“Y’know. Emily, whenever I meet a farmer, I ask him if he thinks it’s important to go to Agriculture School to be a good farmer…Yeah, and some of them say that it’s even a waste of time. You can get all those things, anyway, out of the pamphlets the government sends out. And Uncle Luke’s getting old–he’s about ready for me to start in taking over his farm tomorrow, if I could…And, like you say, being gone all that time … in other places and meeting other people . . . Gosh, if anything like that can happen I don’t want to go away. I guess new people aren’t any better than old ones. I’ll bet they almost never are. Emily … I feel that you’re as good a friend as I’ve got. I don’t need to go and meet the people in other towns.” Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act 2
“I guess new people aren’t any better than old ones…I don’t need to go and meet people in other towns.” The first time I heard George impulsively decide that he was not going to agriculture college, I was astonished. George’s decision reeked of fear of losing the life he knew, not passion for Emily. I lived in the 60s & 70s version of Our Town, and I could not wait to graduate from high school so I could hit the highway in search of adventure. That’s how I remember it, at least.
Because I have spent decades working with teens, George’s assertion that he knows all the people he needs to know feels tragic. Usually, young people are eager to find what is out there beyond their backyard. Even accounting for the massive differences between the time period of the play and now, I cannot imagine voluntarily choosing such a narrow, limited life.
Now that I am living back in the same Our Town setting that I vowed to flee, I am reconsidering the issue of old friends vs new people with a range of nuances and related topics that Thornton Wilder could not have imagined. Thanks to Facebook, people who I have not seen in person since high school graduation know that I had roasted parsnips last night. People I have not seen since I stopped attending the church we grew up in have enthusiastically approved of the color I recently painted my bathroom. Some of them live miles away, some in the same town we grew up in, but very, very few of my “old friends” are friends of mine in any sense beyond the “Facebook friend.” Our shared history is simply that: history.
My Facebook is littered with friends from previous jobs, previous towns, previous relationships–the detritus of past phases of life. When I am looking for someone to go out to dinner, or I find an event that I’d like to attend with a friend, very few of these people are who I reach out to. We tacitly agree that we are “friends,” but in a historical sense. For a significant portion of my friends list, Facebook is a museum of people I used to know.
The people who I do socialize with, who I text frequently or play board games with are for the most part well within my comfort zone. I have known them for quite a while, often from work or family connections. At this stage in my life, it is easy to hang out with the people who have been woven into my life for years. I could become complacent, comfortable in my niche.
My small town is literally smaller now than it was; since I was in high school, we have lost about a third of our residents. I do not know everyone–not even close–but at this point, I will be surprised if an opportunity for a new romantic relationship or potential good friend pops up in my own backyard. As my “old friends” move closer to their children who left the area or retire to more scenic vistas, my social scene becomes more limited, which is something I am already starting to experience. In very concrete ways, I have friends, but no tribe, no web of relationships that weaving a barrier between me and times of loneliness.
Better yet, new people mean new stories, new ideas, and new opportunities. As much as I enjoy my old friends, we know each other’s dance steps too well. We can laugh before the punch line and anticipate the gossip. Having new people keeps our conversation and our minds vibrant.
My great-grandmother lived with my family for the last decade of her life, and in that time, the only new people she met were my siblings’ and my friends as they tromped through the house. My parents, active octogenarians who routinely share family gossip on Facebook, have not added anyone into their social circle in decades unless the person married into the family. When they were younger, though, all of them left the security of home to meet new people and see what the world had to offer. They were not George Gibbs, too wary to see what was past the county line.
Right now, I have plenty of options for connecting with others if I simply reach out. Facebook, Twitter, dating apps, and participating in a variety of activities could has kept a flow of new faces in my life, people who might fit into the fabric of my life.
In Our Town, George is a broken man, widowed young at the end of the play. If I were to write a sequel to Our Town, George would be old well before his time, stymied by his inability to move past the old and embrace–or at least sample–something new. One secret to loving life, to staying engaged mentally and physically, is to be open to new people. My challenge to myself is simple: Don’t be George. That is not the path to an interesting, fulfilling future.