Friends through thick and thin … and the pandemic

Fact Of The Matter


My first friend, the one I had known the longest, died in London the other day after a relatively short illness. Papo (Patrick) was three months short of 67, and we had known each other since forever, being next-door neighbours growing up.
We had been in and out of each other’s lives down all those years: in our early days effectively sidekicks, in latter years not so much. The recession of the Eighties saw him seek better opportunities in London, and he seldom came back save for extenuating circumstances. Still, we’d phone each other every so often and would just carry on the conversation like it was only yesterday we had spoken.
Down the years there were one or two reunions among our wider group of friends, 20 or so of us. But, where once we had been young men in a young neighbourhood drinking the pubs dry, wrestling with Nietzsche and Sartre, and dreaming big dreams, going to change the world — this was, after all, the late Sixties — now we were a bunch of old blokes, pot-bellied and balding, kids grown and gone, some of us widowed or divorced.
The close friends among that 20 or so I could probably count on one hand. Good friends are indeed few and far between. That has been particularly brought home to me during the pandemic when, knowing I am effectively isolating alone, there are those who keep in close touch, my best interests at heart. And then there are those ‘hail fellow, well met’ folk who come up short when needed.
The increase in the use of social media — one survey showing it up by 72% in the last nine months — has allowed friendships stay relatively intact but even the best communication technologies are arguably not an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction. We may ‘friend’ more people on social media but we have fewer real friends — the kind who would help us out in tough times, listen sympathetically no matter what, lend us money or give us a place to stay if we needed it, keep a secret if we shared one.
Matthew Brashears, a Cornell University sociologist, has found that, over half a lifetime, the number of truly close friends people cite falls. On average, participants listed two close friends in Brashears’ survey — people we think of as true confidants, whom we choose to trust with our most intimate concerns.
With the pandemic seeing the global rise in social media inter-action, social scientists say that Facebook and its ilk may actually be “healthy” for us. Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania found that “internet users in general, but Facebook users even more so, have more close relationships than do other people”. Facebook users get more overall social support, and in particular they report more emotional support and companionship than other people, he says.
Aristotle had some interesting things to say about ‘true’ friendship and what it actually is. ‘True’ friendship, he contended, was the “friendship of virtue or the friendship of the good”. These are the people we like for themselves; indeed the people who push us to be a better person. The thinking is that you care for that person, so you strive to be the better person for them, to be the best friend they could wish for.
Such friendships are hard to find for there are few people who make the cut at being ‘virtuous’. The great philosopher laments the rarity of such friendships but notes they are possible between two people who can invest in the time needed to create such a bond.
Five of those 20 friends from my young days are now gone. At the first of those funerals some years back we gathered to sup and celebrate and recant old tales of daring-do and poke fun at each other and I remember thinking then that’s how it always had been, the poking of fun, and it dawned on me that the other trait we brought to the table was our empathy towards each other from the time we had first stepped into each other’s lives, a lifetime ago.
To live, to exist, is truly wonderful and miraculous in the first place. And then to have good friendship, like Papo’s, thrown into the bargain.
I saw his imperfections but I loved him. In all our years in and out of each other’s lives, I like to think he saw mine.
Rest easy my friend, for you have toiled well…

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