The Distance Between Us

There are two ways I measure the distance between people.  The first way, physically, can be measured in inches, feet and miles.  The second way has no standard of measurement, but I like to use an analogy.  If two people are communing in perfect telepathy then they are zero distance apart mentally.  Obviously, we never get as close mentally as we can physically.

I bring up this topic because I’ve notice that the average distance between people as they get older appears to grow.  This isn’t always the case, because some spouses, lovers and friends get much closer as they age.  No, what I’m observing deals with the average relationship between people in general.

When we are little kids we’re very close to our parents and siblings, and then when we start daycare or school, we’re jammed together with gangs of kids own age, which continues through our early twenties when we get jobs and start hanging out with a more diverse age mix.  During the work years, we develop new social bonds at the job site that lasts until we retire, at which time we start over again bonding with other retirees.  Often as we get older, we stay at home more and that increases the distance between other people.

I’m only 57, so I can’t speak for the later decades of life, but I’ve notice a trend in my friends and acquaintances.  Everyone seems to have gotten selfish with their time, including me.  This is understandable, with work and the other demands on life, free time is precious, but it seems like people have gotten even more miserly with their extra time.

I think by my age, the fifties, people have learned exactly what they want to do and we just don’t want to waste time doing something we don’t like.  I see this more and more with friends around me, and by observing groups.

If you go to a rock concert, most of the people are young even though rock has been around since I was four.  People my age have pretty much given up on certain kinds of pursuits.  In fact, I don’t even like hanging out places that are filled with people in their 20s and 30s.  I often find myself at movies attended by folks mostly my own age, films young people would consider boring or depressing. 

You can see this trend in other social groups.  Just observe the mix of young and old.  Some events attract mostly young, some mostly old, and some a mix, but mostly you see a bulge of youth and a trailing off of older people.  Many social situations reflect the age mix found in the reality shows Survivor and The Amazing Race

In recent years I’m always the old guy of the group and it makes me feel like the old guys on Survivor.  And if you watch that show, there is a bias by the young players against the older players, which represents a kind of distance.  I’ve heard from other people my age that they feel getting old means moving away from the world of the young. 

But I also think as we get older we withdraw from each other.  Maybe it’s dwindling energy, so we start making conscious decisions we don’t want to waste any of our energy on minor friends.  But it’s more than that.  My wife and I spend an ever growing amount of time apart because we each focus on our favorite hobbies.  For example, my wife loves going out to trivia contents at restaurants, an activity that is dull to me because I can’t remember a damn thing anymore.  I like going to movies that bore her.  So we each have other friends for those preferred activities.

I used to have male friends that I’d go to the movies with.  When I was young this was because I wanted to see action films with lots of violence.  Now I don’t.  Some of my male friends have stopped going to the movies altogether, or others go to kinds of films I just don’t want to waste two hours of my life watching.

I know a number of women over fifty who are without husbands.  Many say they never want to remarry, but some are looking for boyfriends or new husbands.  I know one women who says she only has time for one romantic evening a week, and another who jokes she’s be willing to have one romantic night a quarter.  Other than that boyfriends would be too interfering with their lives.  Of course, I also know women looking for long term relationships with guys who they want to spend all their time with, but they have trouble finding such men.

It appears some of us aging people still want tight bonds and others want a new kind of freedom they didn’t have when they were younger.

All of this discussion so far has mostly dealt with the distance people have at the physical level.  Let’s go back and analyze the mental distance.  When we were little kids we played in gangs that were always touching, punching, pulling, tickling, grabbing, and so on.  And it felt like we were all alike in our play.  Getting older was like being separated from the Garden of Eden.  It became so easy to hurt one another mentally, so we sought out best friends for survival.  High school years for some people were the best times of their lives, but for others it was the worst, and in either case, those years seemed to affect us for the rest of our lives.

Then there are the years of searching for a mate.  Sex brings us as physically close as possible, and we all hope it bonds us mentally as well, but that’s open for question, because for the rest of our lives we wonder what our mates are really thinking.  The close mental distances we achieve are often illusionary and is the foundation of a lot of frustration that comes later in life.

What if we really could commune telepathically.  How many close friends would we find in our lifetime?  Any? Would our spouses grow to hate us for our thoughts they don’t like, or would telepathy create a deeper understanding?  Is there anyone that you’d open your mind to completely?  Is the emotional binding of zero mental distance possible?

I don’t think telepathy is possible, but brutal relentless honesty is, and we don’t have the stomach even for that kind of closeness.  Maybe we grow apart as we get older because we don’t like being that honest.  Could it be that young people are more emotional because of their closeness?

From casual observation on my part, it appears that a growing portion of the population spend much of their later years alone.  Even when we’re bunched together again in assisted living homes and nursing homes, like school and daycare, people often seem lonely.  Big families that stay together to the end are rare.  More people are entering their retirement years as singles rather than couples.  It looks like divorce and small family size will be hard on the baby boomer generation.

