Kindness is a muscle.
From time to time my wife and I will get emails from our friend Andy, just to catch up. He sent one this week, asking how we're settling into life in New Jersey, and telling us what's been happening lately in his own life. (Nothing dramatic—he and his wife moved into a new place, he's trying to find some new clients, he's starting to try running longer distances and it's tiring him out.)
I used to think his emails were kind of odd (I mean, don't we have Facebook for this sort of thing?), but I've been thinking a lot recently about etiquette and kindness.
I had read this article from The Atlantic about differences between successful marriages and those that suffer from long-term unhappiness (or end in divorce); the gist of it is that in many cases success is correlated with how the partners give and receive small acts of kindness. This passage stood out and has stuck with me:
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. [Successful couples] tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work. … Neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
In an earlier letter, I wrote about my sense that I am a bad friend. But I'm also bad at running, bad at baking, and bad at car repair. Kindness is a muscle. Some people grow up getting loads of practice at running or playing baseball, from doing those things at school or with their parents. (My mother not only wasn't very active, she thought mandatory P.E. was a stupid policy and fought to get me exempted on principle.)
Likewise, some people grow up better at making and keeping friends than others. That could be due to some innate confidence or friendliness, or it could be because they see their parents and other role models doing friendship well. My mother was estranged from her whole family, was critical of all my friends, and was (in a word) weird about her own few friendships. I grew up not really understanding friendship, like it was something for other people.
These emails from Andy are unusual. He's taking the time to practice friendship, reaching out to us directly instead of a broadcast, saying more than just "we should grab lunch sometime". The emails aren't efficient, topical, or necessary. They're just chit-chat, and there's an extent to which he's sending them out of boredom. But he could be relieving boredom by playing Shooty Skies, and instead he's emailing us to say hi. That means something.
Kindness is a muscle; friendship is a practice. The easiest way to not be a bad friend is to try to be a better friend. Expecting a relationship to stay healthy without any intervention or action is like expecting a yard to stay green without water or fertilizer. I'm also a bad gardener, but I'm working on that; twice a day I have to go outside to water our lawn, taking care to make sure the sprinkler reaches all the grass without leaving it on so long that it washes away the grass seed.
I finally recognized Andy's email for what it was because I'd just had the same idea myself, to try to catch up with friends I don't talk to often over email—or Twitter DMs, or any direct line of communication—rather than just hope our paths cross at an event, or that they're free to meet up on a day when I happen to be in their town.
I still plan on doing that (I've been insanely busy, but still, watch your inboxes), but in the meantime, I'd like to extend an open invitation to all of my NYC-based friends to grab lunch or dinner when I'm in the city (usually Tuesdays and Thursdays). I grant that as acts of friendship go, this is pretty passive aggressive: I want to practice friendship by making you email me to ask about lunch. But hopefully it's a start.