“I haven’t talked to Joe in years, but I know that if I were stranded and called him, he’d drop everything and come pick me up.”
I hear that a lot. It’s great to have friends who will bail you out of a tough situation, who’ll always answer your call at 2 AM, who will fly around the world to help you in an emergency. Even if you haven’t spoken to them in a long, long time.
These “2 AM friends,” as I refer to them, tend to be old childhood buddies, old roommates, or family friends who, for whatever reason, you no longer talk to or see often. There’s nevertheless real closeness and unbreakable trust. They play a similar role as family. I have a couple 2 AM friends.
But 2 AM friends, for all the joy and help they provide in times of need, do not nourish or invigorate my day to day life, almost by definition, as I’m not talking to them on a week to week or month to month basis. Sure, there’s some abstract sense of meaning I get from reflecting on my relationship with them, but it’s just that — abstract. And, sadly, that feeling weakens with every passing day.
I’m a big believer in staying in touch with people (via email, phone, in-person visits) to keep up relationships. I’ve always been mildly skeptical of the phrase “we pick up right where we left off.” If months and months of time have passed without any real communication, and if you or the friend are living reasonably dynamic lives, it’s going to take awhile to re-sync emotionally and intellectually. Even if there’s a lot of shared history in the past.
It takes a heck of a lot of time and energy to keep up with friends, of course. Time and money beyond just ‘liking’ social media updates. Joys and frustrations. All to be done in a culture where there are no broadly accepted social norms about how to “do” friendship. In the world of romance, there are a million and a half articles and guideposts for how to date, how long to wait before you call, what you should expect two years into a relationship, and so on. In the friendship maintenance department, there’s basically nothing. As Andrew Sullivan put it, it takes no work to fall in love. It takes real work to rise to a real and lasting friendship.
Some people’s lot in life is so unlucky that they haven’t been able to keep up with anyone — they have no one to list as an emergency contact number on a medical form.
Other people are fortunate enough to have that 2 AM friend to list, but then few other people with whom they share their day to day, week to week, month to month journey. If the emergency contact person isn’t the same as the day to day friend, and frequently they’re not, then this is the scenario I’m interested in: how can we appreciate the unique joys of a friend who’s part of our lives as our lives unfold? How can we work to strengthen those bonds and not fall back on solely the 2 AM friends?
In Empire Falls, there’s this line by Richard Russo which has stuck with me: “One of the odd things about middle age was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.”