When we’re kids, a friend is an easy thing to come by. A friend is someone who has the same sneakers on as you and shares a pb&j sandwich on the playground at lunch. A friend is someone you see every day, in neat rows in classrooms, copying off each others’ homework. It’s someone you’re sure will be there when you get off the bus, someone who is a constant in your life, something certain. And school, the cocoon of being placed in the same building day in, day out, and even put into small groups together to do projects, enables us to slip into friendships that have the time and the freedom to form naturally. We find people that are really just like us, who make us feel like we’re not alone in the world, and who stay with us through thick and thin.
And as we get older, and as school turns into classes scattered across a huge campus, and then evaporates completely from our lives — friends become harder to come by. Without the constant socialization and ample free time, a friend is something you have a hard time carving out of your busy life, something that can be dropped from the day planner between the commute home and a trip to the grocery store. It’s easy to find yourself nervous and anxious when meeting new people, or thrust into new social situations, because now finding and maintaining a friendship is something you’ll have to do on your own. It’s something that you’ll have to plan around, make time for, and stay on top of like you would a work project. If you want to see someone, and for them to become a serious part of your life, it’s going to take effort — and a decent amount of risk. It could be, like with a romantic partner that fizzles out after a few tepid dates, that you two just weren’t meant to be.
So often, we settle. In a new career, a new city, a new apartment, we find ourselves stranded in a life where we can’t just call someone up any time of day and go “hang out” like we used to. Making new friends is incredibly intimidating, and even just finding the time to nurture something can be far too taxing. But we fear loneliness, we fear being excluded — so we fill our lives with acquaintances. There are coworkers, whom you talk to, but you probably wouldn’t hang out with if you weren’t forced to socialize. There are neighbors, who have the alluring convenience factor, but often not a lot of substance. There are friends of significant others, who come into your life peripherally and rarely become deep friends of your own. Our lives become filled with brunches, happy hours, dinner parties, and cocktails with people who are nice enough, but with whom we wouldn’t share a secret. With whom we wouldn’t cry. With whom we wouldn’t laugh until our stomachs ached. They are simply people to move around with, people who fill your life and your social calendar, people with whom you pass some time because to not do so would make you rude, would make you strange.
We can go weeks, even months, only being around these people. We can get used to the idea that going out is as much about networking and maintaining appearances as it is about actually enjoying your time. There is a resignation to the general idea that socializing can often be work in a different form — a way to maintain the polite and potentially useful connections you have formed elsewhere. Getting a beer with someone after work hours is something you propose because it seems appropriate, because it’s simply what you do. So what if the conversation’s tedious? So what if you have nothing in common? This is what adults do, right?
But then, a friend comes back into town, or perhaps they just get a break in their newly-packed schedule. For whatever reason, the stars align, and you’re able to be with someone for whom words are not enough. Your friendship — your love — is contained in gestures, in unspoken inside jokes, in discrete looks that say everything, in hugs, and in tear-inducing laughter. You’re reminded of everything that a friend truly is, and the ease with which you can share everything and catch up, with which you can make each other laugh and fundamentally understand is almost unsettling. What have you been missing out on? Have you forgotten that, at one point in your life, you only made time for the people with whom you shared absolutely everything? That the idea of making brittle social engagements with people you know out of necessity would be absurd? It’s as though you’ve forgotten what a friend itself really is, how wonderful it feels, and how affirming it can be of all that we love about life.
Sometimes we don’t thank our friends enough — for being there, for loving us, for being able to exist in the sidelines because of distance or schedules but come back into our lives with full force when the opportunity arrives. Our real friends, whose love and humor can lie dormant for stretches but doesn’t simply die, often go unappreciated. We owe them so much, and they are such a huge part of who we are, but we can often forget that as we construct our own lives. And we’ll surely make new friends as we grow — and are done stumbling into adulthood and everything that comes with it — but they won’t be a replacement, and we shouldn’t forget that. We owe it to ourselves to thank the people who have been there for us, and who remind us that we’ll always be worth more than just a handshake and an empty “we should grab a coffee soon.”