Sometimes it seems like you only show up any more when you want something from me”. An old friend of mine told me that recently. I don’t think I was expecting a sharp prod like that from him. We had been close mates at school, probably even formative for one another at the time, as my dramas and experiences became his and his mine. Since arriving at university we hadn’t really spoken much, but I had written this off early on as a mutual desire to meet new people, assuring myself that we could always hang out again and reconnect if we wanted. This declaration hit me like a truck. There was a real pang to being told that, a lingering guilty conscience that I couldn’t shrug off for weeks. Am I a bad friend? Have I deserted people I was close to just to hang out with my Oxford mates? Do I ask more of those around me than they do me? Each question frightened me, and it made me begin to worry that I treated all my friends this way. When those connections mean so much to us, to be told that we don’t act like it can make us feel like we’re ungrateful, needy, or self-centred.
There was some truth to what he had said: I wasn’t wrong to spend my fresher year making friends, but I had done much more friend-making than friend-keeping. Keeping friends can be hard, in some ways harder than making them. There are the bigger commitments, sure. It means putting upwith one another’s flaws even if they start tograte on you, it means sticking by mates when they’ve got themselves into a tough spot, it means being around for the low points as well the high ones. When the big stuff tests (or ends) a friendship, it’s hard not to notice. Bust-ups over petty things or mistrust caused by the fog of rumours can wedge people apart suddenly and often permanently. Relationships may even be tested by a person’s character. What do I do if I truly believe your friend is in the wrong? What do I do if they won’t repent or admit that they’re causing pain to others? Am I a bad friend for cutting them adrift or a bad person for allowing bad things to go unchallenged? Worries like this can plague our minds in a that can make us wonder if friendship means being uncritically supportive.
This was a different kind of worry, though. Along with the bigger things, friendship also means smaller, less grand gestures. Remembering to text back. Checking up every now and then. Asking how they’re feeling. Term-time can be a blizzard of to-dos, as we suddenly find ourselves immersed in essays, tutorials, societies, drama, relationships, drinking. It’s one thing to meet the larger challenges, but the smaller things can be easier to forget. In the middle of all the stuff, we sometimes risk losing sight of maintaining these important connections. The worry is that we, with no bad things to warrant our departure, have left our friend’s lives without caring to look back.
Had I, then, lost sight of my friends? I was doing myself no good by agonising on my I own, so I asked them. A few people admittedthat I had definitely been around less this termthan they might have hoped. That was true of most of us though: pressure had tightened our schedules and exhausted us, and after hours of work it began to feel more comforting towatch Netflix in bed than to go to the collegebar (or, god forbid, to Bridge). It didn’t make us bad friends or bad people: it just made us slightly burned out. Few of us are so extroverted that we can be social all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting it to ourselves.
Maybe I was worrying too much. If I had people who cared enough to wish I was around more, I can’t have been doing toowrong by them. Introspecting was fine insmall doses, but talking to others showed me that my questions were preoccupying in a way that, itself, prevented me from hanging out and enjoying myself. I can write as many obnoxiously cautioning paragraphs about keeping friends as I like, but the truth is so long as you make the reconnection and start back up, spending time with a proper friend becomes effortless. After I had that conversation with my school-mate I saw him a few days later. We caught up and entertained ourselves over a few drinks with anecdotes from our time so far at uni. After a couple hours we went out clubbing, and fuelled by tequila and VKs we danced (awfully) to Avicii songs well into the early morning. The night turned out to be one of my favourites since I arrived at university, and it reminded me what I had missed of him. Why, then, did I continue to mope for weeks after over whether we were still friends? In the end, all it had taken was a prod to rekindle the fun in our relationship, and then we were buzzing with re-discovered chemistry. The sooner I realised that, the sooner I could get on with my life.
So I pulled out of it. I had to. Feeling lonely wasn’t just something that would affect my social sphere. It was something that would begin to keep me from meeting my deadlines, or turning up to meetings, or wanting to do anything else but wallow. With more than a little help from friends, I eventually got over myself. We ate together more, went clothes-shopping from time to time. Even a couple afternoons spent doing nothing did us a world of good, so long as we were doing nothing together.
I hadn’t been wrong or malicious to stop seeing my friend. I had maybe just become a little lazy. I lost myself in other things. But it also wasn’t doing me any good to get myself down over whether or not I saw people enough, or whether I gave enough back. When we question our relationships, self- doubt can obscure from us what we do well, how much we others really enjoy our company and how much we really do give back to them just by being around. Rather than an assessment, our worries can become a bashing, a distorted criticism that doesn’t do ourselves justice.
So long as we receive occasional prods from our friends, and so long as we don’t make it something more, we allow ourselves to continue to be dependable, available, and enjoyable. When it works, you can just feel it, and that brief and modest thought “I’m so glad I get to be friends with you” is one of the happiest in the world.