Excerpt from Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life After 50 by Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)
Margaret was sitting cross-legged in a living room chair reading about Harry and Meghan in a magazine article when the phone rang. It was Barbara. She was nervous about the results of a medical test that indicated she might need surgery and wanted a morale boost. Margaret listened to Barbara process the news out loud and tried not to interrupt or throw in her two cents. “I’m here for you,” Margaret said.
Later, in a follow-up call, Margaret assured Barbara, “This is hard. You’ve done hard things before. I’ll help with whatever you need—doctors, where to go, whatever.”
There were more ups and downs as Barbara gathered more information about the necessary procedure and her fear mounted. There were calls to Margaret early in the morning and late at night. Barbara wondered, “What if I’m going to die? Do you think I’ll be okay?” Margaret reminded Barbara that she can’t see the future. However, she added her admiration for Barbara’s strength, tenacity, and ability to research and find the best doctors, hospitals, and protocol. “You are good at controlling what you can.”
A “Big” Friendship
Such intensity in any relationship—romantic or friendship—can be daunting. But it’s a written understanding between the two of us that regardless of the circumstances, we will fill in for each other and offer an ear or hand unconditionally. However, we are not attached at the hip.
A big friendship is one of the most affirming—and most complicated—relationships that a human life can hold.
Are we best friends? We have what authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman call a “Big Friendship” in their book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. They write, “Words like ‘best friend’ or `BFF’ don’t capture the adult emotional work we’ve put into this relationship. We now call it a Big Friendship because it’s one of the most affirming—and most complicated—relationships that a human life can hold.”
How well we know. Thirty-three years after writing our first book together on family business, Corporate Bloodlines: The Future of the Family Firm, we know that we make a good team. We have written together hundreds of articles, 11 books, hundreds of weekly blogs for our website, and given dozens of interviews and speeches. We know how the other thinks, finish each other’s sentences and interrupt each other routinely. We have become the equivalent of an old married couple, though we rarely bicker.
Daily, even on most weekends, we talk business. We also laugh and cry and share some of the most exciting news and most private and worst stories we could tell about ourselves. We both know how each lost a spouse. However, as close as we are, we have dozens of other close friends. Most important, we trust the other to keep our secrets like a sphinx. If we hurt one another’s feelings, never meaning to, we apologize and work on maintaining the friendship.
The Stuff of Friendship
Friendship is not just fluffy stuff good for anecdotes. Friendship is almost as important to us as breathing oxygen. In many cases, it is our oxygen, representing a basic human need along with food, sleep, and safety to help us stay alive, thrive, and grow. Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness can be harmful, resulting in emotional and physical downsides and early death. Even in the animal kingdom, friendships are imperative.
Lydia Denworth writes in her book, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, that she sees the urge to connect reflected in primates. That, she says, offers insight into human social bonds. She takes readers to a monkey sanctuary in Puerto and a baboon colony in Kenya to examine animal bonds.
Social isolation can be harmful, resulting in emotional and physical downsides and early death.
Friends are the family we choose. If we’re sick, they help us heal, maybe bringing over chicken soup. If we’re not contagious, they might even feed it to us. Friends also gossip, make us laugh, fill out our table on holidays, and take us to the doctor if we need a procedure like a colonoscopy or cataract surgery. They help us move, decorate, cook, celebrate marriages and births, and serve as a source of comfort when life presents challenges.
When Margaret’s husband died, Barbara called daily. She remembered Margaret’s first anniversary without her husband with a bouquet of flowers. When Barbara’s husband walked out, Margaret hosted a surprise birthday cocktail dinner at a restaurant.
