High Orbit – Respecting Grieving

I started writing this post because in the space of 48 hours I was painfully reminded of the pain and grief that accompanies death. My friend Michael Malone asked “Is this Grieving?” in a recent blog post. Michael lost his mother and step-father recently and is still trying to process his pain. I had the pleasure of meeting both of these amazing people in Michael’s life and regret that I won’t get to know them more deeply. While I was in Cincinnati I was informed that one of our dear friends in the Indianapolis technical community, Enrique Lima had passed a few days ago. We also received a call from one of my daughters who was confronted with the death of some of the patients that she had cared for. This got me to thinking about how the distance of the loss impacts how we respond and how lives are valuable to all of us.

Robin Dunbar

It’s reasonably well known that anthropologist Robin Dunbar created the Dunbar’s number. (Perhaps it’s reasonably well known because it was mentioned at The Tipping Point.) He was looking at the stable social relationships that primates had and the relationship to the size of their brain (more specifically the neocortex). The resulting math showed that humans should be able to maintain somewhere in the range of 150 stable social relationships. It turns out that the number 150 turned out to be a frequent place where divisions occurred. It showed up in organizations everywhere. It seems like the number showed up in the military as well as the way we built our villages.

Less commonly known is that Dunbar went on to think of these relationships in layers – which I tend to think of as concentric rings around a person. There are layers for the inner 5, the close 15, the interesting 50, and the social 150 – as well as layers beyond the stable social relationships extending to 500, 1500, and interestingly 5,300 which was a number that Plato described as the maximum size of a community.

Time Management

Dunbar admits that not all of the scalability of stable relationships is due to the size of the neocortex, some of the factor for the numbers comes in because of sheer time management. There are only so many people that you can routinely interact with. You simply cannot really stay connected to large numbers of people due to the lack of time. So the folks on in the inner circles get more time than those on the outer circles.

While primates seem to have adapted evolution that was initially designed to support monogamous pair bonding into a social system that helped the genes survive even when a member of the pair was removed. Anyone in a serious relationship can tell you that maintaining an intimate relationship with another human being can be difficult – definitely worth it – but also definitely difficult. This seems to have driven a larger brain to be able to figure in the needs of another in our thinking. While this extra growth shows up in monogamous pair bonded species it seems that somehow primates figured out how to use this mechanism to build stronger communities and friendships.

Despite the advances in the development of our brains we couldn’t bend time and eventually we’re stuck with a relative limit on our social connections not based on our ability to consider others but on our ability to marshal our time.

Chemistry of Relationships

When I was in high-school I was doing an internship with Dow Corning. I enjoyed chemistry and got a job that was largely documenting research by doing textual drawings of the molecules that they were coming up with. As a result I ended up having many chemical concepts locked in my brain including the fact that the inner sphere of electrons contains at maximum two electrons and that the next two layers are eight each. This is semi-obvious by looking at a periodic table but this was burned into my brain and it’s come out in some unexpected ways.

When I heard about Dunbar’s thinking about the layers of the relationships I started thinking in terms of the shells of electrons. You can fit about five in your inner sphere. The next larger group is 15 then 50 and so on. This view is quite clear in my mind. There isn’t really a “best” friend but instead there are a set of “besties” your best friends – your inner circle. Beyond that there are your close friends. It’s no problem for me to think about smaller rings of people on the inside and larger rings on the outside. It makes sense that the outer rings have more electrons – or friends.

Planetary Alignment

I also tied in another concept. People in the innermost ring are those people with whom you spend the most time. That is your inner sphere are the people you spend time with. In other words the period of time between interactions is low. I started thinking of this as the orbit of the planets. The very close-in planets have a very small solar year. Pluto – whether a planet or not – takes a very long time to orbit the sun. Thus it will be in the same relative position to the sun over a much longer period of time. Conversely Mercury orbits relatively quickly. The Earth’s orbit is somewhere in the middle.

So the model makes sense to me – the folks on the far outside are less frequently contacted and those closer to the center are more frequently contacted. Purists will quickly point out that the model breaks down because in planetary location the result is very predictable and repeated. Rather than random. However, for this I have to think about chemistry again.

