This week we have had friends staying with us for a few days. They have been visiting from Germany, so we don’t see them very often, and it was wonderful to watch their children playing with ours. Because they were staying with us, we had the rare chance to sit down and catch up in a relaxed way, without a timetable or a formal commitment. It got me thinking about the lack of unstructured time in our lives these days, and its impact on our ability to maintain our friendships, our relationships, and our communities.
We tend, these days, to have very structured lives. Crowded timetables and hectic days. Things to do, places to go, people to see. And sure, you can get a lot done that way. But I’m not sure if it’s possible to nurture and grow your relationships in structured time. It is lovely to catch up with friends’ families on a joint visit to a place or an event (like the Zoo, or a concert), but it is forced and rushed time. It feels as though we are missing out on just dropping in, catching up, and hanging out. (Why do we hang out, and not down or up? And why do we catch up and not down? Such a strange language, such random prepositions. But I digress. How unlike me.)
When was the last time you dropped in on friends unannounced? I’ll bet it was so long ago you can’t remember. We don’t drop in anymore. We schedule time for a catch up. Dropping in feels rude and intrusive – the closest I will come is to call if we are in the area (yay for mobile phones) and tentatively ask if it’s ok, and that’s even with my family!
I am becoming increasingly certain that we need more, not less, dropping in and casually catching up. Those long weekend afternoons when we are just pottering about the house, getting things done, would be so enlivened and enhanced by unexpected visitors. There’s always time to stop for a cuppa and a chat, in my ideal world.
Certainly, this welcoming of unexpected guests also requires the ability to say “it’s wonderful to see you, but this isn’t a good time”, and for both sides to accept this situation gracefully and promptly. But given that proviso, what is keeping us from sharing each others’ lives more casually, and more intimately, than we seem able to manage now?
Years ago we visited friends in Adelaide, and they were so struck by our relaxed approach that they sent us a Christmas card later, with the observation that it was a pleasure to have friends to stay whose “only requirement is that we don’t trip over them”. Visiting friends in San Francisco on another trip, we first encountered the term “lump days”, and our holidays have been liberally sprinkled with them ever since – days when you simply chill out, often as a lump on the couch. This is a particularly lovely concept when you are visiting friends. Sure, it is nice to see a new place, and visit landmarks etc. But for me life is all about relationships, and visiting friends is about people, not places.
Our lives are so busy, we seem to be left with a sense that doing nothing is the same as achieving nothing. Therein lies the trap. There are many studies showing that children need unstructured play for optimal development. They need plenty of time to exercise their imaginations – to build cubbies, climb trees, and make trains out of boxes and sparkly pipe cleaners (it turns out that the sparkliness of the pipe cleaners is crucial to the function of the train). Although well documented, it seems to me that this phenomenon is poorly acted upon in our day to day lives. So many children seem to be enmeshed in such a tangled web of swimming, music, dancing and language lessons that they have very little time to chill out and explore their world.
But it seems to me to be equally applicable to our adult lives. To chill out and catch up with friends with no aim other than to connect with them, is an increasingly rare thing. As a friend remarked to me today, “I always catch up with people to do something. I forget that it doesn’t have to be that way.” I have found that it is often much more satisfying to hang out with no aim or schedule in mind. There is more potential to talk deeply, and indeed widely, and truly connect with each other.
So this is my challenge to you. Schedule some unscheduled time. Drop back in to your friends’ lives, and enrich your own. The kettle is on.