Friends help forestall loneliness. According to a 2018 online poll of 20,000 people conducted by insurance giant Cigna, nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling lonely, which is different from being on your own or alone. There are even scientists who study this phenomenon. Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, cited in Denworth’s book, believes that the feeling is akin to hunger and is an adaptive response to let us know that it’s time to be with others, just as our stomach growling signals that we need to eat. During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, when we sheltered inside our homes, and then very tentatively outside our homes, often alone or with a spouse, partner, or children, we found that reaching out to close friends through FaceTime, Zoom, phone calls, emails and texts helped us feel less lonely and anxious.
How Do We Choose Our Friends?
How do we select friends? Is friendship a matter of chemistry the way romantic relationships are? In an article in the New York Times, “You Share Everything with Your Bestie, Even Brain Waves.” (April 16, 2018), science writer Natalie Angier addresses why we’re attracted to certain people based on our hardwiring. Carolyn Parkinson, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told her, “I was struck by the exceptional magnitude of similarity among friends.” The results “were more persuasive than I would have thought.”
As we moved on from college to our careers and possibly marriage, the process by which we chose friends changed again.
Generally, friendships aren’t stagnant but ramp up and down across life stages. Most of our first friendships started in childhood. Maybe we met at a playground or in a grade school class. Perhaps we took ballet together, lived next door, got to know one another’s families, and read together. On weekends, we slept at each other’s houses, talked about boys, analyzed friends, went to the movies, ice skating, rode bikes, attended the same dances, and participated in each other’s weddings.
Some of those early friendships offer Barbara and Margaret great sustenance today and became part of regular Zoom groups during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. These are the folks who knew them well and shared important history about each other’s parents, siblings, teachers, and houses, plus dysfunction that ran through their family lives and the era’s silence about many important issues, from affairs to divorces, homosexuality, gender identity, race, and religion.
We went off to college and met people in our dorms, classes, and activities. As we moved on from college to our careers and possibly marriage, the process by which we chose friends changed again. We met them at work, in our neighborhoods, apartment buildings, on our suburban blocks, or through our children, if we had them. Some became couple friends.
Making Friends Later in Life
Why do we put so much stock in new friendships? As we’ve aged, our kids have moved out (we hope) and on to their own busy lives and families, and we realize we’ve lost not just spouses but friends to death and to other circumstances. We’ve evolved and so have they, and we no longer are always simpatico with everyone. We know it’s important to make new friends.
To meet new people, we get out and are open to the possibility. Much like we found with dating, no one, we know, is going to knock on our doors. We seek out new folks, social circles, and communities. Regardless of where we meet and how, opening ourselves up to strangers makes us vulnerable. Some will rebuff us even as we ask a second or third time. “Would you like to grab coffee (wine or lunch)?” Dead silence or changing the conversation hurts. We’ve learned to move on.
Not all friendships are created equal. Why are some people we meet close friends and others mere acquaintances?
Not all friendships are created equal. Why are some people we meet close friends and others mere acquaintances? Scientists have found that the brains of close friends respond in remarkably similar ways. According to Angier’s article, our friends are often much like us—it’s tribal. We share similar connections of age, race, religion, values, socioeconomic status, educational level, political leaning, and more. In today’s parlance, they “just get us.” Now that we’re older and wiser, we’re more willing to move out of our comfort zone to connect with different types of people. Margaret met a woman with whom she became friendly while doing a mentoring project. Their lives were vastly different, but they bonded over learning, a love of cooking, and their passion for working with young people.
We each found that now is a great time to expand our relationships to make life richer, especially with those of different ages. We like that mix and match approach. The young friends keep us abreast of pop culture, new technology, food trends, and raising children today, while the older ones share their years of wisdom, experience, and stories.
Always bear in mind that however you make new friends, important relationships need to be nurtured to thrive and last. They feed on time, love, attention, trust, and forgiveness. The cliché that life is short remains germane. The point is that we’ve reached a time in our lives where we don’t want to hold ourselves back or have a regret. A significant friendship with decades of history can sprinkle magic into our lives. “When you find a Big Friendship, hold on to it. Invest in it. Stretch for it,” say Aminatou and Friedman.