I’m fond of saying that I don’t like people. It isn’t true. I do like people. Well, some people. And of those people, I like some very much, so in my own special kind of math, it sort of balances out. I also like to isolate. I like to hang out by myself, ignore the phone, ignore my email and not talk to anyone. It’s easily compounded by the fact that I work from home. When my husband goes out of town, I could conceivably go days without talking to another human being. (Also without bathing, but that’s another column entirely.) Even if I force myself to the gym or the grocery store, the human interactions I have are highly superficial and don’t really require much effort on my part, don’t result in any real connection.
Despite all this, I seem to have acquired a fair number of friends over the years. Many of them are scattered around the country, even across the globe. And in the last year or so I’ve become increasingly bad at staying in touch with people, of making the effort to keep relationships alive and current. As a result, I feel like some of my connections and friendships are becoming increasingly tenuous. A distant, shared past can’t hold everything together forever.
According to this PBS website article, “connecting with others is the single most important thing we can do for our happiness.” And that is coming from PBS, which is publicly funded and often very boring, so you know it’s a 100% scientifically sound, true fact.
At the center of my trouble connecting with folk is my deep and abiding hatred of the phone. Not as a gadget or as an invention. I give it high marks on both those counts. I don’t even mind talking on the phone that much if someone calls me. But leave it up to me to pick up the phone and call someone with no agenda other than to check in and catch up and a giant gate slams shut in my mind.
I’d much rather send you an email or a text to firm up lunch plans. If my house were on fire, I'd probably try to text 911. And while it’s easy to hide behind the claim that those methods are more convenient, it’s not really about that for me. It’s just that it seems easier, on some level. It seems to require less of me. And I really, really like to give less.
When it comes to staying connected in the laziest way possible, I consider Facebook either a blessing or a curse. Probably both. It’s true that I am “connected” now to far more people than I was before I signed up, but only in the most superficial way. Why on earth would I need to have a meaningful conversation with someone when I could just read their status updates? It’s like having a whole site that reinforces my instincts for only surface, minimal interactions. Awesome.
Facebook’s message and instant chat features have allowed me to slack off even further on my email correspondence. I used to give good email like nobody’s business. Now that seems unnecessarily lengthy.
So I decided to spend the past seven days trying to reconnect with people. Trying to make a conscious effort to reach out and be in touch. The problem with a change like this, it turns out, is that it’s pretty amorphous. What does it even mean for me to reconnect with people? Is it my own definition? Because, if so, I can define effort very, very loosely.
I decided I'd just go about my week being mindful of opportunities to connect or reconnect, as opposed to setting concrete goals, i.e., three calls a day, four. I figured it was either a totally zen approach or a massive cheat. Meh. Either way.
I must admit, even that approach was hard for me. So hard that I managed to put off making any phone calls at all that first day. (This seems to be a habit with me. Perhaps this should be about pursuing change for 5 or 6 days in a row. Clearly, 7 is a stretch.) I told myself I was just warming up, easing my way into some dialing. But even I don't buy my own bullshit, so I kicked off day two by tackling the big stuff: my relatives in Scotland. An email to my uncle (who cannot talk on the phone due to recent cancer treatment) to catch up: BAM! A phone call to my Grandma to hear at great length about the weather in Glasgow: BOOM!
It was a piece of cake. That is to say, it was easy. Well. That is to say, it was simple. But I am embarrassed to say how much effort it took to start this process. You would have thought I was being asked to rewire a phone, not merely pick it up and dial. And this is when I love the people involved. Imagine if I were required to stay in touch with people I didn’t even like!
The thing was, as much as I hate to admit it, a certain momentum did kick in. After calling Scotland, it wasn't all that hard to call a friend here in town, someone I hadn't seen for months, and set up a date for the weekend. It wasn't all that hard to call another one just to check in. In fact, I felt sheepish about how much I’d dragged my heels. I was on a tear. I called friends in St. Louis, friends in Ann Arbor, friends in Texas, all of whom I'm sure spent the first part of our phone calls bracing themselves for whatever momentous, terrible news must have prompted my calling. I imagine they didn't fully exhale until we'd hung up and the call was over. I bet some of them never knew what hit them.
And a funny thing happened. It was like the universe put out some sort of “open for business sign” because when I was signed on to Facebook this week, I got instant messages from friends I hadn’t talked to in months or, in some cases, years. A friend from college who I haven’t spoken with since the dawn of time started an IM chat. Another pal from California zinged a quick hello and check-in my way.
I had to admit, albeit reluctantly, that it felt kind of nice. People seemed generally glad to hear from me or, at the least, excelled at pretending as though my voice from out of the blue wasn’t a huge intrusion. And it was really good for me to remember that I have friends because that knowledge can sort of escape you when you’re a shut-in.
All of which is not to say that I am not relieved that the week has now come to an end. It was difficult for me to step outside my comfort zone. I swear I was more tired the past seven days because of the sheer exhaustion of dialing. All that pressing of buttons! All that talking! Inhale, exhale, speak, pause, question, answer.
I can see there is tremendous value in staying connected, so I’d have to say that while I wasn't convinced of this at the outset, making those calls, having those conversations was a change for the better. As to how I’ll incorporate that knowledge going forward, I’m unsure. I’d like to say I’m changed, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Today, I haven’t made a single phone call but that, I’m telling myself, is because I have the perfect excuse: one of my oldest, best friends is here in Ann Arbor. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years and I couldn’t tell you the last time we had this sort of unmolested stretch of time to chat and catch up and enjoy each other’s company. The way I figure it, that sort of trumps any need to pick up the phone. Right?