I woke up this morning alongside a thumb-scroll of my Instagram feed. It’s not a place I hang out much anymore (*thinks of Facebook as a parent corporation* *shudders*) but I had a notification to check.
And there, bam. A post by the adult daughter of a former friend put a knot in my stomach, a reminder that I used to be friends with her parent … and now I’m not.
Losing friends in your 40s sucks. I’m not referring to people dying (that sucks worse). I mean…. just …. losing a friend.
A taxonomy of lost friendships as an adult is shockingly dull. You stopped hanging out because you don’t have anything in common anymore. Or you had a falling out, probably rather low-key and passive. Probably so low-key that you can’t put an end-point on things, just a realization that you haven’t talked in a while, and your text history reveals that “while” to be more than a year.
Adult friendships are incredibly fragile if they weren’t formed in childhood. There’s something magical and malleable about the younger self and the fiery forges of “coming of age” and going to school. Other than military service or similarly intense group experiences, adult personalities rarely re-enter the fires of Blacksmith of Life to be reheated, made malleable, reforged to meld two people together as friends— rather than merely reshaping what’s already in an individual.
John Donne wrote about the power of someone else’s suffering to reshape not only the sufferer, but particularly to reshape those who watch. He called such borrowed experience the gold coin of suffering, one that only others can spend. But even that is not a blacksmith’s forge; I have admired many of my friends who survived cancer or the death of a child or their own battles against mental illness, but their travails do not make me friends with them. The shared experience required to create a friendship lies elsewhere.
Adult personalities rarely re-enter the fires of the Blacksmith of Life to be reheated, made malleable, reforged to meld two people together as friends.
I find it curious, this nub of pain where I used to have a connection. I pause to examine it, roll it between my fingers, pinch it a bit so I feel the ouch. It hurts more than nearly all other lost connections from the past few years. Why is this one special?
I’ve shed probably hundreds of acquaintances through natural attrition in the past five years: job changes, social circle alterations, the isolation of the pandemic’s social distancing alongside the closure of nearly any hangout-spot or movie theater or indoor eatery. A quick jump to my Facebook profile reveals I still have over 1100 “friends.” Good lord, I’m not sure I even “know” 100 people any more. I’ve muted a few hundred of those folks for foolish posts and unfriended at least a dozen racists. I could probably delete half of the 1100 on Facebook without noticing they are gone.
Adult existence is so tribal. The veneer of civilization lies thickly atop what is essentially a feral survival mechanism: join a tribe — or several tribes, so long as no individual tribe truly overlaps the domain of another. I can map my social trajectory by my tribal alliances: job and career arcs, employment, religious affiliations, community organizations, my little street with the 30 or so houses in our neighborhood.
My lost friend and I orbited near the center of one very defined tribe, each of us filling key roles, until I left it a few years ago. We were visible to the whole community through our work. They still are visible whereas I left. Ah, there it is – the great betrayal of adult life – getting too far out of sight.
Adult friendships often are not strong bonds forged in a fiery furnace, except in rare moments. They are more like links of a chain — sometimes bent firmly into place and able to withstand a lot of strain — but more often just happening to clink together due to proximity and happenstance. The links fall apart, the connection breaks. You text each other a couple times and then… you both stop, and neither of you has the energy to pinch the links back together.
I think I hurt because I thought my friend and I had forged something they would find worthy of keeping. I thought the years of shared experience were our blacksmith’s hammer welding the two pieces of iron into a single steel. I thought we’d be able to survive some distance, specifically my departure from the circle that had wrapped us together for so long. I thought our mutual interests, our shared hobbies, our joint loves would serve as a new focus for our orbit. Guess I was wrong.
I had expectations, but they turned out to be ill-founded. There’s the sting of it.
I read recently, I think an essay in Wired, about a man going to his cognitive behavioral therapist who told him, You can’t change other people’s behavior but you can control your reaction to it. You can change your expectations rather than expecting people to change their behavior.
Nobody wants to go through life setting an “expectations” contract with the people with whom they strike up a friendship. But we build these binding agreements in our heads anyway.
I sit today with a deep sense of loss, because I valued the friendship we had and I thought it would be something I would enjoy well into the future.
Perhaps this reflection is my Stone of Commemoration, my Eben-Ezer, to a friendship now gone, and I can leave my grief here to visit it from time to time. Because there’s nothing to be gained by keeping hold of the hurt.