Even though I have a wife and many friends I feel like I’m spending ever more time alone.  And for the most part I like it that way.  I’m selfish with my time so I can pursue my hobbies, but I wouldn’t want to be completely alone.  I’m actually looking forward to living in a retirement community or assisted living, because more than ever I’m preferring the company of people my own age, and I wouldn’t mind being segregated from the young.  It’s funny, but in the 1960s we didn’t trust anyone over 30.  Now I have a hard time relating to people under 30, and I’d like them a whole lot better if they were older than 50.  If it much easier to identify with a 75-year-old than a 25-year-old.

And I think those tendencies relate to the mental distances we feel between other people.  It’s funny, but my biology whispers hints I should get zero distance physically with young females, but mentally I know that’s silly.  Even if I was a billionaire and a young women had a reason to overlook my homeliness and get physical, I’m not sure if it would be possible to get close mentally.  I don’t know if my problem with understanding the young is because my wife and I never had kids, or if that’s just part of the aging process.

I think as we get old we also still have some of the desires we had when we were kids.  I’ve seen stories about baby boomers forming leagues to play grade school games like dodge ball, kickball, tetherball and four-square.  I think we still want to play physically together to recapture that illusion we had as kids that we were also mentally together.  I think that’s also why many older couples and singles take up dancing, to recapture those feelings of the high school years.

Another way we’ve found to get close to other people mentally is the Internet.  I have stumbled across blog pages where people write about the same exact things I love to write about.  I’ve often wondered if I could put my 100 favorite movies, books, songs and TV shows into a computer and it could find people that have the same favorite 100 of each, would we be mentally as close as people could get outside of telepathy?

I’m writing this blog post because I’m wondering if I’m sensing a shift in social awareness due to aging and I need to prepare myself for more social changes as I get older.  I’ve always felt that as long as I had a wife, a few friends and the social aspects of work I’m good to go for personal contacts both mentally and physically.  But if I retire, and my friends keep withdrawing into themselves, or my wife and I move to a retirement community, will I have enough social contacts?  And if my wife died or we got divorced, I fear that I could end up being very alone, and that’s scary. 

I understand why men die sooner than women.  Women seem to have a knack for living a long time alone, or at least that’s what my observations show me.  I can think of damn few men I know my age or older that lives alone, but I can tick off quite a list of women.  Not only that, but those women often joke about how glad they are to be free of having to put up with men.  The thought of living alone scares me. 

I don’t feel I’m dependent on my wife.  I do all my own cooking, shopping, cleaning and cloth washing now.  My wife works out of town and is only here six days of the month.  But if I was completely single I don’t think I’d survive my retirement years.  I can’t understand how all those women face decades of living alone.  Does that mean that women can handle a greater average distance between people?

I think there’s a physical and mental distance between other people that’s too far for us to handle.  It’s why people go crazy stranded on desert islands or forced into solitary confinement.  It may relate to why some people go nuts, because even though they might be physically close they can’t achieve any kind of mental closeness.

I used to think that getting old just meant losing my hair and getting wrinkled.  I figured no big deal, I can handle that.  I now realize that aging is a lot more complicated.  For one thing, I realize that physical degeneration makes me want to recede socially.  I didn’t see that one coming.  Now I’m seeing the physical and mental distance factor come into play and wonder where the trend will go.  I didn’t see that one coming either.  In fact, I now wonder how many changes will happen to me that I never imagined? 

I need to study TIME GOES BY: what it’s really like to get older, a favorite blog site I like to read, more carefully.  Ronni Bennett is exploring territory that I will travel in a few years.  I wonder if I can achieve a mental closeness from reading her post so I can understand what she has to say, or is there a barrier of comprehension because I’m not old enough to understand?

There are a growing number of people that are living past 100, and even to 110 and beyond, and I wonder how close to they feel to the rest of us?  How isolating is it to be over 100?  It must take an amazing kind of mental toughness to live that long.  I’m feeling wimpy at 57, so I doubt I have the right stuff for great aging.  Or maybe I need to toughen myself up now if I want to go the distance.

JWH – 3/14/9

8 thoughts on “The Distance Between Us”

  1. My grandfather, in his late 80s, does complain about how people never come around the house any more. His wife died last year, and while she was in serious decline for some time, it did give him things to do and someone else to interact with.

    I’m wondering about some of these questions myself. As a single 40 year old, post divorce, I am looking at whether I want to remarry and have a family. Or not. While I suppose I have a lot of years left to decide this ultimately, I’d rather not be too much older and having kids if that is the route I choose to take.

  2. many questions- and hopefully we’ll find some answers as our lives continue to move along. i’m 59,and am one of those women who lives alone, yes, for decades. for me, being alone has to do, in some part, with selfishness. sharing mental space, having to compromise, being in a physically close relationship, takes will, a forward kind of energy, that can be exhausting. i think a person has to really want that- not just get comfortable,but putting energy, thought, and commitment into action. i was married for 15 years, have 2 adult kids. now, my social activities revolve around music- there’s both young and old people, and we all have a common love. of course, some love the drinkin’ more, but i stay out of their way. also- i never really have gotten elderly- still love the things i did when i was young 😉

  3. Mike, at 40 your life is still full of options. I can barely remember 40, but I do remember feeling that I could still do the same things I wanted to do as when I was in my twenties. I still felt I could pursue the same ambitions.

