MEA alum Myra Lavenue's guest post yesterday about finding a new best friend in her fifties reminded me of a term I once used to describe how I felt when I'd met someone who instantly inspired me by their radiance. I called it "Spontaneous Admiration."
Today, I'm better equipped to be drawn to that "special glow" than I was thirty years ago when I would have mistaken it for sexual attraction or perhaps felt diminished by my youthful need to compare myself with such a luminescent presence.
When I recently read this essay in The Atlantic, "Why Making Friends in Midlife Is So Hard," I felt sadness for the writer, Katharine Smyth, who says at age 40 that she's over the hill to find a soulmate in the form of a friend. She cites a global study that showed that the average age at which we meet our best friends is 21, and, as we age, we have less time to make deep friendships. Of course, consider the source: this study was commissioned by Snapchat.
What I'm struck by in her essay is how self-conscious she is. I've never found making friends with a hall of mirrors to be all that fruitful. I know she's trying to be funny, but I'm reminded by something pastor Rick Warren wrote, "We impress people with our strengths. But we influence people with our weaknesses." I would change the word "influence" to "connect with" and send those two sentences to this journalist who might need to be reminded that genuine connection comes at any age or moment in which we are brave enough to share our vulnerabilities.
Some have suggested that our rugged American individualism has left us feeling lonely and angry and thus more isolated. But I don't buy that line of thinking. MEA has shown me more than 2,000 alums who came to be educated and left feeling connected. Our MEA mission is to engage in exercises that allow us to get to know people from the inside out instead of the outside in.
If you're looking for deeper connections (at any age), here's what I would recommend, documented in this white paper by five U.S. academics on the topic of interpersonal closeness. They've found that one key element of relationships that grow closer quickly—even amongst strangers—is "sustained, escalating, personalistic, reciprocal self-disclosure." One of the academics who wrote this paper, Arthur Aron, has famously crafted 36 Questions That Will Lead to Love amongst two strangers. Here are four of the sample questions that people would answer one-on-one:
- What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- If you knew that you would die suddenly in one year, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner in this exercise, please share what would be important for them to know.
It's hard not to feel spontaneous admiration for someone who is mirroring your vulnerabilities when you're having a conversation that is more about your internal weather and less about the external weather. Please join us in Baja at a workshop if you want to see this in action. Of course, if we can't see you anytime soon, recognize that some of your existing acquaintances, friends, or even family members might be seen in a new light if you explored those 36 questions together.