Why friendship matters

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” — John Leonard 

More than ever, sociologists and health professionals are studying friendship and how it impacts our physical and emotional well-being. New studies show that having a circle of close friends will improve our odds of surviving cancer and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

In fact, failing to develop true friendship can be as bad for us as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. (Take the test linked at the end of this post to determine if you’re a good friend or a neglectful one.) According to research cited by the AARP, Facebook friends and other “online relationships” don’t count. To reap the full benefits of connection, we must turn off our electronic devices and meet face to face.

Even if were not social butterflies, most of us can list several people who enrich our lives in some way. Theres the neighbor who collects our mail while were on vacation; the co-worker who shares career leads; the soccer mom who brings an extra thermos of coffee to the games. And if were lucky, we can top that list with a couple of lifelong pals wholl answer our phone calls after midnight when were worried about a biopsy.

Along the way, we’re also likely to encounter a few promise breakers, snipers, competitors, users, freeloaders, and emotional blackmailers, notes Jan Yager, Ph.D., a sociologist who has researched this topic since the 1980s. In her best-selling guideWhen Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You, Yager describes the 21 types of toxic friends and explains how to deal with them. The most durable friendships, she discovered, are always supportive, responsive, and reciprocal — and can weather minor transgressions.

Of course, in a highly mobile culture like ours, some friendships are built on the shifting sands of proximity and aren’t meant to last.

But if we’re not mindful, Yager warns, our closest relationships can wilt or wither from neglect. (Even family ties loosen and unravel when we do little more than take them for granted.) In other words, your best friends shouldn’t have to remind you that birthday cards, get-well notes, phone updates, souvenirs, and other tokens of affection or appreciation are fuel to the bonfire of enduring friendship.

On the other hand, as Yager and other experts point out, sometimes its necessary to weed out other types of toxic friends who make us feel used, bullied, or invalidated.

“When I pay attention to my feelings, I know when people are draining my energy,” said Cindy Hampel, a Royal Oak resident and author of Its Not Personal: Lessons Ive Learned from Dealing with Difficult People (Orange Sun Press; $14.95). “If someone consistently tries to make me feel guilty or afraid, then I’ll just seek out other people who treat me more reasonably.”

Once we hit midlife, we realize there are only so many years left for the pleasures weve postponed – including more time with friends.

Several years ago, I learned one of my hardest life lessons while watching my dear uncle lose his three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The terminal diagnosis was made on his 65th birthday. Newly retired from Chrysler, my uncle had looked forward to spending long afternoons on the golf course with his best buddies – but ended up in hospice instead.

Which is partly why I agree with the experts who advise making friendship a priority, even when we think we dont have time for it. The more stressed out or overbooked we are, the more we need to reconnect with supportive people.

So, call your best friend or look up an old room mate. Check in with someone youve been meaning to phone for ages. Plan a lunch date, send a card, throw a potluck, or meet some pals for a round of golf.  Make time for the treasured friends whove been there for you – and think of them as good health insurance. — Cindy La Ferle

Are you a good friend or a bad friend? Take Martha Beck’s quiz, following her article on friendship in “O” magazine. Click here.

Facebook: Why I’m back

When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” — Clay Shirky

My husband was the first to deliver the happy news: Two of our son’s best friends from high school had announced their wedding engagements on Facebook last week — within a few short days of each other. As the family reporter, I’m usually on top of these things. But because I had deactivated my Facebook account in January, I was totally out of the loop.

And I felt like one of the Flintstones. I’d been living under a rock while everyone else was throwing a big party in cyberspace without me.

Which is partly why I tip-toed back to Facebook after cruising along happily without it (most of the time) for the past four months.

Before I go on, I need to tell you that I’m not the least bit sorry for taking a break from it. My self-imposed sabbatical from social media — Facebook, especially — helped me appreciate the positive aspects of being connected 24/7 to the Big World Out There. At the same time, I thought long and hard about the difference between online friendships and 3-D friendships and how much attention I can (reasonably) give to each.

During my time away from Facebook, I missed a lot of good news from a lot of nice people. And I rediscovered how much harder it is to communicate with out-of-town friends and colleagues. Facebook makes it so much easier to share announcements of any kind in one fell swoop — writing classes; new blog posts; wedding engagements — something I had taken for granted while using it.  Though posting my updates seemed awfully impersonal at times, that was part of Facebook’s ease and charm. When I wasn’t on Facebook, I was sending more email announcements, which were probably more annoying and more invasive than status updates.

What I didn’t miss about Facebook was its dangerously addictive aspects. Once I got through the initial withdrawal period, I rediscovered luxurious bolts of time to write and sell more essays and articles. More time to meet friends for lunch. More time to catch up on the phone. More time to get my home in order. More time for long walks outside. In other words, after pulling away from the distractions of social media, I felt more focused and balanced — even in the midst of my elderly mother’s ongoing health crises.

In other words, I figured out how and where I’d been wasting all the time I thought I didn’t own anymore.

In other words, I realized I’d been abusing Facebook.

Like any tool, Facebook is incredibly handy. But there’s a right way — a respectful way — to use it. So, this time around, I am setting tighter limits. I’ll be checking in less often, and won’t be leaving as many comments as I used to. I’ll continue to exercise most of my bragging rights — and personal info — here on my blog. I plan to enjoy Facebook for what it is — and refuse to feel guilty if I can’t keep up with it daily.

All said and done, I still believe it’s essential to strike a healthy balance between the time I spend “communicating” online and the time I spend with loved ones in the real world. And yes, I remain conflicted about Facebook — and worried our culture’s obsession with social media. A recent article on Facebook in The Atlantic‘s “Culture Issue” articulates many of my concerns. How about you? How do you use Facebook?— Cindy La Ferle

 

You gotta have friends

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”  ~John Leonard

All too often, we put our social lives on the back burner because we’re too busy with work or family obligations. Or because we think we have to pull out all the stops to entertain company.

