I keep finding myself humming the words to the song I learned as a Girl Scout, many many years ago. I recently discovered that it has many more verses than the two I learned and have had on repeat on my head:
Make new friends, but keep the old
One is silver, the other is gold
You help me, and I’ll help you
and together we will see it through
I learned that second verse as “you hold me, and I’ll hold you,” but the rest of it is the same. I find it interesting that as I age and my life takes its twists and turns, the words to this song ring so very true. I find it even more interesting that other people I know are finding themselves in the same position, wondering about the nature of friends and friendships, especially in this age of instant communication and Facebook. A colleague recently commented, “you sure have a lot of friends.” We’ve worked together for six months now, so we’re still in the getting-to-know-you stage, but it seems that every day or so, one of us will relate a story or situation, and more often than not, I find myself starting my story with “I have a friend who…” or “I had a friend that did…” and that’s when L commented on the sheer abundance of friends in my life. At first, my reaction was “well yeah, I do have a lot of friends, all over the world…” It got me to thinking, though, on the nature of my friendships. I made a slew of friends due to my online activities. I spent a good portion of the 1990s and early 2000s surfing and chatting on the internet, back when almost everything was text-based. There was no Facebook, and MySpace hadn’t even been thought of yet. I made online friends through Usenet newsgroups and through IRC (internet relay chat). I met one of my oldest online friends in person nearly twenty years ago because we shared a common interest in tattooing and body piercing. As a result of that same interest, we traveled together and met up with groups of other bodyart fans all over North America. I traveled to Europe in the spring of 2000 and spent nearly three weeks couch surfing, clubbing and going to synthpop concerts with IRC friends who, until that trip, I had only talked to on screen and on the occasional phone call or stilted voice chat. I joined local e-mail discussion lists and met local people and hung out in their homes, held hair out of the way while someone vomited in bar bathrooms, and we all took turns designated driving each other home from house parties and bar nights. At that time, most of us were in our early 20s and 30s. We had disposable income, we were all a bit on the fringe of whatever “normal” society was doing, and we found each other. Some of the friendships strengthened and became lifelong and life-changing. I stood in the wedding of one such friend, and we still have inside jokes with each other. Another friend unwittingly introduced me to the man I married, and has shifted from a friend to a best friend *and* a sister-in-law.
Add to this the fact that I maintained my “real” friendships. I hesitate to use the phrase “real” because it somehow insinuates that my online friendships are or were not real. I mean real here in that these friendships existed before my online existence. I’ve managed to stay in touch with most of the crew I spent high school with, even as our lives have gone in different directions. I’m closer with some of my older friends than others, but the core group has been there with me, and I with them, for every one of life’s big adventures – surgeries, housewarming parties, moving, relationship beginnings and ends, weddings, funerals and all of life’s ups & downs.
I had a situation recently where a friend, someone I know primary from online activities, was going through a tough time. The vast majority of our interactions in the nearly twenty years that we’ve known each other, have been via online methods. We have been in the same place at the same time for maybe a total of 10 hours, though I can’t even begin to imagine trying to count the numbers of hours we’ve “talked” via online tools. My friend shared some of the details of the personal difficulties she was experiencing, and in my attempts at understanding what was going on, I hurt her feelings and was told that I was not being helpful. It stung. I backed off, as the last thing I wanted to do was cause harm or not be useful to a friend who is already hurting. The situation left me in tears, but it also got me to thinking about how our online friendships often feel deeper and more substantial than they actually are. Why is it that totally or mostly online friendships can seem and feel so deep, yet at the same time, they can be very one-dimensional and fleeting? If I had been near where my friend lives, I would have gone to her home, or had her come to mine. I would have provided a listening ear, food, tissues and comfort. If we had spent more than a part of a day together, in total, I might have had a better understanding of the situation and why it was so difficult for her, and why the questions I was asking seemed hurtful. I might have known better ways to help her or to just be there as a friend. I realized that I only know the parts of her personality and life that show up on the computer screen. I don’t know the full person. While my friend is pretty open, online I’m still not getting the whole picture. I’ve let her know that I’m thinking of her, and thankfully, I don’t think our long term friendship has been harmed, as we’ve talked a bit since. I still hate thinking that I hurt my friend, and will continue to reconcile that within myself, and at the same time, I’m somewhat comforted by my realization that our friendship isn’t a deep abiding thing thing and it doesn’t have to be in order for us to remain friends. It IS a different sort of relationship than my in person friendships, and that’s okay and I’m working on being okay with it.
There are other friends that I miss, and I struggle with reaching out. Maybe it’s the abnormally harsh winter we’re having here in the Midwest – we’ve been spoiled for many years by mild winters. They were always cold, but we didn’t get the piles of snow that we’ve had this year. I find myself missing friends and find myself struggling with my continually evolving friendships. I mourn the loss of friendships, and I catch myself questioning whether or not they were as important to the other party as they were to me. Sometimes I just want to call or text someone and say, “Hi, I miss you.” I’ve done that in the past, and been left disappointed. It sucks to learn that the feeling is not mutual. I struggle and worry that I’m trying too hard to maintain friendships, or conversely, that I’m not trying hard enough. This article, Why Friends Drift Apart, was very helpful, especially the section on “is it time to let go?” Our interests do change, and the things that are important to me now are different than what was important to me when I met someone. I’m realizing that I don’t have things in common anymore with the folks that have drifted away, and that’s okay, too.
Another article, one that just showed up this weekend, was the final push for me. The 5 Types of Friends Everyone Should Have, made me realize that it’s okay that friendships change and for some end. Lives change – heck, just since 2012 I have experienced unplanned job loss and almost a year of unemployment, while at the same time I got engaged and then legally married. Then I spent time job hunting and interviewing all over North America while planning a large formal wedding & reception. Then there was accepting the offer for a new, fantastic position in my field, packing and moving to be near my place of employment. In between, I was trying to maintain friendships, meet friends for coffee or dinner or even a quick snack. Some people do come and go from our lives. Some stick around longer, some we’re stuck with forever, and others are fleeting. It’s okay to miss the ones that have left. It’s okay to mourn the loss of someone who, in the past, was someone I spoke with daily on instant messenger. Clicking “like” or leaving a comment on a Facebook post does not a friendship make. Academic research says that Facebook and the like do have an influence on friendships, but they also ask if such friendships are “real.” And finally, this article, Stuck in the Middle? Exploring Adult Friendships: Part 1, really hits the nail on the head for me. So much of how we define friends is set when we are children, but it’s really not so simple. This paragraph sums things up, and helps me while I struggle with my own buckets. It makes it easier for me to decide where to focus my energies.
Adult friendships are complicated. The best ones make you feel happy, complete, and supported no matter where life takes you. The others, if not properly managed, can suck the life right out of you. Figure out who you want in your life and put your efforts into these relationships. Carefully scrutinize the others and understand what benefits they bring to the table. If the negatives outweigh the benefits, you need to stop trying and let the relationship take its natural path to another bucket.
I’m trying to be a better friend, to all of my friends, in person and online. At the same time, I’m attempting to distance myself from friends that are less than stellar. It’s not easy, but it’s vitally important.