Monday, December 30, 2013

Is friend support peer pressure?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, friendship

In my prior post, I noted that I have 127 FaceBook friends, well below the average among those same "friends". Growing up, I was usually relocated by a family move every 3-4 years. I think our stay at a house in south Salt Lake City was the longest spell during that period: 5 years. This kind of history predisposed me to shed my friends every few years and make my way as the "new kid" (again!). But since leaving South Dakota almost 28 years ago, we've lived in only three houses, the most recent, 19 years! So in late life I am finally learning to make more lasting friends.

It is funny. My wife, who left Japan 42 years ago, still has friends there that she went to middle- and high school with, and keeps up with them, mostly by snail mail. My parents, who moved as much as I did, hung on to friends after leaving a place, and there would be this or that trip to Europe or somewhere with "that bunch". So all the moving seems to have emphasized a quirk of my own personality, to keep my distance. There is nobody from any school or college that I attended, that I have stayed in touch with, and only one from the university. I do remember some of them, but am not in contact with any.

Now, though, we have been living near a set of neighbors for half our married life, and in the local church all that time, a full third of our lives in total, and they are some of our "oldest" friends! (They are nearly all younger than we are) Call me a late bloomer. Looking back on reading Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, by Carlin Flora, I wonder who influenced me the most. Was it Danny, my closest friend in high school drama club? or Jim and the other members of the Madras Minstrels/Willow Tree Singers, as we variously called our folk-n-country music band? (I still have one of the Madras shirts. Doesn't fit any more…) or perhaps that one college friend who became a church friend? Not that we talk a lot. About every 3-4 years, "whether we need to or not".

I have studied and followed the nature/nurture wars for decades. Indeed, a country ballad I wrote, based on a family saying, is called "What Comes Naturally" and has the line, "Part of me is what they made me, part of me I made myself", though I was referring to my parents, not to friends. But Ms Flora states that we are shaped more by friends than by family. This may be so, as a story from our son's childhood illustrates.

In our first meeting with a 7th grade teacher of his, we were told how nice and kind and helpful he was. My wife and I looked at one another wide-eyed, thinking "Is this our son she is talking about?" I hope (probably in vain) that she wasn't too disturbed when I turned back and said, "Well, he knows we won't kill him; he doesn't know that about you." And there you have an example of the tactlessness that has characterized my social life. But our son is a very, very different kid than either of us were. He ran with a pretty good crowd, and turned out a pretty good young man. He is a FB friend also, which is how I know he has over 1,000 FB friends, and keeps up with a great many of them.

In the 8 longish chapters of Friendfluence, the author covers the gamut: how we find and make friends…or how about half the time, others make us their friends; the friends we are glad to have and those we wish we could drop (moving works, but little else does); the effects of friendship on our health and longevity, usually positive but there is no guarantee; the way friendship is changing now that we can Skype or V-chat with anyone anywhere; and, seeing how influential friends are, making the most of it, while avoiding becoming a cynical "user".

On balance, we need friendship. I read of an experiment in which a rat was kept in isolation from all other animals, not just rats, but keepers and everybody. Food and water were delivered mechanically, and I don't know how the keepers managed to clean up without being seen. But it didn't last long anyway; the rat soon just lay down and died, pretty much on purpose, it seems. At the risk of making a cruel experiment more cruel, I wonder if rats differ in sociability as much as humans do. Some people really don't seem to need others. But even the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, at least had rare contact with his brother, which led to his being caught. And though I was considered a loner most of my life, I have always enjoyed social contact, even if I often need time alone to recharge (and that just makes me an ordinary introvert).

I think "No Man is an Island" is literally true. Even for that guy who spent 30 years in Alaska making all his own stuff, and filming it. The filming was a social act, and he had monthly air drops during most of the year. He needed to at least talk to the pilot when picking up his stuff and paying and delivering film to be sent for processing. He got along with a lot less human contact than most of us, but more than the PBS specials about him would lead you to believe.

There're a dozen more kinds of thoughts that crowd together as I consider this book. That makes it a great book in my estimation. PS, I am writing this about 3 days after finishing the reading. Year-end was busy, and very social! So I'm backdating the post.

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