unlike what you’re used to hearing.
A middle ring friend is one who can butt you up the side of the head with an idea you deem ‘strange’ ‘quite different’ ‘interesting’ ‘way out’ ‘silly’ or ‘stupid.’ They can support their thesis. Discord and debate could show up.
You might change your perspective or discover something new.
My new book club (so far dedicated to actually reading a book) may be good example of upcoming discord and debate.
The book for our 2nd meeting is barely tolerable reading for me. With chapters on karma, reincarnation and the group souls of animals – my woo-woo meter went on high alert.
Imagine my eyebrows shooting up as I read an email exchange where one book club member thanks the person who chose this book I mostly hate to claim it one of “the most wonderful books I’ve ever read!”
Will I be able to be open to hearing other perspectives before I clap my hand over my mouth? Will I change my mind on even one small thing? Will I learn something new?
It’s in middle ring relationships where we learn to deal with and understand people who have different points of view. It’s where you learn to question old ideas, stretch your mind and grow as an individual. It’s where you learn to empathize.
And it’s where we begin to accept that we live in a society of people with a variety of points of view, and we all need to live together.
People choosing a Post50 lifestyle in a third world country leave family and friends and are challenged to build new lives in an unfamiliar culture.
In Cuenca, Ecuador, a city of 3,000 expats, more than three-quarters of the people I met told me unsolicited, “I have more friends – met more interesting people – in 3 months, than I had my whole life!”
This community of assorted gringos – a retired dentist from Kansas; a Kentucky couple, both artists; an Alaskan film maker; a psychotherapist from NYC – creates ‘middle ring’ friendships with potential for long-lasting intimacy. Yes, they gather in small groups to exchange valuable information, but also to purposefully connect.
Dunkelman argues the rest of us not going out of our way to find and cultivate “middle ring” friends; we no longer talk to people with different points of view emphasizing we lack relationships with neighbors.
The research clearly shows that over the last few decades Americans are socializing more with their families and others who live a few miles away, but the percentage who ‘socialized’ with a neighbor has gone down.
I don’t use much sugar nowadays and hopefully you don’t either. So if the proverbial “borrow a cup of sugar” idea isn’t useful to strengthen social relationships, other friend making techniques must be employed.
Friendship Boot Camp Convenes at the Slide
In case you have amnesia on how it all works, take a two-year old to the park and observe toddlers size each other up expediently and proficiently.
My grandson, Liam, is happy to run and push his truck alone on the walkways in the park.
But after a while, he looks for someone with ‘play-with-me possibility.’ It’s not the bully boy in the sand box cracking others on the head with a bulldozer (while mom murmurs ‘so sorry.’)
But it could be another truck pusher or kiddie-car rider in the vicinity.
Without language he employs his best sensory asset – his eyes. He scans age-appropriate children (a six-year-old is not a good candidate) not casually but with intent, waiting for one to eye ball back lingering a second longer than a glance.
Reciprocated eye contact heightens attentiveness and cues the all-important question, “Are you the one who might play with me?”
In exactly the way adults wait after extending an invitation to a person with “friend possibility,” so does Liam.
In his world, it’s straightforward. Try to take my truck or hit me, I will move away from you. Ignore my invite or choose not to respond, I’ll take that as a ‘no’ and move on.
Does this nonverbal toddler dance of friendship always produce results? No.
But more often than not he finds someone to have fun with for a short time at the park.
Liam’s not begging for friends… and neither should we. But he is on the hunt and that’s the key.
The campaign for finding friends never ceases. Never.
“You know I’m the last one left,” said my father at 95. So true – last of the siblings, the uncles and grandfathers, last of the high school foot-ball team, and the WWII army unit.
You don’t need to be the last one left to experience a loss of family and friends.
Even relationships with the living find their own way of disappearing.
Friendships wash away by the force of time, distance, disinclination, differences, or lack of reciprocity. Old friends sometimes just fade away. Siblings die. Cousins, uncles and sisters fall out of our lives for reasons we might not even understand.