The Excited Chemistry of Fluorescent Bulbs

If you excite electrons they’ll temporarily climb to a higher electron shell and stay there until they eventually decay back into their original shell. When they decay they release energy. This energy is transformed into light by fluorescent bulbs. So whenever we look at fluorescent bulbs now we’re looking at bulbs that are harnessing a chemical reaction where electrons change shells. By the way, because fluorescent lights rely on a ballast to get the right electrical charge and because the light is actually emitted after the electron decays and then strikes fluorescent material is why these lights seem to come on shortly after you flick the switch – not exactly when you flick it. It’s also why they tend to glow after you’ve turned the light off.

For our friends example, if reverse the exchange of energy – then it would be that the more energy the closer people get. Admittedly it’s a reversal of the way chemistry works but it makes sense to me. As we pour more energy (or time) into relationships they get closer. When we stop applying that energy (or time) those people move back to outer rings or shells.

This ties together that the excitement of electrons is relatively random. Which electron becomes excited depends on the one which receives the energy thus it’s random. In people, this is the way that friends are – they come closer in a seemingly random pattern as we share time and energy with them.

Friends and Kin

Dunbar also speaks of decay but in a different context. He talks about friendships and how they inevitably decay due to an increase in distance or a decrease in time. Here I have a bit of a disagreement, but I’ll get to that in a moment. What is important is that kinships don’t decay like friendships. Instead once you’ve become connected to close kin you tend not to move away.

The closest of friends know who you are and what’s going on in your life and though there’s no gold standard for what friendship actually is, this isn’t a bad start. However, it falls apart when viewed from the technological world that we live in today where it’s possible to be relatively connected to someone else’s life only through their Facebook posts. Someone may know what’s happening with you but still not be a friend. Consider this blog. If someone routinely reads this blog they’ll relatively speaking know what’s going on in my life – at least what I’m reading, thinking, and writing about. However, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re a close friend.

So there have to be other measures of friendship. One is the reality of whether you’ll do a favor for someone – and what level of favor it is. A former friend of mine once said that friends will help you move. (Consider that the list of people that will help you move is probably 15 or less – with 50 or so people being asked and being conveniently busy.) However, real friends will help you move a body. I’ve happily never needed to put this to the test but the point is sound. Your close friends will do a larger more personally expensive favor for you than friends who are not as close. Dunbar describes the 150 number for stable social relationships in this way – they’ll do a favor for you as long as it doesn’t come at great personal cost. The interesting thing about kin is that they tend to always stay in a fairly large favor category. They may not help you move a body but if they’ve got a truck they’ll generally speaking, help you move.

Sidebar: LinkedIn

Having recently sent out an update to all of those who were connected to me on LinkedIn and receiving a couple of “unsubscribe” requests, I have to say that there’s an interesting aside about how LinkedIn is supposed to work and how it actually does. At a fundamental level if you’re connected to someone via LinkedIn the idea is that you would introduce that person to other people in your network – and vice versa. When you send a yearly update to everyone that you’re connected with – a sort of business Christmas letter – shouldn’t that require a lower “favor” quotient than making a connection? I’ve got nearly 2,000 connections on LinkedIn. I’d happily introduce them to other folks I know – but the question remains whether my idea of what a connection should mean and what others believe is the same.

Ultimately sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are redefining – and refining – what it means to be a “real friend” vs. a “Facebook friend.”

The Archeology of Friendship

Where I struggle with Dunbar’s assertions about friendship decaying is that there are friends who I’ve spoken very little to in the last 20 years. These are people I went to high school with or people I met in my early adulthood. I’d have no qualms about helping them move – and in some cases no qualms about helping them “move a body.” (Again, I’m happy to say it’s never been asked of me.)

I do believe that there are people who are in your life for a season, a reason, or a lifetime. The compelling question is figuring out which it is. Even those that you believe are in your life for a season may come back and you may become close once again after years of not talking. For me, I can never figure out why a friend is in my life, I’m only grateful that they are.

