THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Someone once described friendship as a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie; one that’s just about being there, as best you can. It was the great thinker Aristotle who said Man is by nature a social animal. In effect, we are not a species of solitary beings. We need each other and cannot live in isolation.
The pandemic has shown us that. We have spent the last 18 months missing each other. Pertinently, the lockdowns have had me thinking big time about ‘friends’ and the nature of friendship.
Rob Reiner’s classic film Stand By Me, about four boys who share everything one summer in the 1950s, has it exact when the Stephen King character Gordie, looking back as a man in his late 30s, in the film’s final line says: “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
Is true friendship the prerogative of the young? That time of endless, circular conversations and life-and-death adventures? That getting older, and beyond, means forgoing all that intimacy and connection, at least with people outside your family or a marriage — with its innumerable joys, family dramas, and day trips?
Where we were once coming of age, the Old Gang and I, with all the attendant comedy and drama those special years imply, now, 50 odd years on, with a lot of living under our belts, we paint a (not-always pretty) picture of a motley crew of colourful chin-wigged characters. An assortment of pot-bellies, grey hair, no hair and occasional limps and peculiar gaits.
Some of those true friends of my teenage years, with whom I shared all my darkest secrets, I have not seen in many a year, save, sadly, at the funerals, which these days seem to come often. In the last decade or so, seven of the original score have moved on — to God-knows what.
Nostalgia for the close friendships of our youth is very real. Studies show the number of close friends we have begins to fall from our mid-20s as work and relationships — and Life — take hold, and the foibles that once fortified us fall apart. Technology, too, has turbocharged friendship’s decline, making it easy to cancel plans and disengage — modern communication, paradoxically, a form of ‘disconnected connection’.
If truth be told, I haven’t had too many friends, save that score or so over the years, and far fewer still close friends. Good friends I’ve learnt, particularly in the last 18 months, are indeed few and far between.
My daughter — perhaps, in the truest sense, a real friend — once said to me that she spent more time on social network with her friends than she did actually meeting them. And just how true is that of the pandemic?
We may ‘friend’ more people on Facebook, 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.
This pandemic shows us — me at any rate — who real friends are. Who reaches out and who doesn’t. Who makes the effort to maintain contact, and who doesn’t.
In the beginning, I made a point of phoning or texting, on a weekly rota, family and friends and ‘close acquaintances’ to see how they were coping. Then, some time later, I realised some never, ever returned the favour. So I stopped calling them, stopped reaching out.
As Mark Twain would have it: “The trouble is not in dying for a friend, but in finding a friend worth dying for.”
That said, there are those few who have, in these strange days, reached out further that I would have imagined. They are now on my list of who to re-engage with, face to face, and, who knows, forge an even greater bond.
And then there are those I am now cutting loose, life being just too darn short. Priorities are shifting. Like Jay Gatsby, I have learnt the past 18 months that I will never fix it like it was before.
I may never have had friends later in life like the ones I had when I was a teenager – but the few I now have are people I truly chose, and who I keep choosing to share life with, changed and all as it may prove to be…