Victoria Atkinson White: We need each other

Pool ring floating in a swimming pool


In today’s world, we tend to choose friendships with like-minded people rather than investing in a broad community of “familiar but not intimate” relationships. That narrowing of casual relationships is killing our communities and driving us away from God’s work in the world, writes the managing director of grants for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Our children were thrilled when we bought a house with neighbors on either side with pools. As we settled in, both families invited us to use their pools anytime. We had children the same ages as the family on the right, so we naturally gravitated to their yard.

For two summers, our children were inseparable little fish. My spouse and I became “couple friends” with the homeowners, enjoying picnics and borrowed cups of sugar. We did not agree on politics or economics, and our children went to different schools, but we had enough in common to sustain an ongoing conversation. And of course, there was the pool.

Suddenly, their children no longer wanted to play with our children, refusing to give a reason other than they were busy. As the children drifted apart, so did the adults. We waved to each other in the yard but seldom crossed the property line to talk. We should have called or stopped by. But life got busy, and enough time passed that it would have been awkward to address whatever the issue was.

The following summer, we began swimming at the other neighbor’s pool. Our routine changed very little. We had picnics with other friends and found alternative sources of emergency sugar.

Our world is set up so that when one relationship fades or one connection dwindles, another will quickly take its place. Friendship has taken on more complex, and often weaker, definitions.

Was what we had with the family next door a friendship? Were we more like transactional pool partners? What constitutes a friendship? And how do you know whether a friendship is worth wading through awkwardness to maintain?

Marc J. Dunkelman in “The Vanishing Neighbor” would classify our interaction with our neighbors as a middle-ring relationship -- a category within people’s circles of relationships that is quickly disappearing in this generation.

They were not in our inner ring, those with whom we share the closest of ties: immediate family and friends we text and talk to on a regular basis. Dunkelman says this ring is actually thickening, thanks to both the digital revolution and the increase in American mobility. Our need for affirmation and acceptance for “who I am” has also emphasized our propensity to double down on the relationships closest to us.

And our neighbors were not in our outer ring of ephemeral acquaintances: random Facebook friends, the mom you see at every soccer game but with whom you have yet to exchange names, the person you see frequently on your commute to work. These relationships tend to be passing or transactional, sharing a single interest or experience.

Those in the middle ring are people who are not as close as family or dear friends but are more than mere acquaintances. This is extended family, work colleagues, friends who share community interests, those in one’s Sunday school class. Middle-ring relationships are “familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.” These are the people, Dunkelman writes, that Americans would consider their “community.”

A few generations ago, allowing my relationship with my neighbors to dissolve could have been disastrous to both of our families, as well as others in the community. Interpersonal relationships were not a luxury but rather an economic and communal necessity. When people relied on the structure of their township for identity, authority and routine, neighbors were compelled to work out their differences for the good of all.

Today, if I decide I no longer want to read the political rants of my high school friends on Facebook, I can unfollow them without their ever knowing. If I change my stance on a church polity issue, I can find another church (because they are all looking for new members!). If I want to spend time with only people who enjoy French cuisine, I can take a cooking class at Jean-Jacques Bakery or join a culinary club.

We have crafted our world so that we can surround ourselves with only the voices, opinions and lifestyles we choose. While this might sound idyllic, especially given how annoying and vicious social media can be, it is killing us and our communities. We can self-select our news sources to the point that our image of the world becomes warped and distorted and we are no longer living in reality.

In our attempts to be loved and accepted, we are thickening our most intimate relationships (know any 20- to 30-somethings still living at home?) and compressing our middle rings. And it is driving us further and further away from God’s work in this world.

We need each other. We need to hear and be heard by those who are different from us. We need to repair broken relationships rather than running from conflict into something less strenuous. We cannot lose our middle rings.

The middle ring is where we most often learn about new job opportunities. It is where we get recommendations for baseball leagues or car mechanics. Middle-ring relationships enable conversations about community life, such as area burglaries, yard sales or the going price for real estate in a neighborhood. These may seem trivial, and they may be bits of information we could learn from social media or a web search. But do I really want to get my hair cut by someone I know from online reviews only?

It was far too easy for my family to switch summer pool fun from one neighbor to the other when conflict arose. But not only did I set a terrible example for my children; I failed to literally love my neighbor and follow the example Jesus set for us.

Jesus was constantly increasing his middle-ring relationships. How else did he and his unruly disciple friends always have a place to stay? He never went without food or drink on his journeys. He got to know people. He asked good questions. He listened. Ultimately, it was his middle-ring relationships that sparked the spread of Christianity throughout the world.

Jesus relied heavily on middle-ring relationships, and so should we. Without them, we are either living in our parents’ basements indefinitely or sitting next to what’s-her-name at the soccer field.