January 23, 2023

Our Social Caravan

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Each time I teach a Social Psychology course, I enjoy showing students excerpts from The Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen. As described in the book, we live in a time when we can meet people from anywhere in the world, and those relationships can endure because of travel capabilities and technologies. The following passages can be applied to both romantic relationships and friendships, but the focus of my post is friendships:

A century ago, social relationships were largely confined to the distance of an easy walk. Most were conducted in person, within small communities: family, neighbors, townspeople. Yes, the horse and carriage made longer trips possible, but even a trip of thirty miles could take all day. The railroad could speed one away, but cost and availability limited such travel. If one moved from the community, relationships were likely to end. From birth to death one could depend on relatively even-textured social surroundings. Words, faces, gestures, and possibilities were relatively consistent, coherent, and slow to change (p. 61, emphasis mine).

Formerly, increases in time and distance between persons typically meant loss. When someone moved away, the relationship would languish. Long-distance visits were arduous, and the mails slow. Thus, as one grew older, many active participants would fade from one’s life. Today, time and distance are no longer such serious threats to a relationship. One may sustain an intimacy over thousands of miles by frequent telephone raptures punctuated by occasional visits (p. 62).

“As the future opens,” Gergen wrote, “the number of friendships expands as never before” (p. 63).

The first edition of The Saturated Self was published in 1991, when rotary phones and pay phones were still in use, before the general public had access to mobile phones and high-speed internet, and when we had no conception of social media, “Facebook friends,” or FaceTime. Back in the day, we worried about the cost of making long distance phone calls. With newer technologies, it’s become even easier to stay connected to people we’ve met at different points in life.

I’m blessed to have a lot of friends from a variety of stages of life: childhood, high school, college, graduate school, and my work as a college professor, which has enabled me to make friends with people from all over the country, and from other countries including China and Turkey.

I’m friends with people from my wife’s workplace, and I’ve made friends through my kids’ participation in sports. On Saturdays I run into my lifelong friend Kevin because our kids play in the same basketball league (our parents were profiled in a story about the longevity of their friendships).

On Sundays I text my friend Cicero, a former colleague who now works at Marshall University, about our shared interest in the NFL. This upcoming summer, I intend to play in a rugby tournament for people who are 50 years and older. I’ll be hanging out with people I met thirty years ago in college. I’ve also maintained friendships with a group of guys I played rugby with when I was in graduate school.

We’re on a group text throughout the year and have an annual reunion at one of our homes with our families. Texting has really helped me stay in touch with friends. I might only have lunch once a year with my high school buddies Dom and Guy, but we text on a regular basis (even if, sadly, the occasion lately is to notify each other when someone from our high school has died).

Reflecting on my friendships makes me think of a recent article in The New York Times “Why Is It So Hard for Men to Make Close Friends?” which cites survey data indicating only 48% of men are satisfied about the size of their friendship group, and 15 percent saying they had no close friends at all.

One suggested explanation is that a lot of men are reluctant to be open and emotionally vulnerable with each other. Psychologist Fred Rabinowitz is quoted as saying: “If you look at little boys, they’re pretty open and affectionate with each other — and then something happens.” I have to say, my friends and I are comfortable expressing our feelings. Just in the last week I’ve had friends text me “Love you!” and “Love and miss ya brother!” My friend Jon says “Love you” at the end of our phone calls. I try to convey to my friends that I appreciate them and wrote a short story celebrating a close friendship

I want to share a cool story about a special group of friends. One day my wife came home from work and told me that her co-worker Amy was wearing a sweatshirt with the words Core 4 on it. She learned this referred to Amy’s close-knit group of friends. Amy was kind enough to share details with me to include in this post.

Core 4She and her friends (Tracey, Tracy, and Kim) met in elementary school in 1974, have been friends ever since, and live within a few miles of each other. They frequently talk and text, and they take a trip together each year. They even got Core 4 tattoos together on their trip in the year they all turned 50. When I asked how the name Core 4 came to be, she said:

Over the years, we have had other grade school/high school friends who have gone on our trips and hung out with us, but no matter who came in or went out of the group, the four of us always remained intact and we referred to ourselves as the Core 4.

One of their favorite traditions is an annual Christmas dinner party they have with their mothers and daughters. “There are 13 of us all together and our mothers and daughters are all close with each other as well,” Amy explained. When I asked Amy to tell me what's important to her about this friendship group, and what these friends mean to her, she replied: “We mean the world to each other and never take our friendship for granted. We have been by each other through high school, college, sports, break ups, deaths, marriages, divorces, babies, new jobs, and both issues and triumphs with our kids. We consider ourselves family.”

I want to include one more portion from The Saturated Self:

In effect, as we move through life, the cast of relevant characters is ever expanding. For some this means an ever-increasing sense of stress: ‘How can we make friends with them? We don’t even have time for the friends we already have!’ For others there is a sense of comfort, for the social caravan in which we travel through life remains always full (p. 62).  

True, it can be challenging to maintain ties with an extensive group of people, but ultimately our friends bring us great comfort and joy. To quote Kahlil Gibran: “And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

Are you satisfied with the number of friends you have? What ways do you stay in contact with friends? How many close friends do you have? And how do you think we should define “close friend?”

Photo courtesy of the author

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