How the Coronavirus Shutdown Rekindled Our Appreciation of Friendship
One of the many things quarantine revealed to us is what deeply social creatures we are — exactly how much we crave interaction with people who aren’t linked to us by blood or law.
I was five years old when I met my first best friend.
It was summertime, and both of our families had just moved to town. She and I were left on our own in the tiled lobby of the neighborhood elementary school while our moms registered us for kindergarten. As we entertained ourselves playing hide-and-seek around a big stone column, our mothers inside the office were realizing that we were neighbors. Her family lived two doors down, it turned out, in the red-brick colonial that backed up to some woods and the winding, muddy river that ran through our town.
From that day forward, I was allowed to walk down the street — all alone! — to go see my friend. It was a trip I’d make — on foot, on skates, by bike, driving my first car — thousands of times over the next 13 years. I can’t begin to recount the adventures that we squeezed into that time, or how a person’s voice and smell and every little tic can get imprinted in your brain — though I probably don’t need to, because you had a first best friend, too. Instead, I’ll just tell you that we spent time of one sort or another together nearly every day until we finally split off to different colleges in different states.
More than three decades have passed; I’ve lived in four different cities and at least a dozen homes since then, and I’ve grown to love many more people. But it’s still those places — the woods, that river, Leisha’s house — that are the backdrop to most of my dreams. For some reason, Leisha herself is rarely in them, but the footprint of my friend is everywhere: There’s the low-lying treehouse where we’d take our homework; the porch swing where we’d try (and fail) to harmonize songs we’d learned at camp; the backyard in which we organized neighborhood kickball games and, later, posed for prom pictures; the rocky embankment by the water where, full of the solemnity of an 11-year-old who’d just read Bridge to Terabithia, I told her that when we died, we should have our ashes scattered there, in the river. Together.
One of the many things that the coronavirus quarantine revealed to us is what deeply social creatures we are — exactly how much we crave interaction with people who aren’t linked to us by blood or law. Barely a week in, there we were, already improvising strange new little happy hours, staring gamely at friends’ faces on our computers and drinking gin-and-tonics in our respective basements and kitchens and offices. We needed the comfort of (virtual) company in our sudden, discomfiting isolation. We worried aloud about people who didn’t have this comfort.
One of the many things that the coronavirus quarantine revealed to us is what deeply social creatures we are — exactly how much we crave interaction with people who aren’t linked to us by blood or law.
Of course, scientists had already been telling us this for years. There are piles of research showing that nurturing our platonic relationships leads to solace in times of need, plus better health, lower stress levels, better careers and longer lives — and that’s just for starters. A story about friendship that I read last year in the New York Times cited a study that tracked women with breast cancer; the ones who didn’t have close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. “Notably,” the Times pointed out, “proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective.” Also? Having a spouse didn’t impact survival rates. It was just the friends.
Human beings have always instinctively known these things — if not the specifics, then certainly the idea that there’s something magical about the bond between close friends. This is, I think, why Tom and Huck have managed to stick around against the odds; why the story of Ruth and Naomi still rings true; why those kids from Harry Potter are so indomitable. Hollywood gets it, too: For every rom-com, there’s a movie about friends that’s at least as resonant: Butch Cassidy had the Sundance Kid. Andy had Red. Thelma had Louise. Clairee had Ouiser. The boys from Stand By Me had each other. And so on, and on.
I actually think about Stand By Me a lot these days. In case you missed it, that film — an adaptation of a Stephen King novella — is a coming-of-age adventure about a group of four adolescent boys who set off to find the dead body of a missing boy in their town. Thanks to some inexplicable lapse in my parents’ judgment, I saw the movie the summer I was eight. The plot was built around bad guys, bad language, hilarity, heroism and hopelessness, but above all, it was a story about the deep, unfiltered, unself-conscious, life-shaping friendships of our youth. Even as a second-grader, I saw that. The last lines in particular stuck with me:
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” says the narrator, who is one of the boys, grown up. “Jesus, does anyone?”
Did you know it takes 200 hours to make close friends? And not just 200 passive hours, but 200 hours spent actually talking, sharing experiences. And so, sure: The 2,000 or so adolescent hours I spent with Leisha — and then, in later years, with the little foursome of inseparable girlfriends that grew out of our twosome — are absolutely impossible to replicate. Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, two of my most beloved musical heroes, said it (well, sang it) best: You can’t make old friends.
I do think, however, that to pinpoint the magic to the age of 12 is a tad narrow: The wistfulness that Stand By Me and stories of that ilk generate is really about all the friendships we were able to forge before the walls of adulthood started going up.
