Pay to Play

Jim Wasserman

EVEN IN OUR consumer-driven society, some things are looked down upon if bought. One of those things is companionship.

I’ll leave the topic of sexual intimacy for another day. What I’m talking about here is paying—directly or indirectly—for social interaction. We might buy a younger colleague lunch simply to have somebody to dine with. We might continue therapy long after we’ve finished exploring the issues that prompted us to sign up. We all have a need to connect with others and thereby have our own existence validated.

It’s a basic human need and yet, if folks admitted they pay to have such companionship, many would cluck their tongues and argue it’s not genuine friendship. People would then feel shame and not do it. But in truth, we all need human interaction and we all pay to have it—one way or another.

For more than 15 years, I’ve belonged to the same United States Tennis Association (USTA) team. In that time, we’ve had a core group of guys playing together. Record-wise, all we have achieved is new heights of mediocrity.

We’ve played in 100-degree heat and near-freezing cold. We’ve all sidelined ourselves with embarrassing injuries. For those losses and discomforts, we must pay ever-rising USTA membership dues and player registration fees for each league we compete in, plus we split the cost of tennis balls.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love tennis. But it’s the interaction with the guys—the jokes about how lousy that shot I made was or how incredibly lucky my opponent was to eke out a 6-1, 6-1 win—that I’m really paying for. We text like schoolboys before and after matches, inventing words like “pushdink” or WOOF (winner off of frame) that become our inside jokes.

The COVID-19 lockdown exposed and exacerbated a hidden societal ill—pervasive loneliness. Even afterward, many people continue to feel isolated and alone, yet balk at the idea of buying companionship. They see it as desperate or demeaning.

That’s a shame. There are many ways to feed the soul’s need for being with others. I’ve seen writers’ groups that spend little time improving their prose in favor of sharing experiences that they’re “going to write about.” I have been to Bible studies where people discuss the food everyone brought at least as much as Bible verses.

Seniors especially need companionship, and should be encouraged to seek it out and even pay for the opportunity. My mother was hesitant at first to move into a senior living center, preferring to stay in her home of 50 years—alone and complaining about her back. A few months after moving, she was a new woman.

With a gleam in her eye, she would tell me of the gossip about romantic liaisons. People passing her in the hall would ask if she was coming to the card game later because they needed her. She stopped mentioning her back pain. I’m convinced that socialization alone extended her life and made her happier.

Recently, my wife Jiab and I committed tennis treason by delving into pickleball on a rainy day. We went to the local community center, paid for membership and then paid to join the open play session in the gym.

The bleachers were intermittently filled with people ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s. They seemed to be waiting their turn, although I would swear that many never played. They just hung out.

Between matches, we struck up conversations with strangers who asked if we’d come back. Pickleball was fun, but the people were the selling point. Just don’t tell our tennis friends.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin in storytelling. A MacGuffin is the thing you think the movie is about, like an object or a quest, while the movie’s real subject is the evolving relationship of its characters. It’s time to acknowledge that activities and professional and personal goals are great, but that seeking companionship and building relationships are also worthy objectives.

There’s no shame in spending money in their pursuit. If it’s okay to pay for clothes or a trip that makes you happy, why not for a friend?

Jim is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach students about behavioral economics and media literacy. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. They have a two-book series coming out in 2023, Behavioral Economics: A Guide for Youth in Making Choices and The Social Media Diet: A Guide for Young People to Be Smarter Online Users and Consumers. Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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