Disengaging or: Does it matter how many people attend my funeral?

Cover of "The Thing About Life Is That On...

Inside: learn the many ways your body deteriorates on the slow, but inevitable, march to death! 

I realize the title is a bit morose. Why am I already thinking of my death? Don’t worry: I’m not suicidal. It’s just that it gives me more serenity to think of death — more specifically, my inevitable death — than to avoid it. I don’t obsessively think about; I just imagine it from time to time. The “Western” view sees that as strange. But in Buddhism, there are meditations that require practitioners to visualize their dead body in its casket or examine corpses in various states of decay. I’ve tried it several times (imagining my dead body, not examining corpses) and it’s more comforting than you’d think.

My view might be influenced, ever so slightly, by a book my wife gave me which I recently read, David Shields’ aptly-titled “The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead.” It’s part anecdotal, about the author’s Nonogenerian father, but mostly about the steady march of death and profound transformations that occur daily in our bodies. He cites lots of data, none of it good news. But somehow, the exhaustive descriptions of shrinking, shriveling, softening and drying are, paradoxically, life-affirming.

By now, if you hadn’t several paragraphs ago, you’re probably asking what this has to do with Asperger’s. I myself wonder that same thing. (That was a joke. And not a very good one, since I had to explain it with a parenthetical.) The answer is, within several months of being diagnosed with Asperger’s — in other words, about a year ago — I started to, well, disengage with the social (interpersonal) world around me.

Here’s what I mean when I say “disengage.” I rarely go to parties. I hardly ever invite people to my house. I go to few social functions, unless they involve co-workers. I even closed my Facebook account (I guess it would be more accurate to say I put it in abeyance, as Facebook really discourages permanently deleting one’s account). I rarely contact old friends. My social circle has grown smaller.

Instead of socializing with the outside world, I spend almost all of my time interacting with the inside one. I am fortunate to have an amazing wife and daughter, who give me lots of love and attention (although recently, my daughter has started texting so much I sometimes am tempted to send her a text even when she’s sitting next to me on the sofa). They are, quite simply, the focus of my life.

Part of why I’ve chosen, at least for now, to disengage from the non-family social world is because of discoveries I made during sessions with my psychologist (I’m not sure he would approve). After diagnosing me with Asperger’s, he would frequently ask me, “What do you want?” As in, what do you want out of life? In other words, do I want to have more friends? Do I want to be more social? Do I want to “network” more? Or could I care less?

I watched so many TV shows over the years where the characters have a reasonably large group of close friends they see every day (and often live next door to, or meet up at the same coffee shop every day, for some strange reason), that I came to believe that’s-how-people-are-supposed-to-live. Fast-forwarded to its chronological extreme, the goal seems to be to have as many people as possible at one’s funeral. But my psychologist pointed out the absurdity of such a measurement. What does it matter how many people get dressed up and congregate near my dead body? I won’t be alive to see it!

Perhaps you already knew the idea of how many friends one has at his funeral was absurd. But stepping back from funerals, what about the focus on milestone birthdays or other occasions for celebration? The point is, it often seems like the quantity of one’s friends is supposed to say something about the person. How many people show up at a 40th, or 50th or 60th birthday? How many go to that person’s wedding, or that of their children? And of course: how many “Facebook friends” does he or she have?

But, I now realize, the number of one’s friends is irrelevant. The point of friends, or anybody or anything in life, really, is to make you/me happy. Happiness is the goal (Aristotle said it thousands of years ago).

So, I guess you could say I’m experimenting with the idea of having fewer people in my life who I count as close friends and who I interact with on a regular basis. I still have work friends, and old friends I occasionally hear from, other family members, tennis friends and other locally-based acquaintances.  But the overwhelming focus is on family and solitary activities.

I don’t know how it will turn out — the experiment isn’t over yet. But one thing I’ve discovered is that I no longer fear not having “enough” friends. I’m learning to value what matters to me, rather than what others perceive to matter. And that, to me, is the most life-affirming.