Yet another advantage of getting old (in addition to Senior Coffee at McDonalds and AARP discounts) is that you get to choose your friends. When you are working you are more likely to have “co-workers” or “colleagues” than friends, where what binds you together is, primarily, a situation you have in common. It’s almost like the Stockholm Syndrome, except it’s not clear or even important who is in the hostage role as the bonding occurs. And in some lines of work your friends are more like “contacts” with whom you are friendly because of the anticipated professional advantages.
This all changes when you get older. Friendships deepen.
When you get older, things slow down. You have time for a leisurely conversation at dinner. Just last week we spent two hours at dinner with Randy and Linda, telling stories about our parents and grandparents. Then the check arrived, and we spent another hour with more stories before veering off into quantum physics. We did not have to get home for the baby sitter or finish preparing a presentation for work. We did, however, have to get home for bedtime, which occurs a bit earlier than it used to.
With old friends (longtime friends who happen to be old) we are sure to make time for each other, especially since we are not sure that we will always be here. We don’t make appointments to get together with Ron and Charmaine, but we do more or less arrange how and where we will next get together. So far we’ve all made it.
And when we do get together, we are forgiving. Yes, we have our flaws and peculiarities, and they may increase with age, but as we age we also don’t notice them as much, and our memory issues help us to ignore slights that may have happened in the past. We redefine friends’ peculiarities as charming, or perhaps amusing, character traits. (I won’t name any names here, but you know who you are.) Friendships have a reliably warm core.
When you get old, time not only slows down – it compresses. You see an old friend after six months, and after a few minutes it feels like it was just last week. This is especially important to us since we spend six months in Florida, six in Michigan. And when you go to a college reunion, and after the shock of seeing so many old people around (“Am I in the wrong tent?!!), you can pick up the conversation with friends you haven’t seen or thought about for 40 or 50 years. The time apart has compressed to insignificance. Kim and Edna remain the best of friends (“She is always in my heart!”) at a distance of 1000 miles because of that reliably warm core of friendship.
Long-time friends are a great source of joy, but there is also something exciting about creating new friendships. We met Phil and Ellen a few weeks ago. Phil and I were college classmates many years back, but we did not really know each other then. We reconnected through this blog, they visited us for a day, and after a few hours of great conversation the four of us feel like long-time friends. It was fun to create a warm core of friendship that we believe we will sustain despite how far Long Island is from anywhere we live. We will visit! The same thing happened with Megan and Miguel, despite their disadvantage of being young. (Miguel explained, “We are old at heart,” and I think he’s right.) We created an exciting new friendship, and we have visited them twice in New Mexico. The Internet helps sustain these distant friendships.
Or it may simply be that because of our failing memory we can make new friends out of old friends (“Do we know each other? Really?”) just the way we can discover halfway through a movie on Netflix that we have seen it before but can’t remember what happens in it.
Among the things that diminish when you are old is the need to prove yourself. You are as good as you are going to get, and if someone can’t be charmed by your peculiarities or at least ignore them, then find another friend. Because you are not trying to impress anyone you are free to ask about and listen to the friends you are with. Hear their stories. Friends ask, and they listen. And when a friend listens to a friend, he or she becomes less ego-bound. What I’ve described as a glow is a warm connection to someone else. When we dine with Randy and Linda, or with Ron and Charmaine, or Phil and Ellen, or Miguel and Megan, or Barb and Bill, or Barry and Karen, the egoless experience feels almost spiritual. It’s probably the wine.
We all know what the expression “just friends” means: no sex. The word “just” suggests a falling short, as if there were a vertical axis with romantic/sexual love at the top and friendship a bit down on the admittedly phallic pole. Settling for friendship might be disheartening when you are in your 20s or 30s, but when you are older the elimination of sexual competition can be liberating, moving energy and attention north to the heart and mind.
Fortunately, love and friendship are not mutually exclusive. Think of how often you hear women, and men who want to sound like women, praising their new spouse, or in some cases their recently deceased spouse, as “my best friend,” apparently elevating that category above that of lover. Or maybe what I’m hearing is just a note of surprise in the discovery that one’s lover can also be a friend. I believe this is easier to accomplish when you are no longer in your 20s and on the make. If you are married, I conclude, go for the daily double.
And of course, the most reliable source of friendship is with family, even with all the complex baggage usually associated with family. In addition to being friends, Kim and I play a variety of roles with our family: comforter, counselor, cheerleader, coach. (You may have your own list including words that start with other letters.) As we get older we may find ourselves in different roles, especially with our kids and grandkids, as they will be explaining how to use Facebook and our iPhones as they drive us places, help us find our pills, or push our wheelchair around the park. Our different family roles may at times obscure the core of friendship that we are fortunate to enjoy – that warm connection. We try not to let that happen.
People who know me realize that, like a lot of readers and writers, I don’t take a lot of time for friends. I like my books, my desk and my computer, none of which will hold my hand in the hospital or speak at my funeral. All of the examples of friends in this piece are couples. Women, I think, are generally better at creating friendships than men are. I’m working on it.