Friends and Acquaintances and Urban Walls

Posted on 2013 January 21


%22friends and acquaintances and urban walls%22 Backsteinmauer-Pattern_B-Meister

            Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down. — Robert Frost

In Southern California there’s a saying that the border between conservative Orange County and liberal Los Angeles County is “The Orange Curtain”. It sounds like The OC is a bulwark against rampaging Communism from the north — or that Orange County is merely a den of reactionary troglodytes.

Like all sayings, this one overstates the case. But I’ve often had the feeling that the true demarcation between those two regions — the real Orange Curtain — is, not the political boundary, but the very transit route that connects them, Interstate 5 (known locally as the Santa Ana Freeway). This winding, overcrowded highway is famous for being horribly jammed for hours at a time every day. The main road into Orange County, then, becomes the main blocade against incursions from either side — from those who might otherwise be tempted to cross the border and visit.

In a somewhat similar way, our urban culture — with its easy access to endless streams of people — puts up a wall against intimacy even as it provides so many opportunities for it. The very abundance of available humans in the big city, combined with a lack of time in our busy schedules, makes it especially difficult to get to know people. The constant jostling with strangers teaches us to develop thick skins, and anyone who offends us in any way is simply cast aside, to be replaced by the next person of opportunity. Thus we overlook or dismiss people who might offer lasting friendship.

In centuries past, our ancestors lived out their lives in villages whose populations could be reckoned in the hundreds, not the millions of today. The seasons slowly changed, but not much else. Villagers grew old together; they got to know each other well; they valued these connections. Today it’s a hurry-up world that undergoes continuous remodeling — and, likewise, the buildings of our beliefs constantly are torn down and replaced. The shifting stress lines of social change cause the ground to split under our feet, so we jump and weave, not always landing on the same side of the cracks as our friends. In such conditions, links between people tend to break.

Unlike our ancestors — whose cultural setting was understood by all whom they knew — we must navigate the potpourri of lifestyles, races, religions, and political beliefs of the urban crowd. It’s all too easy, then, to embark on a new friendship that quickly gets swamped under tsunamis of discord, as we discover we don’t share the same beliefs about our heading in life. At that point, why bother to repair the damage, when there are thousands — no, millions — of potential acquaintances within a short distance? We can afford to dump anyone who merely disagrees with us. Friendships become disposable. And so we move forward in life, cheerful and busy, texting and Facebooking, greeting and glad-handing, walls of superficial chatter disguising our aloneness.

As with the Santa Ana Freeway, the urban lifestyle — which connects us to so many options — also acts as an overcrowded barrier, preventing us from fulfilling our deepest social impulses.

There might be a workaround. We could, if we so desired, add a little more thought to our texts and emails and phone calls. If we find that our new friends hold beliefs counter to our own, we don’t have to fight them over the fate of the world, especially as our disagreement will have virtually no effect on the outcome. We can set aside those differences and, as one commentator put it, “limit the relationship to what you have in common.” In sum, we can remember that it’s a privilege, not a right, to interact with others, and that — if they are to become lasting friends — they should always be treated with a basic respect, a consideration often overlooked during our busy days in a polarizing world.

As for getting through to Orange County, I dunno … maybe take the Artesia Freeway?