A Feast Of Friends

By Abak Hussain

There is a widely circulated meme of Jesus Christ in the company of his apostles – it reads: “Nobody talks about Jesus’s miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s.” The meme is darkly funny for just about anyone more than a few years out of high school. The experience of dwindling friendships is a universal one, and it seems to happen no matter how much we arm ourselves with tech designed to keep people in touch – smartphones and apps and real-time connectivity – things that could not have been imagined just one generation ago. It is easy now, in a technical sense, to “keep in touch” disregarding geographical differences, time zone factors, and what once used to be prohibitively expensive long distance phone calls. And yet, adult friendships remain difficult to sustain and even more difficult to start. Even when new friends can be made, say, past 30, something about the intensity of friendships made in youth is lost. It is a little ironic that as we get older, and become savvy enough to navigate the professional world, financially stable enough to frequent restaurants and coffee-shops of our choice, and live in our own homes free from parental supervision, often we feel more and more isolated, more and more alone. What explains this phenomenon of declining friendships?

Photo: James Baldwin

WHY FRIENDS FAIL TO TAKE PRIORITY

In childhood, teens, and even early college years, our friends are our world. Sometimes we become friends with people in these early years for no reason other than proximity. You were randomly assigned to sit next to someone in class when you were 10? That person is now your best friend. You did a few group-building exercises on orientation week at your university (strictly undergraduate of course)? Those people are now your tribe. Friendships in these carefree years happen fast and deep, and take up a large share of our lives.

As we get out into the world and get engaged in a more complex web of activity, it is not that friendship loses its importance. Rather, every other concern gets bigger and bigger until friendship shrinks in relative importance. In other words, buried under a pile of commitments, obligations, opportunistic acquaintances in our social network who demand our time, again and again, true friends fail to take priority.

Also, as our hours and days become increasingly scheduled, the spontaneity of early friendships is also gone. I remember growing up in the quarters in the Dhaka University area – it was not unusual for me, on any given evening when I was feeling a bit bored, to simply pop out of the house and stroll over to my friend’s place just across the street, also in the DU quarters, without even calling first. It did not occur to me that I might be inconveniencing him by just dropping in with no warning. In the afternoons during playtime, my brother’s friends would often stand in a small group in front of our building and yell his name until he came out to play. There was no convenient tech like internet or cell phones to facilitate communication in those days – friendship had its own center of gravity that maintained itself, and mere physical proximity was a large part of what made it possible.

As adults, this all changes. Most of us would no longer be comfortable showing up to the homes of childhood friends unannounced and imposing on their time, nor would we want them to intrude on ours. Our inner child may crave that innocent connection, but too many other things now take precedence. Jobs, marriage, parents – all of these things become non-negotiable, and so friendship, and by friendship I refer to pure platonic friendship with no strings attached, suffers neglect again and again.

Anyone who has tried making plans just to “hang out” with old friends will know how difficult it is. Show up to their building and yell their name until they come out? Forget it. Friendships now require careful and rigorous planning. Are you free next weekend? No, I have an office retreat in Gazipur, how about the weekend after that? No wait, weekends won’t do, it’s complicated … let’s try a weekday. Wednesday? Does dinner work for you? Dinner might be difficult, how about we do a late night coffee? Yeah, but staying out late nights is tough on a school night, especially with the kids having their exams coming up soon. And then both parties sigh, with a resigned “we’ll work something out.” Your boss, your spouse, your kids, your aging parents – it seems that everyone is more important than your friend.

Photo: Chang duong

FRIENDS ARE A CHOICE, NOT A DUTY

Perhaps friendships seem like the easiest category of relationships to ignore because they are entirely our choice. If your boss emails you saying you are needed late at the office, or early on some weekend to manage a crisis, it is not easy to refuse – unless you are also considering turning in your resignation. Around middle age, many are saddled with taking care of elderly parents, and rarely do such duties come at a schedule of your choosing – you have to work around theirs. Marriage and children, needless to say, come with a long list of “non-negotiable” tasks attached with them. We may genuinely crave the company of our friends the most, but in a life full of checklists, friends are a choice and as such, easily dropped.

There is something bittersweet about this. The changing composition of our social circle through time on the one hand reflects growth, change. It would be a tad unfortunate if, in our 30s and 40s, we had nothing better to do than hang out with friends all day, knocking back slices of pizza, letting the day pass by without a care. Each of us has our own growth trajectory, and so, over the years, some friendships die out organically – that is the order of things.

Others lie dormant, neglected for years, separated by physical distance or scheduling conflicts. But if the roots were strong, to your pleasant surprise, you may find the tree has survived. It is then that we are treated to those rare moments of catching up with an old friend – we see that while everything has changed, nothing has changed. In that return to friendship, you may, after all these midlife stressors, feelings of regret and lost opportunities, against all odds, recoup that wonderful sense that true friends are forever. You may get back that exhilarating feeling that life stretches endlessly out in front of you, and your best friends will be there when you really need them, just one call or DM away. It is a miracle Jesus would be proud of.

Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh

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