Sometimes, we are the ones to set boundaries – even with parents and siblings – because it’s what we must do.
But in the midst of living in one’s 50s and beyond, we must be ever watchful and explore possibilities for relationships.
I Have 468 Facebook Friends. So There!
Do our digital connections count as friendships?
One of the big controversies is how online activity – fun for searching for information, buying stuff and connecting with people– obscures the importance of face-to-face interactions and deludes us into thinking we have friends when we really don’t.
Yes, we meet people online and exchange information. But mind is all social media can transmit.
“All we have are thoughts,” according to Susan Pinker, developmental psychologist and author of “The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter” (August 2014).
“No body language, no pheromones, no touch,” states Pinker .
What social media isn’t good at, experts argue, is deepening your relationships, establishing empathy and maintaining empathy.
Halfway up an Ecuadorian mountain overlooking the small town of Baños, Zilpia greets the day via Skype with her three-year-old grandson who lives in San Diego. “Buenos días mi pequeño nieto.”
Zilpia, grandmother of two toddlers, babysits the grandson who lives nearby in her home three days a week and uses technology to connect with the other.
What was interesting in the two weeks I lived with this family was watching Zilpia and her faraway grandson interact using Skype everyday – all day. Yes, all day. The computer on the kitchen counter was turned on at 7AM and off after the evening meal.
“Abuela! Mi Abuela! Vas a leerme?” Zilpia, hearing this as she sweeps her living room, runs to the kitchen, grabs a book from the stack on the counter and lovingly reads to him.
During the day, they have casual conversation, kiss through the screen, and sing songs. The child on the screen joins us for our meals smiling often at his cousin in the high chair.
It was amazing to watch this relationship ritual day after day.
But the child who snuggled his head in the crook of his grandmother’s neck as she rocked him after lunch in the kitchen chair? I think he gets the better deal.
The research comparing online relationships to face-to-face is just emerging now. But what we’re finding out is, without face-to-face contact, your relationships decay in as little as 18 months.
Some see social media as creating more hugs in their lives while others of us respond, “Really? That tweet is a hug?”
Can online interaction lead to social interaction? Some say yes. But friendly social interactions, with or without screen, will not create the strong integrated social network that will last your lifetime.
Exercise or Lunch Date. What’s Better for My Health?
Sickness derails our quest for productive longevity.
Good health means we can participate in all that is around us for a long time. Most of us don’t take good health for granted but we are inconsistent in actions to make us healthier.
I buy beautiful cycling tops for not a lot of money on Ebay from individuals who enthusiastically embraced cycling then … stopped.
Freedom Post50 allows us more time to choose how we will live our lives. More time means less excuses for not pursuing healthy living. Mid-lifers still have a chance to make health a priority – a top priority.
This is not a blog to find the best vegan recipes or discuss the benefits of a CrossFit Seniors experience.
But I do mean to raise awareness of the consequences of selections you make in creating a lifestyle and that includes those known to promote longevity.
In his book, Deep Medicine, Dr. William Stewart who is co-founder and director of the Medical Director of the Institute for Health & Healing describes health within the spaciousness of choosing to add a behavior or to end one.
Choice creates a new experience, choice can end an experience. Choice can maintain and sustain our current experience as it is.
Emphatically he states, “Everything you think, feel, say and do is either health creating or health negating. Everything.”
We are free to act. We are free to choose.
In the afternoon of living, are there actions that could be more important to health than to raise chickens in your back yard, eat kale, lose weight or stop smoking?
Interestingly, that answer is “you bet.” The research is telling us is that our social bonds are at least, if not more, protective to our health and wellbeing than those things.
But crafting the best Post50 lifestyle for productive longevity means you’ll include both – choose actions for your health and to build a strong integrated social network.
In the design of my Post50 lifestyle, I still run out of time at the end of each day for things I want to accomplish.
Right now I could go upstairs and do my exercise routine.
Or … I could go over to the fence where the neighbor I wave to is filling her bird feeder.
I could exercise in the morning.
How many friends have you made this week?