For me, I know that I can pick up mid-conversation with some of my friends. We may have been in the middle of a conversation when we last spoke and we got interrupted – and we seemingly resume right where we left off. How is it that some friendships have this quality? I think the answer lies in archeology.

If you’re willing to dig into these relationships you generally find some deep experiences that are shared. It might only be a few hours but the impact is deep and profound because they got to see a part of you that others can’t see – or you shared an experience that too few people can understand. If we all yearn for a sense of belonging then folks who have shared experience with you help you feel like you belong to the group.

From my point of view whenever I have a long-time friend – at any ring of closeness – come back to me to ask for something I see it as an opportunity to rebuild something that I once had with them. I see it as a connection to the past which I value greatly. History with someone for me increases their value to me – they have a different perspective of me than anyone today can have. They got to see the “me” that existed in the past – the one that is gone.

In reality I value people with whom I have a long relationship differently than I do recent connections. Even someone who mildly annoyed me who knew me 20 years ago will get a boost – I’ll help them move when I might not have done so 20 years ago. For me the “everyday” friendships that I unearth become very powerful. I liken this to the excitement an archeologist may have when finding a broken clay pot. It may have been an ordinary, everyday object but the fact that the archeologist was able to recover it – or part of it – makes it special.

Extreme Impact

In late 2012 and early 2013, I had four inner ring events that rocked my world. A very close longtime friend of mine decided he couldn’t be friends any longer because of some internal dynamics of his family. My marriage of 15 years ended. My dog who was my constant companion and quite literally by my side every day got bone cancer and I had to euthanize her. (More accurately I chose to do this because it was the only way I could prevent her from being in pain.) Finally, and most tragically, I lost my brother Rusty. It felt like my world was ripped out from underneath me.

That being said, in truth, I had it easy. My sister-in-law, Ann, lost her husband. My niece lost her father. My unborn niece was deprived of ever knowing her father. My father and step-mother lost their son. Rusty and Ann lived with them. He was in their daily lives. While Rusty was my brother and closest friend, we “only” talked every few days – particularly through my divorce.

My grieving process wasn’t – and isn’t easy – there are still days that it will shake me to my core. Some things I expect will shake me– like when my wife gave me flight time. Somethings I don’t expect – like looking at a plant that was given to me by dear friends when he died.

As a result of this I understand what it means to have someone in your innermost circle of friends (and family) be removed from your life. I’d lost people before. I lost my step-father. I had lost grandparents. However, in truth they weren’t in my daily life. I felt the loss. I felt the vacancy but it was different.

A Little Bit of High and a Little Bit of Low

Every person who we lose whether it’s a death or they move away will have some people in high orbit – only seeing them occasionally and barely keeping up with what’s going on in their life – and some people in low orbit – people whose daily routines will be effected. Of course there are layers in between of people who are impacted but not in a daily way.

In the small town of Paris, IL whose entire population was 9,000 people at one time had many people in these different layers or rings. I continued to be amazed as person after person came by the visitation to pay their condolences. Estimates were that 2,000 people came out to pay their respects. Some were family. Some were his students that he was seeing weekly or more to help them get their license. Some were pilots who hadn’t talked to Rusty in months or years. Others were members of the community who Rusty might have stopped to help at one time or another.

While not all of these interactions would be defined by Dunbar as a stable social interaction there was an impact. There was a bond that was formed for so many people, people who could feel the loss. The magnitude and degree of the loss felt is proportional to the distance that the person being lost was.


The real root of why I felt compelled to write this post was for Enrique. He was a good man. He was a person who was willing to help and had a jovial spirit that lightened the mood of those around him. His funeral was held across the street from my home – almost literally. Strangely, I learned of his passing while over 100 miles away speaking in Cincinnati at a SharePoint Saturday event – at the time the funeral service was occurring back at home.

Logistically I simply couldn’t be there. Had I known sooner I could have made it work but apparently that wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Instead of sitting in the church for an hour, I was being guided into spending hours thinking through what friendship means, even when it’s a friendship in high orbit.

I think Enrique would have approved.