Earlier this year, within a very short period of time, several of my oldest friends buried their beloved parents. With these losses fresh in mind, my friend Debbie (in the photo at left) and I made a pact to get together more often — and to keep it simple.

As the old Beatles song goes, we get by with a little help from our friends. But new research indicates that it goes much deeper than that: An emotionally supportive social network brings us several health benefits. This week’s column on Royal Oak Patch.com is a meditation on the tender topic of friendship. It includes some new resources to help you cultivate, nurture, or weed out your own garden of friends. Please click here to read it. — CL

Showing up

A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” — Grace Pulpit

The grieving process has so much to teach us, aside from revealing how resilient we can be.  When someone close to us dies, we learn a lot about ourselves, our family, and our friendships. Some people will surprise us — and a few relationships will be tested. We might mend a few proverbial fences in need of serious repair, or strengthen family ties that threatened to unravel from benign neglect. Or we might discover that we can’t always depend on someone we counted among our closest friends.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since Doug’s father died last Friday.

After my father-in-law’s memorial service — and after we waved good-bye to the last of the out-of-town visitors — I thought about my own beloved dad and uncle, whose deaths shook my very foundation several years ago. I recalled how the smallest show of support from dear friends and family kept me on my feet, and how something as simple as a heartfelt note or phone message helped soothe the long, hollow ache of loss.

Grand gestures helped too. When my father died in 1992, my longtime college roomie, Margaret, flew from Chicago to Detroit to attend the funeral. Another college buddy, Donna, drove by herself from Alabama to hold my hand. The sight of those two women walking into the funeral home still shines in my memory, and I still struggle to contain my tears of gratitude and love. An only child like me, Donna understood that close friends are just as essential as blood relatives during a crisis. Margaret, who was maid of honor in my wedding, said she was simply making good on an old promise to “always be there” for me. (Without pause, I flew to Pittsburgh five months later to attend her father’s funeral.)

Here for you

Knowing how to help a grieving friend isn’t always easy — and grand gestures aren’t always appropriate or necessary. But through their example, Donna and Margaret taught me how important it is to be there for someone whose heart has been blown apart; how crucial it is to attend funeral visitations — or at least acknowledge a grieving person’s loss.

And I’ve appreciated every single person who has been there for my husband over the past few difficult days.

Earlier this week, we got a phone call from Pam, a former neighbor and longtime friend. We didn’t expect to hear from her, since Pam had just returned from her own father’s funeral in Cincinnati. Still, she wanted to know what arrangements had been made for Doug’s father. “I know what you’re going through, Doug,” she said in her phone message. We certainly didn’t expect it, but Pam needed to tell us, in so many words, that she wanted to “show up” for us.

Shortly after hearing the sad news, our neighbor Matilda delivered a banquet of food to my mother-in-law’s home, knowing that Mom was hosting out-of-town family at her place. The whole family was touched.  That same day, our friends John and Deb left a plant and a fruit salad on the porch while we were out. But it was the attached note that really spoke to us: “We love you guys.”

And that’s what it boils down to, really. Showing up.

You can “show up” for grieving loved ones even if you live miles away. You can make a heartfelt phone call to express your sympathy. Or you can mail your love and support in a card or letter. Sending flowers might be a cliche, but flowers work too. Or, like my friend Shirley, you can bake a kick-ass batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies and leave them on your friend’s doorstep.

And don’t think twice about finding “the right thing to say.” There is no such thing. Say what you feel, say what you mean. Life is short and sometimes it hurts. It’s all about finding your own way to show up. — Cindy La Ferle

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

Hallmark moments

A friendship can weather most things and thrive in thin soil; but it needs a little mulch of letters and phone calls and small, silly presents every so often — just to save it from drying out completely.” — Pam Brown

Shopping for sympathy cards recently, I realized I’d fallen away from my old routine of mailing hand-written cards and notes. And I don’t mean birthday greetings, which I’m pretty good about remembering.

I’m talking about the “thinking of you” cards we send for no reason other than to cheer, entertain, or surprise the recipients. I’m talking about beautiful, heartfelt snail mail. Signed, sealed, delivered.

Now, like everyone else, I rely mostly on e-mail to keep in touch. It’s miraculously fast and convenient, and I use it to full advantage. On the down side, I get overwhelming loads of e-mail every morning — spam filter be damned — and most of it isn’t personal. Some of it is good e-mail, but by the time I’ve sorted through half of it, my eyes have glazed over.

I get pitches from publicists who want me to review new books or products, and newsletters from the various clubs and organizations I belong to. I get the dreaded e-mail chain letters and recycled jokes, too — those “pass this along to 25 of your best friends if you really care about me” messages.

When I was an over-scheduled mom several years ago, writing notes and mailing cards seemed a good way to cultivate the garden of friendship. And I enjoyed the creative act of finding the perfect card for each loved one. A former college room mate, for instance, always appreciated off-beat, off-color humor, and I once spent half a morning laughing aloud at the crazy cards I found for her at the local card shop. Of course, my greeting card ritual included writing a short note with a favorite roller-ball pen, and sometimes adding an article or a column I’d found in the paper.

The beauty of mailing these cards was that nothing was expected in return. The notes I jotted by hand were too short to qualify as letters, and they didn’t require an answer.

Like ironing pillowcases, mailing hand-written cards isn’t mandatory. Yet it makes life a little more beautiful, and, sometimes, more bearable. As author Phyllis Theroux said, to send a card or a letter is “a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.” I wonder if I’m the only one who misses that sweet, old-fashioned practice. — Cindy La Ferle

— Garden photo (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —