It is easy to become a recluse in retirement.
Flatbottom has done it successfully. He says he spent all his working life being sociable and he won’t do it anymore. He enjoys my brother-in-law but has lost touch with his own brother. He will go to Dalia’s Christmas Party, but it’s the only party he will attend. The good friends he had at the office have all drifted off. He used to lunch with them frequently, but now it is easier not to. And talking to the neighbor (with whom he shares many views) is to be avoided at all costs.
Flatbottom does get out. He hasn’t become one of those bearded hermits in rags who never sees the light of day. He goes to Walmart once a month, with a stop at Taco Bell (really good for recuperating from his heart attack). He knows the counter kids to speak to. At Wally World he chats—briefly–with Joe, one of my old colleagues from the university who walks Walmart for exercise. He knows the produce man and the young man who stocks the Whisker Lickins’ cat food –since they frequently run out and he has to ask for more. But for actual friends it’s easier not to.
Not having to get dressed. Not having to shower or shave. Not having to go out. Not having to talk. Not having to take an interest in subjects he doesn’t care about. Not having to even think. It is easy, I’ll admit. And the TV and Internet make it even easier.
So why do we make friends?
Perhaps to share ideas. To have fun. To laugh. To volunteer. To feel part of something. To be inspired. To be motivated. To commiserate. To cry and know someone cries with us. To know we aren’t alone in this vast, frightening universe.
I’m sure there are those who “acquire” friends for the benefits they bring. We all know those who are hangers-on for the money, the political influence, the fame. They make up the entourages of the famous, the well-to-do, the well connected. They will do anything to be close to the source of power or profit. But when the power or wealth are gone, so are those friends.
It does take an effort to make friends. Last week I was in New Orleans for the opening of the new exhibit on Spain’s contribution to the American Revolution. I had driven over from Huntsville to pick up a friend from DC who was attending the exhibit. She revels in her fame for having gotten the portrait of Galvez hung in Congress. She has even had a children’s book written about her. She has made herself famous and revels in it.
I was feeling very posh, very entouragey, sitting at a table full of Spaniards. I knew none of them. Instead of making an effort to talk to them, to ask about their lives, their backgrounds, how or why they had gotten involved, I sat mute. Petrified by fear. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of not being accepted. Fear of not being wealthy or famous or important enough.
Admittedly, my Spanish, as a dear friend told me years ago, is “archaic and from the kitchen” but I could have chatted with them. I could have taken an interest in them. Not for my own glory, but out of simple curiosity in another human being. I did eventually unbend and, to my immense pleasure, made several new friends.
Yesterday, sitting at a table at Newcomers, I again felt that creeping, paralyzing fear of rejection. Newcomers is a club for ladies who live at Elkins Lake, one of our very expensive and elite neighborhoods. Most of the ladies are rolling in dough, slender and elegant, golf-players or bridge-players or jet-setters, attired in gorgeous Nordstrom’s outfits, Ferragamo shoes, hair coiffed, nails beautifully manicured, dazzling diamond rings, and matching fashionable earrings and necklaces. I would give anything to be like them.
Since I come from the north end of the county (what my beloved Associate Pastor inadvertently called the “uncivilized” part of the county), I tend more toward the social gaffe, the “unfortunate” dress choice, the down-at-the-heel shoes and the “Oh, my God, what was she thinking?” hair styles. Never mind manicures. All right, all right, I’m exaggerating a little.
Determined not to make the same mistakes I made in New Orleans, I forced myself to turn to my elegant, lovely neighbor and speak. At least I knew I wouldn’t have trouble with the language. I asked about her children, always a good conversation starter, her grandchildren, even better, and her husband. It would have been awkward if she were divorced, but that can be a great way to connect through commiseration. She talked. I listened. Are we now friends? Pleasant acquaintances, at least. Perhaps future friends.
The one thing I have learned is that to make friends, it is best to just listen. Take an interest in the other person. Trying to impress the other person with your importance isn’t about friendship. That’s just arrogance. Haven’t we all had to suffer through the braggadocio of a self-important snob? Those are not friends worth having.
Friendship is enjoying being in another person’s company. It is sharing the good times and the bad. It is laughing and crying together. It is admitting mistakes and fears and the little badnesses that we bury deep inside. It is telling stories and knowing your friend will enjoy them as much as you do. Friendship is love and compassion and happiness at merely being together. What is that old joke? A friend may bail you out of jail, but a real friend will be in there with you.
Friendship is also sorrow when you lose the dear ones to distance or dementia, illness or even the trauma of death. But friendship, for all the possible future sorrow and sadness, is still worth working toward. It is worth the effort to make new friends and keep the old. Wasn’t there some saying about new friends are silver but old friends are gold? So make friends now, while you can. You may need them in the future to share your jail cell or your nursing home or to carry your casket at the funeral.
A friend is always worth having.