The Ambivalence of Long-Lost Friends
Updated: Jul 27, 2019
When we stop being friends with someone, we often say, "Oh, we lost touch." The phrase implies a benign inevitability to the demise of certain kinds of friendship. And sometimes it's accurate—people move on with their lives. We're mostly wired for the present and immediate future, so it makes sense that so many friendships fall to the wayside. But it's also true that the layers of connection with long-lost friendships are wired deeply into our brains. Occasionally, a forgotten friend will pop into my head for no apparent reason while I'm in a certain painful yoga pose, or pulling dinner plates down from the shelf, and then just as quickly they retreat back into my bustling brain. It could be years before that person surfaces again.
Sometimes long-lost friends I haven't thought about in ages get in touch and I'm delighted to hear from them, a misplaced part of my identity suddenly retrieved. This happened recently when I heard from a mutual friend who reconnected us via group text. My ambivalence about not being on Facebook resurfaced. After all, he'd searched for me, found nothing, and wondered if I were dead. Would I be a happier person if I was more readily findable to my "lost touch" friends? We engaged in a flurry of texting for about an hour, and then abruptly stopped around dinnertime. After all, we both have families and responsibilities. It's entirely possible we won't communicate again for another decade, despite our enthusiasm for a reunion of all our college friends. Mostly, I felt happy to be found, to be thought of, and I admire that he took the time to reach out. And how wonderful to realize that because I held him dear to my heart all those years ago, he still resides there. This must be true for hundreds of people I have once known, many of them former students. Even when I don't think of them, in some real way they live inside me, and should we cross paths again, it will feel like a gift to reconnect, however briefly.
Sometimes friends remember you, but you can't remember them. Recently, an acquaintance ran into someone who knew me in college, and even produced a college-days picture of me on their phone, and when I looked up the person on my wife's Facebook account (that's how I cheat when necessary), I had no memory of her whatsoever. This is disconcerting because it certainly means I remember people who have no memory of me. I'm pretty sure one of them is Monica Lewinsky, who I knew slightly in college. I probably only remember her now for . . . well, obvious reasons. Famous people have it tougher in this regard—everyone grabs a little piece of them.
There's another category of long-lost friend who instead of popping into my brain at strange and infrequent moments, I actually find myself thinking about quite often. If I had a Facebook account, I would probably be tempted to poke around in their lives, just to see what they ate on their last vacation. As it is, I choose to mostly just wonder about these friends and do nothing about reconnecting. Hardly anyone writes letters anymore—the annual holiday card with a two-sentence personal note is as close as most of us get—but finding people has never been easier. Why do I resist making an effort with some of these long-lost friends? Perhaps it's because these friends occupy a crucial emotional landscape that knowing them now might destroy? Perhaps thinking fondly of certain friends from our past is an essential component of our lives that should not be so-easily tampered with.
I tried Facebook once. Several years ago, a childhood friend got in touch via email, and said I should join the Facebook group for alumni of the small international school we attended in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I grew up. I was probably a little in love with her back then, but she was older than me by a few years and seemed impossibly mature and wise. Mostly, I remember that she was the person I went to (furiously peddling my bike to her house) after hearing the news that my parents were getting a divorce. So joining Facebook seemed like a good idea, and I soon began reconnecting with several close friends from childhood. But after a few months, I decided I didn't much like knowing them now; I wanted to preserve my memories of them from childhood. It felt strange to see their domestic lives as adults, like it was eroding the connective tissue of memories that helped shape me as a person. So I quietly deleted my account. I am sure there are Facebook groups for the many chapters of my life: the boarding school I attended in India, Clown College, and Ringling Brothers Circus; acting school in New York, and the list goes on. But those chapters of my life are over, and it feels most natural to think of those friends through the lens of receded days.
Some old friendships have endured, of course. Why some and not others is harder to understand. My friend Greg and I have spoken on the phone almost every week for twenty-five years. He lives in Denver now, part-time, so we often have lunch once a week. I can't imagine my life without him. My three close friends from high school and I have maintained contact and see each other occasionally. We too are planning a reunion of some type. I have another friend from high school whom I think of quite often and have sent her a holiday card for several years, but I never get one in return. We had a complicated relationship which included sporadic romantic involvement, so perhaps I am one of those people she just wishes would remain in the past. My long-time college girlfriend and I played "Words with Friends" on our phones for a while, but she was much better than me and I got tired of losing all the time. But I miss being in touch with her, and often wonder how she's doing. Then again, she ended up marrying a mutual friend from college, and I'm not sure he was thrilled to have me still hanging around so many years later.
Significant ambivalence is reserved for the category of old friend that I am still in touch with, but can't quite figure out why. Sometimes it's one-sided effort: I value their friendship so I reach out, we sporadically connect, but the effort is never reciprocated. So I'm constantly asking myself, "Is this worth maintaining?" "Do they even still want to be friends with me?" "Why do I always have to do all the work?" And then there are friends who are doing this with me and asking themselves the same questions. "Why do I keep bothering with that guy?" they ask themselves when I take forever to write back, or cancel plans and never reschedule.
None of us has address books anymore, but I can clearly remember the times I needed a new address book and had to painstakingly copy down all the information from the old one. There were always people to decide whether it was worth the effort of including or just leave them out entirely. I just looked through my phone contacts and out of 192 contacts, I could delete perhaps half or more and it wouldn't inconvenience me in the slightest. I wouldn't even know most of them were gone. When I am busy during the school year—just managing to keep up with job and family responsibilities—I hardly think of long-lost friends. But during the summer when I slow down, or sometimes in my dreams, I notice how they still percolate through my life, emotional threads reaching back through time. These friends are with me, whether I am paying attention or not, and perhaps the older I get, as more and more of my time on earth is behind me, these long-lost friends will start to haunt me with increasing frequency, and I will be compelled to give Facebook another try.