Never before has it been possible to have so many relationships. Social media means you never have to say goodbye.
Is that a good thing?
I like people. I love that I’ve been able to look up people from my past and say hello. I like the out-of-the-blue friend request from someone I thought had ridden off into the sunset. I make friends easily and quickly, and am happy to connect on a social platform instead of exchanging numbers with a new acquaintance.
But after a couple years of this, I had amassed massive networks. I have 2,236 friends on Facebook (and I actually know them). I also have 3,680 followers on Twitter and 787 followers on Instagram, not to mention the “500+” connections on LinkedIn. (Who knows how many it actually is?) I was posting a couple times a day amongst the platforms.
And in real life, the situation felt similar for my wife (Chrissy) and me. We were hosting 20+ people in our home one night each week, plus a smaller gathering or two each week, plus larger gatherings of up to a hundred people spilling into the yard a few times each year. Individually, I’d have something like five breakfast or lunch appointments per week, to wring a bit more out of life.
Too many people.
And then my family and I disappeared.
More specifically, we went to South Africa for Chrissy’s PhD research. The tiny house we rented there didn’t have Wi-Fi or even 3G coverage. You had to go about 100 yards out into a field to get a connection good enough to email or browse reasonably. We were hardly online personally. I turned off all the notifications on my phone.
A family of really close friends was about two miles away. Our landlords lived next door and became friends, and a couple more families we were friends with were down in the nearby small town, a 15-minute drive. We hung out with these “neighbor” families a couple times a week. But the other people we were really close to in South Africa were about 40 minutes away, in a city where we went to church. We spent Sunday afternoons with them.
So I went from a very large active network and full calendar to a very small group of friends and hardly any appointments.
It was fantastic.
As I’ve entered back into North American life after the year away, I find myself trying to bring back some sanity to my life, to my calendar. I’ve realized that if I say yes to hundreds of casual friends, I’m actually implicitly saying no to my few really close friends, as there simply won’t be sufficient time and flexibility to see them when occasions arise. Or at the very least, my life will be so scheduled that meeting up with those really close friends would feel like just another meeting.
When I was talking a bit about this dynamic with a friend last week, he asked me, “So how do you decide which friends to get rid of?”
Ouch. I suppose that’s the ultimate question, but to even think about it, I have to rephrase it: “How do I decide which friends to keep?” This is still a live issue for me, but I think I’m making some headway.
1. I need to keep friends who really know me. For me, that’s a few friends whom I’ve known for a long, long time, and a few more recent additions whom I’ve met through circumstances that accelerated the deepening of the friendship, like a Bible study or an extended intense project at work.
2. I need to keep friends who really sharpen me. Too many clichéd man-cave posters have been made of Proverbs 27:17, but the truism stands. There are friends who feed your soul, who make you a better person, who enable you to face the day and follow Christ.
3. I need to keep friends who have time for friendship. There are men whom I admire (and who I think admire me) that are simply running too hard on the job or in ministry or with the kids or a demanding pastime (kitesurfing?!?!) for us to actually be good friends. Last year, I tried to get together with one friend, but the first slot we could find to hang out was six weeks out! I was as guilty as he was for that state of affairs, but you get the picture.
4. I need to keep friends who are near at hand. I’m finding that you need to be realistic about the impact geography has on relationships. One of my close friends used to live about 25 minutes away from me, but we still struggled to actually meet up. Now, he’s just 10 minutes away. We’re seeing each other much more often. And it’s a joy.
Technology is amazing, but having all our friendships mediated through screens probably is not going to be as rich or even as fun as actually sharing the same physical space once in a while. If one (or many) of your really great friends is far away, make plans to get together, and invest more time in calls or emails or texts in between.
5. I need to communicate with my friends about our friendship. DTR (“Define the Relationship”) conversations happen in romantic relationships. Why not actually communicate about what you hope for out of a friendship? When my one friend moved to my side of town, we both commented about how we were eager to be able to see each other more often. And we have. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, but actually saying what you want can help everyone.
Now, it’s also worth saying that sometimes friendship happens like magic, no matter our intentionality. That’s good and beautiful. I am close to some people today who I didn’t think I would be, due to differences in personality and interests. Know, accept, and enjoy these relationships too.
Once you do what you can to figure out what friendships are the most vital, you can figure out what to actually do to maintain them. A monthly call? Vacation together? Watch a movie and Skype about it? Text continually? Plan a short, intense visit? Start an email that keeps getting kicked back and forth? Plan a reunion with a group of friends? Make a commitment to do a certain holiday weekend together, like Labor Day or New Year’s?
I’ve been back in the U.S. for five weeks now. I’ve got more time, more headspace, more margin. I’ve reconnected with a few key friends. And maybe that’s enough for the time being.