Where did all my friends go?

Friendship is an art that requires talent, time, and dedication.

Where did all my friends go?

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Friendship is an art that requires talent, time, and dedication. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime, sometimes not, but its importance lies in the extent to which it lives in us. In a society obsessed with romantic love and professional success - the perfect job, the ideal partner, the golden children, and the little house in the country - we easily forget the degree to which our close friends are fundamental components not only of the shaping of our individuality, but of our lives.

Two weeks after my mother died, a message appeared on her Messenger (we had not yet cancelled her accounts, which today is tantamount to officially writing you off as dead). One of her best friends from her twenties was writing to announce that she had finally retired and now had time to talk.

The idea that friendships become harder to maintain once you pass the thirties curve seems to be a fact. Life changes; we change. I recently asked a group of people whether they found it more complicated to maintain and make friends after 30; their answer was a resounding yes. Amidst work obligations, partners, family, and the twists and turns of life, it can be easy to lose track. By the time we realise it, our lives barely collide. Still, part of me cannot help but wonder, is it a lack of time or interest?

The web is littered with photos of friends toasting and articles about how social relationships affect our health. We know about the correlation between genetic traits and environment; that gazing into each other's eyes activates our brain's social network; that there is a higher rate of cardiovascular problems among people who feel lonely; that we are born to connect; that dementia worsens if a person is isolated; that our immune system declines when we are depressed and that prolonged levels of stress ages us. But we say little about the influence of friendship over our being and our lives.

I grew up in a family where friends were considered the family of choice. There would always seem to be someone having coffee in the kitchen. For my parents, friends didn't take up time; they filled the house with life. And although, as a child, I sometimes found it a drag when my parents' friends held me in the kitchen with the same endless stories, I am grateful they instilled in me the importance of those long evenings of food, wine, storytelling and political debates. And although we changed countries often, and they inevitably lost many of their friends along the way, they managed to keep in touch with most of those close to them. Preserving relationships was not only possible but essential. I am talking about a generation that grew up without the means of communication we have today. An international phone call would cost you an arm and a leg.

Man sitting at a table alone
None of the post-covid hyper-connectivity seems to replace the power of presence. In the absence of body contact, relationships remain on the fringes of the intangible, the unreal and the immediate. Image adapted from Reddit.

Throughout lockdown the scarce amount of communication I was having with some of my friends became obvious. Yes, we would look at our Instagram feeds and drop a "like" here and there, but we barely called each other. Given that we are the most digitised generation with the most access to media, and given that we were at home and were being spared the day-to-day commute to work, the lack of meaningful encounters no longer seemed to be a matter of lack of time. And while the pandemic brought us together in many ways, it also showed us the cracks in society. The elderly were already dying alone, and the so-called epidemic of loneliness was already raging. As for me and many others, it made me take a closer look at the nature of my relationships. If you don't call your friends when the world seems to be falling apart, when then? Is this hyper-connectivity in which we live giving us the illusion that we are connected when, in fact, there is no real connection? What does it mean to have meaningful relationships?

Because if the pandemic made one thing clear, it is that the hyper-connectivity in which we live did not save us from feeling lonely and isolated. Social media and platforms have allowed us to communicate; stay informed; work remotely; do yoga via YouTube; read books; connect with people from all over the world; listen to music, share millions of photos, links, articles, and videos; and binge-watch series and films -- and I will be forever grateful for this. Yet, none of this seems to replace the power of presence. In the absence of body contact, relationships remain on the fringes of the intangible, the unreal and the immediate.

As if in the dematerialisation of the world, our reality was slipping into fiction, preventing us from having more authentic relationships. Looking at our friends' lives through the pictures they post doesn't mean that we are part of it; More visibility does not imply a connection. And while social media is an incredible expansion of our relationship with others, we need physical contact. Not only because physical touch lowers stress and increases oxytocin, and God knows how many other hormones tied to love and our ability to bond. But because touch certifies our existence, it makes us real; it anchors us in the present moment. To quote Robin Dunbar: "There is an honesty about touch that cannot be matched by any other sense". Our body is a manifestation of who we are. We experience the world through our senses. And while you can tell a lot about a person by the way they write or speak, it is through the body that people communicate what they cannot articulate. It's how they move, their gestures, the silences, and their gaze that reveals the other person in all their complexity. You can control what you say in a chat, you can pretend, lie, and create fiction on Instagram, but you can't help but feel your body contract when someone you don't like touches you. Our body gives us away, and it is in that vulnerability where truth finds the space to grow.