    That will change quickly before you get out of your 40s, and especially as you get into your 50s. The desire of starting a family will change. But the next ten years will change a lot about how you see your future.

  4. Lauralie, I have number of friends who are music nuts, especially live music. A couple of them even travel to other cities to see bands they love. And I know some guys who still play in bands. I love music, but on CD and MP3. My wife dragged me to two concerts last year, CSN and Jewel, and this year we’re going to hear a Beatles tribute band, RAIN. My wife still likes going to concerts, but she doesn’t try that much new music. I subscribe to Rhapsody and Zune and get to try out lots of new music.

    Most of the music I like best is still the stuff I grew up with, so I’m stuck in 1962-1975 pretty much, but I keep trying to find new stuff.

  5. James, I ran my first marathon last year and date women in their 20s (and 30s), sometimes more than one for better or worse, so I don’t have a lot of options closed off just yet. Got tenure, too, so the job is secure and pays well enough, with a lot of travel benefits (living in Brazil on sabbatical this year). it’s that the options are so plentiful, but I know I want to make some choices and go with them.

    Story of my life has been trying to do everything all the time, with some moderate success, but I’d sort of like to specialize and do better than “moderate” if you know what I mean.

  6. Mike, I think you’ve achieved more than moderate success already. And dating women in their 20s is one of those options I mentioned that are still open at 40. So are all the career and marriage plans. 40 seems so young to me now. When I was forty young women graduate assistants like to ask me out to dinner or go to movies or to their parties, and I didn’t feel old at 40 hanging out with them. But by the time my forties were drawing to a close, hanging out with 20 something women felt weird. If I was out to dinner at 40 I hope the people might think my companion was my girlfriend, but at 49, I was hoping people thought they were my daughter. Time changes us. I stopped going to parties with kids because it made me feel old too. And I didn’t want people to think I was trying to pretend I was young. I don’t know if that’s a natural change or just a particular hang-up of mine.

  7. Your thoughts on telepathy and brutal honesty remind me of last week’s episode of House in which the guys illness had him speaking his mind to everyone. I think that was a perfect example of why none of us would ever want telepathy to be real. As the character tried to point out, it was the choices he made and not the random thoughts that he had that should matter, but the brutal honesty of those thoughts would be hard for family and friends to overcome. If we could read each other’s minds we would be angry and horrified and disgusted, etc. And that is really sad because there wouldn’t be a one of us that was any different in that regard than our fellow man.

    As far as the aging issues, I’m not sure where I fall on that. I have a 16 year old daughter and my parents had 3 children, me being the oldest. At age 40 I listen to much the same music that my daughter does and yet have 4 decades of music from which I cull a vast and varied list of favorites. Often I am ‘discovering’ the new music my daughter ends up liking before she does.

    I keep up with the same movies that I always have but as I’ve gotten older my likes have widened to encompass much more variety. It doesn’t stop me from being at Watchmen opening weekend, but I am as likely to go to the movies to see some independent film as I am the latest blockbuster. For me I think it is more about money (which could also be about age and maturity), but I don’t go to the theater nearly as much as I used to. I love the experience. I do tend to never go on Friday or Saturday nights though because I can do without all the under 18 year old girls wearing clothes that make me cringe for my daughter while at the same time having to make a conscious choice to not look at all the nearly naked breasts on display. And once Friday and Saturday night movie prices doubled in comparison to week night and daytime prices, I was done with those two options.

    As I’ve gotten older my work responsibilities have increased and I certainly find that I prefer to stay home as opposed to going out. I would much rather have friends over to do something than actually go somewhere. But that has been a trend for me since I was in my 30s. Not sure if it has changed that much over the last 10 years or not.

    The older I’ve gotten the more I enjoy having ‘alone time’, that is for sure. I’ve gotten much more comfortable with myself and actually enjoy myself as company. Part of that is probably also being settled in marriage (nearly 20 years) and having a small but steady group of good friends, including a couple of male friends who are everything I could ask for in friends.

    I’m not sure if increasing time being “selfish” is a good or bad thing with age. As with anything, a lot probably depends on the individual. Maybe that is part of the reward of surviving adolescence and the stress of the 20s and 30s…having the freedom to actually pursue one’s own hobbies and interests as a reward for so much time given to one’s work or to forming relationships, etc.

    Interesting topic, especially comparing where you are at vs. where I am at and also taking into account my own father who just retired yesterday and how he fills his time.

  8. Carl, it’s interesting that you and Mike are the same age, but you have a 16 year-old daughter. It’s great that you can be young with her, but you also have to be old with her too. And being a father will give you some maturity that I don’t have at 57.

    I think our society is much younger than it used to be. My parents at 40 were much older than you and Mike. My father died at 49, and he was ready to go. He used up life pretty fast. My mother died at 91, but she started talking about dying when she was in her 60s. She was ready to go long before her body let her.

    Not only do I think we’re younger now, I think we want life to last much longer. We also all want so much more too.

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