Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Archive for January, 2023

Friendship Revisited: Sunday musings…1/22/2023

What a nice weekend Beth and I have had! Some of the niceness is that we’ve been relatively free from big tasks and thus have been able to say yes to all kinds of fun things. At the moment we are free of illness in and (mostly) around our lives, another rather liberating characteristic of the weekend. With time on our hands Beth had a couple of epic rides on Hero, and I was able to get in all of the workouts prescribed by my fellow CrossFit OG and, you know, all-around Old Guy Bill Russell. We were free to tag along with Randy and Tess on their “wedding venue tour”; the energy of a bride-to-be is a force of nature.

And the pups and I got out to walk 4 days in a row!

What was really special about the weekend was our success in connecting with friends and family. Really connecting. Like handshake and hugs, right there together connecting. Now, if you’ve been reading my treacle over the years you know that the creation and cultivation of friendship is one of my favorite topics, one to which I return with some frequency. Friday night was spent in the company of 2 1/2 couples we’ve known for almost 30 years (one member was home sick, the “almost” part of my “illness-free” comment above). On Saturday we checked out a new restaurant downtown (look at us…driving into the Big City for dinner!) with our equestrian friends. No, we did not get there on horseback! Both nights were characterized by the comfort of being in the company of real friends.

Every couple or three years comes a slew of articles on friendship, specifically friendships in adults. Thus it is that I find myself returning to the topic for the first deep dive in awhile, having been once again bombarded with articles, books, and movies on the subject. My last deep dive was prompted when “Of Mice and Men” was revived on Broadway. Innumerable stories from college reminded me of my brother’s rather humorous story of having bumped into a fellow Eph with whom I was friendly in college (more on that in a bit). Much has been written on the subject, almost all of it a re-hash. But I came upon a significant update on one of the more important lines of inquiry into friendship, a new release of data from the latest directors of the Harvard study of happiness: “The Good Life” by Drs. Robert Wallinger and Marc Schultz.

My last update, oh 7 or so years ago, was equal parts obvious and depressing. The secret to a long and happy life was the creation and maintenance of a minimum of 3 close local friendships. This was especially important for men, a frustrating and daunting finding, what with my oft-told and hard-earned experiences with how difficult it is for men to create new friendships after the age of 30. The magic number is 3. 3 close friends predicts a longer life for men. Sadly in the telling 7 years ago this usually didn’t include your spouse (more in a bit below); the overwhelming percentage of spousal units drifted AWAY from the men in favor of younger women, usually daughters, as they moved through adulthood. 3 close friends and you live longer. Very few folks had more than 4 or 5, an incredibly tight range when you think about it.

It’s become a kind of psychological dogma that men and women make friends in very different ways. Women, it is said, make friends through the sharing of feelings. In person two women who are friends are said to be most often facing one another, talking. Maintaining this kind of friendship is structurally rather easy in our modern age of communication. Feelings can be shared in any number of ways that do not require the friends to actually be in the same room together. Phone, text, Facebook and Twitter are but a few of the tactical and mechanical advantages to a friendship built on an exchange of feelings, and the currency required for the ongoing investment is simply time.

Men on the other hand make friendship a much more arduous affair. Many women would opine that this could actually describe many, if not most things that men do, but that’s a topic for a different Sunday. The picture most often used to illustrate men in the company of friends has them standing shoulder to shoulder, in the act of sharing an experience but not necessarily sharing any internal reaction to that experience. It makes me chuckle to think that a video of the same scene would probably also look like a portrait, nothing moving, certainly not their lips. For men the basis of friendship is the experience and the fact that both were physically present for it. Whether sitting at a Bulls game in Row J seats 11 and 12, or working up a sweat at the Loyola Prep gym playing pick-up hoops, the friendship blooms only from the seed of the experience which is fertilized by proximity. At some point the memories of those experiences, stories re-told dozens, hundreds of times, fail to prompt growth in the friendship without the Miracle-Gro of presence. Eventually even shared “experiences by proxy”, raising similar aged children for example, fails to prevent slack from growing in those friendship ties if you aren’t physically there to tighten them.

A quick review of how I regard Friendship with a capital F: In my mind the universe is divided into a very few groups of varying sizes. Think of your life as kind of like a bulls-eye floating through a vast space. The center of that bulls-eye comprises that small group of true friends, men and women who would drop everything should you have need, and for whom you would do the same. Friends are people you miss if you haven’t had contact for a matter of days, people whose company you actively seek. These are people you go out of your way to see and never try to avoid. Man or woman, they know how you feel. Again, an aside, happy is the couple who have overlap in this innermost circle of the bulls-eye.

The next circle is filled with friendly acquaintances, people who make you smile. When you have an opportunity to be with them in person or in spirit it makes you happy. As I write this today I am also texting with a couple of buddies in Florida in the hope that our upcoming trip to their “neighborhood” will find them available to come out to play. There’s no limit on these, and a reasonably friendly character could have dozens of friendly acquaintances scattered throughout a life. This is the group from which most friends are created, and if you are fortunate someone who is no longer really in that bulls-eye drifts no further out from center than this inner ring.

Just outside the circle of friendly acquaintances is the ring containing acquaintances, people you’ve met and remember but either don’t ever really spend time with or never have the chance to explore a move toward the center. While visiting Williams for a game in which their boys were playing my brother met a someone of mine who has always been here, the humor in wistful remembrance notwithstanding. Your circles of friends and acquaintances drifts through a vast space filled with folks yet unmet, a (hopefully) few enemies orbiting in there somewhere as well.

Returning to “The Good Life” as it recounts the lessons learned thus far in what is undoubtedly the longest scientific study of happiness yet conducted, there is actually a bit of better news when it comes to the friendship stuff. Whereas the 3 friends thing is still mentioned, a greater emphasis has been found on happiness in a marriage. When trying to predict happiness, as opposed to longevity at least, those couples who expressed a high degree of happiness and satisfaction in their marriage while in their 50’s were much more likely to be happy, to be healthy and thriving in their 80’s. And in later life the emphasis on friends alone has evolved into the benefits of enjoying close interpersonal relationships with not only those friends but also spouses, children, and other family members.

The authors return to this again and again in the interviews I’ve watched and read.

As I become an elder in many of my circles it becomes more clear how important it is that we cherish these relationships. That we cradle and nourish them, careful to avoid shaking them lest they disappear. Shattered through acts of either omission or commission, it matters not. We float through the universe in our circles, people drifting in toward the center. In CrossFit we know both a definition of fitness and a way to measure it. Indeed, CrossFit’s founder opined that not only is fitness the most important part of health, but in his opinion it is a precise measurement of the same. He and I disagreed around the margins of that position, at least in part because of friendship and what it does for us. We may not be able to define friendship in quite as absolute terms as those we used for fitness in Crossfit, but I’m reasonably sure we all know what it means to be and to have a real friend.

Read or watch “Of Mice and Men” if you are unsure. I’ve neither seen nor read a more gut-wrenching or powerful depiction of friendship. I’ve often told the story of my Dad’s dismissive position toward the friendships of youth. I was so angry at him when he tried to talk me out of a rather ill-conceived trip to spend a week on the beach with some buddies from college before we began whatever our summers would bring that year. “In 10 years you won’t have the number of a single person in that beach house in your phone book.” He was mostly right, of course, although I still chat with one of the guys I drove down with (we were in each other’s weddings).

And I did rather famously share a drink with another this past spring.

It’s likely that friendship itself, unlike fitness, does not have a precise metric, a measurement of volume or degree. No “friendship across broad time and modal domains” like fitness, if you will. Though I continue to hold this truth, that you can never have enough friends, there is apparently a number that does have some significance. Three. Three friends, real friends, lead to a longer life. Side by side or face to face, the tipping point is 3. No amount of time spent or distance traveled is too much for them.

But in The Good Life we learn that a happier life comes from nurturing ALL of our close interpersonal relationships. Friends, spouses, and other family members. It turns out that the better we are at doing this in mid life, our 50’s and 60’s, the happier we are in our much later years. And just like the importance of including well-being in any definition of health, including happiness in our discussion of lifespan is a part of what becomes our “Healthspan”.

While not specifically in the book, I’d bet that the authors would say it’s never too early, or too late, to start nurturing all of those relationships.

I’ll see you next week…

63? Could Be My Lucky Year! Sunday musings…1/8/2023

1 Concubine. Hard shelled porcupine. Dunno why, just love this one.

2 Flaneur. One who wanders. Specifically in some definitions, a French wanderer. The French Surrealists were known to ride the trolley to its terminus just to see where they ended up.

Again, don’t really know why I like this one, either.

3 Qualia. The internal perception of sensation. For example, how you perceive the first taste of that 30 year old Bordeaux your wife, daughter, and son-in-law got you as part of your surprise birthday wine tasting.

I know what that means, I just didn’t know that’s what delicious was called.

3 63. Yup, last Saturday was my 63rd birthday. Are you like me? Do you look at a particular age number and play around with it. Try to find some significance in your age at any given moment? For example, when I was 61, a prime number, I told everyone who asked (and quite a few who didn’t!) that being 61 meant that I was in the prime of my life. A bit of a stretch, I will grant you.

And 63? Seems rather unimpressive on first blush, eh? Ah, but don’t discount my number quite so quickly. 9 x 7 = 63. The number nine is a lucky number in Japan I am told, and seven is lucky pretty much everywhere else. That’s a lot of luck in one number! I’m going with 63 being my lucky year.

I mean, after last year and all…

4 Enough. So, how am I gonna approach this upcoming year now that the calendar has turned for me? Most folks do the whole evaluate and adjust thing for New Year’s. I know it’s only a week later, but I try to use that week to take my own pulse as it were. As a way to do this each year I return to a little thought experiment that measures, at least for me, whatever declines I may have experienced, and those gains that I have (hopefully) made.

You are given the option of taking a pill that will halt the aging process. At what age would you decide that the balance of physical prowess and mental acuity, and age-begotten wisdom, was optimized?

Each year after a certain point that is different for everyone, each human begins to experience an inexorable decline in their physicality. Strength, speed, endurance, balance. Pretty much all of our physical attributes will show a net decrease over time. In a similar way, we become less “sharp” mentally. We may still maintain possession of our memories, our internal hard drive if you will, but we begin to experience slower access to them. Our computational abilities decline as well. Now, to be sure, this is not a straight-line decline, not like an airliner on the glide path. It’s more like descending through a rolling hillside on the way to the valley below: both physical and mental prowess can be enhanced, at least temporarily, through purposeful action.

On the flip side of this we have what we would all understand as “wisdom”. Wisdom is something more than simply experience. It’s more like, I dunno, actionable experience I guess. It’s a kind of knowing, a confidence leavened by compassion, in the act of decision making. If you are fortunate your wisdom is a source of comfort for some of your people. Having you, and your wisdom, makes their lives better. Along with this comes a deeper type of happiness that you hopefully gain by ever closer relationships with those same people. Family, for sure, but close, loyal friends as well. Another year has hopefully brought you deeper, more positive interpersonal relationships that result from your wisdom (As an aside, I plan to read the latest findings from the famous Harvard study on happiness over a lifetime: The Good Life by Waldinger and Schulz).

One very important aspect of that age-begotten wisdom is the ability to take a gimlet-eyed view of the decline. Blake Crouch in “Upgrade”: “If we all had perfect memory, we would all grieve the older version of who we used to be, the way we grieve departed friends.” Grieve yes. Pine, no. To pine for that earlier version is to regret not figuratively taking that time-stop pill earlier. Our wisdom will hopefully allow us to take the occasional trip back in time for the pleasure of watching a less-wise but almost surely more exciting version of ourselves.

Is this the year that I would find myself in that “optimized” state? Remember, to make that call you would necessarily have decided that you have peaked on the wisdom thing. Perhaps gone a year without gaining any significant actionable experience. 2022 was a tough year for me. Without question it was the year that brought me more physical decline than any other as far as I can recall. I learned what chronic pain meant. I got a glimpse of the kind of inward vision that is necessary to endure under that cloud. Those positive interpersonal relationships can become less give-and-take and more one-dimensional.

But there was wisdom to be gained there, as well. In that space filled with physical decline what I found was compassion. Unfailing, unflinching, continuous compassion streaming toward me from my people. The same from the many folks with whom I have only the most superficial relationships. But I also felt a greater ability to feel compassion myself. To extend compassion not only within my closest circles but toward those who simply orbit my being. Would this have happened if I hadn’t gotten better? If the pain had not subsided and I’d reached a new, dramatically reduced physical state? Meh, who knows. Blessedly the pain went away and I am once again climbing one of those rolling hills back to a slightly greater physical acumen.

But I DID learn. I am wiser, and will be able to apply that wisdom in any number of ways, with any number of my people, because I learned more about the importance of a compassion that can extend beyond your innermost circles. I am still making meaningful gains on that side of the ledger, ones that feel like they are greater in magnitude than whatever declines I may have experienced in physical prowess or mentation. It is apparent that wisdom is so valuable that to stop the clock now seems like I would be missing out. That I’m not quite yet optimized.

Ah, it’s all a game anyway, right? My little thought experiment. The aging process proceeds unabated. The best we can do is fight to slow whatever declines are in the cards such that we can benefit from what we can hope will be ever-increasing wisdom. Who knows if my calculus is accurate. If I’ve actually gained greater wisdom than any prowess or acuity I’ve lost. Anyone who knows me would smile and chuckle and question if I am capable of ever recognizing that tipping point.

But one must wonder, even if one has the perspicacity to make that call, is it wise to do so?

I’m happy to begin another year, and to see you, once again, next week…

Rain Falling Through Sunlight: Sunday musings…New Year’s Day 2023

“What do you call a heart that is simultaneously full and breaking? Maybe there’s no word for it, but for some reason, it makes me think of rain falling through sunlight.” –Blake Crouch “Upgrade”

2022 seemed like a very hard year for us. But was it, really?

