Losing Friends, Holding On To Others

02/01/2017 17:34 GMT | Updated 17/12/2017 10:12 GMT
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Before I moved across the Atlantic to Boston, I was given two pieces of advice. First, I wouldn't be able to predict which friends would remain in contact. I was led to believe some I held closer would drift away while others who appeared peripheral might head in the opposite direction. It was not entirely heartening, true as it has proven. The second piece seemed more straightforward. With modern communications, maintaining relationships over long distances is easy. Now that one's accurate only so far as it doesn't fall into conflict with the first advice.

This came to mind when I found myself thinking about the number six the other day. This magical digit marked my formative years. In primary school, onto secondary school, and finally university, I found myself amongst a group of six friends. I'm not really sure what it is about the number. Maybe six people are enough to allow smaller groupings to form without becoming too unwieldy when together, or it could be an entirely random reoccurrence. Either way, it's the go-to grouping of my life so far. Even while I recall the repetition of the number, I struggle to remember all the people, important though they undoubtedly were at the time.

As I contemplate returning to the UK for Christmas after a year away, it's interesting to note what has and hasn't changed. When everyone is relatively close, even if contact has lapsed, it always seems possible to restore communications. Emails and direct messaging seem a handy workaround. It's not turned out like that though. Crossing an ocean introduces more than just geographic difference into the equation. The switch in time zones leaves me out of sync, while the change of culture further distances the shared life experiences that cause people to come together in the first place.

Contact is certainly simpler on a practical level. Gone are the days when a slow boat across the Atlantic shipped all mail. The post in general hardly figures, barring the odd card. My communication network has moved online. Sitting on my sofa here in Massachusetts, I can chat via text with everyone. I can even talk on the phone, though who does that anymore? Video messaging, I will concede, has a role to play, but it's not a good mode for casual conversation.

To keep relationships ticking over, they can't turn into a stilted dance, complete with set hours. Were I only to speak to friends back in the UK with rigorously scheduled video sessions, the whole thing would collapse under its own formality. Really I just want to talk about films, or books, or the weather, and a thousand other mundane items that warrant no special treatment. And I can but that doesn't mean the friendships remain the same.

Like most people I found my friends through education or work. They were the people I spent a significant proportion of my week with, the people who, if only for a brief time, shared the same concerns. I listened when I was told to expect changes, and I heard but didn't really believe. When it's so easy to keep the conversation going, why would it ever stop?

I should have paid more attention. It's gone exactly as I was told it would. A year on and with some I've grown closer, with others I've drifted apart. It's really only a speeding up of the natural process though. The reason I'm no longer in touch with any of those other five people who formed my first group of six is because we ceased to be relevant to each other's lives. I barely remember their names. I imagine they don't remember me.

This process of relationship disintegration can seem sad, and in a way it is, but it's not a bad thing. It certainly doesn't invalidate friendships that fail to last the distance. Just because a person no longer has a place in my life, it doesn't mean the impact they had at the time wasn't important. Most people are only a temporary part of any life, fulfilling a role while both are at the same stage. When circumstances change, the foundations friendships are built on shift, tearing most of them down.

Except of course tearing gives the wrong impression. It's rarely dramatic. A long period of degradation sets in. Messages decrease, meetups are cancelled. Soon you might only see the other person in a group setting, then not at all. It's possible to reignite the spark, but it's also rare. Perhaps sustained effort could do it. There's also a reason that effort isn't forthcoming anymore. Sometimes there's nothing more to say. Nostalgia, beautiful embrace that it is, cannot substitute for a real connection. Save that for a reunion dinner.

I'm not really sure why the number six came to mind, but it did draw attention to the shift many of my close relationships have undergone, a shift no amount of electronic communication can alter. I wonder if I were to move back to London now, would everything revert to the way it was before? It's possible, but unlikely. I'm not the same now, neither are the people I find have inched away from my life. Our paths have diverged because they had to; because the deeper ties that mark the small handful of friendships that will carry through my life were absent.

The loss of friends occurs naturally, providing little in the way of disquiet unless you draw attention to the process. If I stay away another year, my personal landscape will have altered all over again. No amount of WhatsApp conversations or Skype sessions can change the fact most relationships are not built to last. It makes the ones that are even more special.