My parents went to a number of funerals this past year — more than their fair share, even during a pandemic. Each death whittled their friend group down by one, and I saw it wear on them.
I can’t imagine. I’ve lost grandparents and pets, gone through rough breakups, but I’ve never said goodbye to a friend while standing over a casket. It forced me to think about how I measure my friendships.
On Facebook, I have 1,882 friends. On Instagram, 669 followers, 848 following. When I count the number of people I’d want to catch up with when visiting their city, it’s probably north of 50. When I think about those I’d want to travel with, 20. Those with whom I could spend structureless weeks at a time with just a card deck in hand, discussing anything from memes to the trading behaviors of mycological networks: around 5.
Let’s be clear, 5 feels like a high number. If there’s a single most identifiable way the universe has smiled on me, it’s by giving me the friends I’ve had. But whether it’s 5, 15, or 50 — the dear, the close, or the known — they all feel infinite to me. They stretch past the curve of the future, their vectors mostly sampled to me by Instagram stories and job updates and, when possible, the in-person catch-up. We’re in Movement I and it is hard for me to fathom this great social fugue ending anytime soon.
But ultimately, it will end — either in sudden silence (if I die early) or over decades of lost harmonies until my lonely central melody is quite clear indeed. This is stark reality, one we all intellectually accept. But it makes me wonder at the season of life I inhabit, where death feels as abstract as dark matter. Sure, it’s there, it moves the universe in profound ways, and its mystery might get us into late-night pontificating over a puff puff pass, but in the end it’s foreign, unimportant. We have death and taxes, and taxes are just way more pressing.
That approach works, at least for us Americans, who bury the dead and do not look back. But sometimes the system sees a stress test. For me, this happened five months ago when Jim Pagels was struck and killed biking in DC.
I never met Jim. But his death sat on my heart. I spent hours combing through news stories and pictures of him. His life paralleled mine and my friends’ in uncanny ways: he was an urbanist (check) who loved economics (check), played a ton of board games, especially Catan (check), and was making his way through IMBD’s top 250 movies (double-check). He tweeted about places where biking felt unsafe (including, eerily, a tweet about one of DC’s many twisted intersections that was published only hours before he was struck and killed). In short, Jim felt like a friend, and the only thing preventing us having been actual friends was circumstance.
Within that circumstance lies a mystery that strikes me when I think about friends: you both choose them and do not. You choose them because it’s up to you who you spend time with. You do not choose them because you have no control over the stream of people who will enter your life, and similarly little control over what pursuits will resonate with you: the passions that frequently form the infrastructure of friendship. James Baldwin puts this as only James Baldwin can: “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
This is an important lesson for two reasons: 1) real friends are indeed mooring posts, and 2) the difficulty of saying “Yes” lies not only in striking up friendships but also in realizing how finite those friendships are.
It’s perhaps rare, in a culture that prides itself on self-sufficiency and the therapy sessions we have to pay for to get it, that we think of friends as not social assets or enjoyable company but mooring posts. And truly, not every friend reaches this level. That’s partially on us: it is hard for the performance-minded among us to choose between the adulation of the crowds and the quiet sturdiness of a single great friendship, and with the barriers to gaining thousands of TikTok fans lower than ever, it’s increasingly hard to reject the dopamine kick of mass applause. But it’s partially a necessary fact: great friends are hard to come by because great friendships require high investment.
And this is where saying Yes comes in. It is by now pretty well-established — by centuries of storytelling but also by longitudinal studies — that the quality of our relationships, rather than our money, fame, or success, best predict our lifelong happiness and even health outcomes. Yet it is far too easy on the margin to deprioritize our friendships in the face of busy professional schedules, time carved out for health & wellness, and frankly the slew of really excellent entertainment that sits at home in our streaming services.
Nothing wrong with these boundaries per se. But the crux here is that we too frequently go down the default path by putting our friendships on autopilot: seeing friends when convenient, reaching out when big events happen, and usually limiting catch-ups to the realm of bullet-list life updates rather than honest discussions of mental states, emotions, rationales & philosophies. My best friend Shota likens friendships to plants that need watering, and I love that imagery, but it’s hard to be a good plant parent.
I for one am bad at this. As an introvert my MO is to generally keep people at a distance. I know this is a terrible excuse, like blaming your bad driving on being an Aries. But the reason I — and I suspect most people — adopt this approach is because I assume it’s more rewarding to present a crafted version of myself to others than myself-as-I-really-am. And the more the delta between that crafted self and the real self grows — and we’re all too aware of that difference, aren’t we? — the less likely we are to reveal the real self. When we all do this, we become ideas and personas to each other, players in a play, not real people. It’s deeply isolating.
I believe humans are social animals before they are rational or creative animals. This century is only going to get weirder. It’s become increasingly clear we cannot rely on institutions for a sense of the familiar as we navigate brave new worlds, even relation-based institutions like nuclear families. We need good friends in an unpredictable world.
But we also need good friends to help us become the best rational & creative animals we can be. We may not generally trust institutions anymore, but we still like our tribes — our GOP or our Democratic Party or our country or our race or our religion and we are more than happy to outsource the majority of our life philosophy to whatever terms our tribe dictates. This is lazy and yields bad fruit. Good friendships are the best avenues by which to lovingly challenge these bad intellectual habits.
What’s the call to action? Call your ̶m̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ friends; don’t wait for them to call. Be happy for their successes, even if they’re more successful than you. If you’re religious, pray for them; if not, meditate on them. Channel your inner Dale Carnegie: show interest in them, don’t try to get them interested in you. When I think of the people in my life to whom friendships fall as easily as manna from heaven, they’re always the ones who greet you with energy, who remember details about your life, who listen well. That sort of enthusiasm can make up for almost any flaw.
But also challenge them. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Press your friends on what they believe and why. If they are hurting themselves through bad habits, be candid. Do as much of it as possible out of love, not for the virtue it signals or the relative status it earns you. Find and treasure friends that will do the same for you, because they are rare, rare, rare. You may only find one. But one is enough to change quite a lot about life.