As I retired for the year last evening I took one last look at the inland ocean, the shores upon which my darling wife Beth and I live. The seawall and pier were surrounded by what can only be described as icebergs stretching as far north as my floodlights allowed me to see. My little oasis was choked off from the rest of Lake Erie by massive chunks of ice tattooed with the detritus of the lake’s year past. My view was dark despite the lights above the pier.

A rather apt metaphor for 2022, eh?

There’s been a rather pervasive gloom in the air of late. Doom and gloom fill our comms, whether they be traditional (newspapers, network news) or the radical disrupted streams of social media. It is well known that we are, as a species, hardwired to overweight and therefore over react to the negative. Tragedy writ small lands a direct hit on our psyche. Think local child lost on a frozen lake. The great Robin Dunbar the evolutionary psychologist believes that humans as presently evolved can maintain a personal connection with no more than 150 discreet individuals at any given time. Tiny (in number) tragedies lend themselves to familiarity when we transpose one of our 150 onto tragedy of limited scale.

The doom and gloom of our larger collective psyche can be laid at the feet of tragedies that are simply too large for us to find a way to relate to them in any meaningful manner. The slaughter of thousands of Uyghurs in China or the displacement of, what, 5 million Ukrainians are of a scope that is not calculable. We respond, if we can at all, by being engulfed in the gloom. We cannot process calamity writ so large. It blinds us to the sunlight, and we see only the rain.

And yet the reality is that our world is remarkably better in almost all ways today than it was any number of yesterdays. (One notable exception that should be pointed out is a stark increase in deaths of young Americans to drug overdoses, whether purposeful or accidental.) For the most part the world has continued its inexorable march toward better lives for nearly all of its citizens. There are actually FEWER wars today than there were 5 years ago, Ukraine notwithstanding, and along with that fewer deaths by warfare. Fewer revolutions and therefore more stable governments in more parts of the world. Indeed, the one very notable revolution in waiting is one much of the world would welcome: Iran.

Again, COVID notwithstanding, we continue to march toward better treatments for more diseases. There is much less hunger in more of the world than just 5 years ago, and this continues to be the trend. A greater percentage of humans live in a world that is warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Indeed, as we consider how our climate may be changing we must take care to remember that it is cold that kills; five times as many people died this year from exposure to cold than those who died from the heat. Access to the internet, while not universal, continues to grow at a pace that is not quite exponential, but feels that way. Do newcomers to the web have experiences similar to those we all had in the days before social media? One wonders. Still, the world of the connected grows.

In retrospect, was my year, our year, really as hard as it seemed?

Beth had a cancer scare. The surgery was a success; no cancer remains. She had an injury and lost her voice for a couple of months; she got better and her sweet voice, the voice that told me she loved me 40 years ago sings to me of love, still. My other hip, the “good one” crashed and burned. Surgery cured the pain of a hip denuded of cartilage. I was injured as a result of the surgery, and the pain I’d had prior to surgery was simply “transplanted” to a different part of my leg. I learned what it means to have chronic, unremitting pain, but I have nearly recovered. Beth and I are just sitting down after a long walk with our dogs and I am only mildly sore. It seems as if this, too, will be cured.

These things were hard. There were other hard things happening in our closest circles, in our families. Things that ended. Others clearly on the glide path to the end. And yet, each of them was actually surrounded by beginnings. Growth outpaced decline. There was darkness and there was gray, and for however much we as a creature may be hardwired to see only the rain, it was surrounded on all sides, up and down and in front and behind, it was surrounded by light. By good and easy. It’s all there, like a perpetual dawn breaking through the dark, sunlight free of rain, until it is once again, and still, a glorious noon with the sun on high.

What was hard was nothing more than a bit of rain falling through the sunshine.

This morning I awakened to a bright and shining new year. I awakened refreshed, as I should be, having lived another year in a life which is, has been, filled with so much more light than dark. So much less that is hard than that which is not. Surrounded by a larger world that continues to be lighter with each passing year. A light that we can see if we choose to. If we choose to look just the tiniest bit to the side of the doom and the gloom, for the light is there, and it is so very much more.

Like the icebergs that surrounded us this past week. In the light of day they were no less there, no smaller for the light. And yet in the light one could see that beyond them lay the magnificence of the lake. So much more lake than the ice that had been soiled by its travels. I went to bed last night surrounded by icebergs that obscured my view, like those things that had been hard, had made last year seem like such a hard year. I awakened and gazed upon a magnificent inland ocean. The icebergs? Well, they’d melted of course. Nothing but ice cubes floating harmlessly by as I began another day in a world with but a bit of rain falling through the sunlight.

I have just one resolution this year: there will be sunlight and there will be rain; I will look for the sun each time it rains. I will believe that each storm will pass. I will choose to live in the sunlight.

I wish for you and yours a Happy, sunny New year. I’ll see you next week…

You are currently browsing the Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind blog archives for January, 2023.