It's what we experience together that binds us in a particular way. These shared spaces are built daily through different scenarios. The morning coffees, the shitty jobs we endured together, the fights, the half-paid rents, the books we shared, the synchronisation of our bodies as we danced, sang, walked, and explored new places together without knowing what would happen, the complicit exchanges of glances, the thousands of series we watched encrusted on the couch, all the meals, drinks and late-night talks, the losses and existential crises we navigated together.

Friends taking pictures
In cycles of closeness and distance, I keep learning the fragile balance between holding tight and letting go. Friends who endure over time are like a piece of art built over a lifetime. Image: Halfpoint/Adobe.

Friendships are built on a day-to-day basis and cemented in the rockiest moments. Getting to know each other takes time, breaking with the illusion of immediacy and reclaiming the beauty of being real. Having close ties involves more than going out to dinner from time to time, it's about being in each other's lives. When apathy or inertia dominates our relationships, we stop seeing one another and fall into blind spots. That is why making room for new friends throughout our lives is important, as they allow us to see ourselves through new eyes. As a gateway to new parts of us that are waiting to be born. We need to be able to keep those doors open.

Every friend is a piece of ourselves that claims us, and every friendship is the product of the unique combination of two people. Understanding friendship as a living bond means leaving room for change and opening it up to the possibility of further growth. In this exploration of who we are and what we create, when we are together, the other person becomes part of you.

As Aristotle said, a friend is another self.

We internalise our closest friends as well as our families of origin. Whether or not we have an ongoing relationship with them, they become part of us. And yet the prevailing narrative encourages us to expect less and less from our friends.

If the rise of the individual has given us the freedom to lead a life different from that set by society; it should also give us the freedom to recreate other forms of community beyond the established models that have nothing to do with our circumstances. As Johann Hari says in his book Lost Connections, the phrase ‘“nobody can help you except yourself” has been taken to such extremes and misinterpretations that it has become an easy way of simply not being there for other people’. And I couldn't agree more.

I suspect that the loss of community and the exacerbated focus on the couple as the only source of existential fulfilment is causing people to feel lonelier and more anxious. And although the degree of intimacy and love within a couple is higher and the commitment deeper, our close friends are also meaningful and intimate relationships.

As societies evolve, so do family dynamics and structures. The freedom to create another kind of family starts with claiming other forms of family units, whether they are homoparental or multinuclear, and challenging the idea that being single or childless means being alone. Not being in a couple does not mean not having other types of relationships or that such relationships are uncommitted. Two close friends who one day decide to live together and share expenses are indeed intertwining their lives. Is that not also a family? Living and sharing the intimacy of a home is part of building a solid and authentic relationship. Close friends are also love stories. To legitimise it is to redefine our way of loving and living. As Aminatou Sow and Anne Friedman say in their book Big Friendship, "Our choice to show up at weddings as a family unit wasn't just a cute stunt. It was an extension of our political belief that friendship is a relationship that's equal in importance to romantic and family bonds.".

Family units mirror the social structure. If you change the way families function, you pull the strings of society. Chosen families have not only allowed people to find space for belonging, but they have also allowed those spaces to have an impact on the world. From the coming together of women who became feminist movements to the LGTBQ community, where people expelled from their families of origin could find a space of inclusion, support and recognition. Or the immigrants who, finding themselves alone in another country, created networks of support and financial assistance with people who became family. Chosen families have certainly been a decisive hub.

Choosing a friend as a family is a conscious decision to be part of each other's lives. It involves being willing to embrace the challenges that will inevitably come and seeing the hard times as opportunities for growth and empowerment.

To take the time to connect and improve our relationships is to take responsibility for them. And, as in a long marriage where you repeatedly marry different versions of the same person, from time to time, we are pulled to step out of apathy and need to decide whether to keep choosing each other.

In cycles of closeness and distance, I keep learning the fragile balance between holding tight and letting go. Friends who endure over time are like a piece of art built over a lifetime. A testimony of our life together; our friendships have made the intangible visible and expanded our worlds. Together, we have explored the miracle of being alive and what it means to be human. We have made art into a way of life. In the words of a friend, they are our existential map.

Maite Oxford
Maite Oxford

Graduate in Sociology. Writer. Wanderer. Interested in cultural and social issues, I'm intrigued by the nature of everyday human interactions.

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