For me, that also meant softball friends with whom I’d spend long, miserably hot summers fielding grounders and braiding hair before games. Later, there were college-dorm friends knit together by little more than openness and circumstance (40 girls sharing four showers!), then grad-school pals, all of us submerged together in those strange academic waters, then the friends I’d make in jobs throughout my 20s, in a haze of happy hours and dinners and constant, unfettered access to each other. My point here is that these friendships, too, were deep, unfiltered, unself-conscious, life-shaping.
Here’s what I can say about my friendscape now, or at least what I can say about it before we were all in quarantine: I have been trying to see one of my best, dearest Philly friends since this past winter. She lives in Bella Vista; I live in Fairmount. We’ve made lunch dates and drink dates and reserved a Saturday for the spa, and yet none of these things have materialized — not for lack of love, but because we have full-time jobs and children with their own social circles and partners with theirs and parents and the sorts of lives that can make even a little bit of quality friend time a laughably tall order for long stretches.
Alas, this is true with more friends than not in my life — old and new, near and far. Long before a pandemic socially isolated everyone and took all the friendships online, texting was already my lifeline, and spending actual time with friends felt more like a luxury than the staple it once was. Forget deep and unfiltered; we’re lucky to get fleeting and uninterrupted.
What I’m saying is that friendship in middle age — and in 2020 — is different. Harder, in many ways. Lonelier, sometimes. And certainly less cinematic. What kind of plot could possibly revolve around two women whose shared adventures mostly consist of sending Internet memes back and forth?
Statistically speaking, you’ll never have more friends than you had when you were 25. That’s the age at which researchers from Oxford and Aalto universities found that the friend groups we’ve spent a lifetime building up begin to shrink, mostly thanks to focus shifting toward romantic partners, families, careers. As a new set of priorities emerges and we age into ourselves, we begin to slough off friends who aren’t deemed “inner circle” material. Consciously or not, we get more choosy — less “socially promiscuous” — about the people we want to let into our lives.
Naturally, very little of this is reflected on social media, which encourages us to prize friend quantity over quality to a degree most of us haven’t felt since middle-school sleepover parties. Now, we stay in super-loose touch with hundreds of people we might have otherwise dropped from our mental Rolodexes. This isn’t all bad — some of those people bring blips of joy to the chasm of despair that is the internet, or tug loose a memory of the person you used to be. Also, you do occasionally hear about the odd person who’s rekindled an old relationship online and made the move into real life, but these stories seem rare enough to border on urban legend.
By and large, it’s safe to say, the vast majority of our social media friends — even the ones we enjoy — aren’t our friends. Not really. As one of the study’s authors told CNN: “The Internet may allow you to keep a relationship going over a much wider geographical area, but … a shoulder 2,000 miles away isn’t as good to cry on.”
Even beyond the lure of faux internet camaraderie, and time, and competing priorities, there are other obstacles that complicate our friendships as we age. For example: You don’t mean to judge people for their parenting style, but how can you possibly have an abiding, no-holds-barred relationship with someone who believes that saying the word “no” to their offspring will damage the child’s confidence? (I’ve tried it. You can’t.) And different politics? In 2020? Ha. Good luck with that.
Money, too, a pal of mine points out, can be a barrier between friends. (I should note, I guess, that she’s a friend I met through work who lives in this city and whom I never, ever see socially.)
“Who has money and who doesn’t is an unspoken factor with some of my group,” she says. There’s the public/private school divide; there’s the pressure to pretend you’re not wowed by your friend’s three-week family tromp through Europe; there are the pals without jobs planning weekday friend outings. (Aw, you can’t do SoulCycle at 10 a.m. on Tuesday? Bummer!) “Whether or not you have disposable income does become a thing,” she says: It’s hard to be your true, unfiltered self with someone when you’re tiptoeing around potential awkwardness land mines.
Even Philadelphia can be a wall at times, she adds. “Moving here in 2016 as a 38-year-old, I misjudged how hard it would be to make friends. I had a cool job, I’m an interesting person, I had children in school — and so I had in my head that it would be easy.” It wasn’t. Not to say that Philly is provincial, but … “Some of the other parents I met from school had gone to that same school 40 years ago. They had their friends. They didn’t need me.”
It’s not just the Gen-Xers: Bree Saya is a 28-year-old who lived in Philly for three years after college, moved away, and then came back in December. Before the COVID quarantine, she was in the process of working to rebuild a friend group. Emphasis on the working part. “Philly is both a big city and also really small,” she says. “I’ve found that people are already in groups, and for me, the artistic people and the creatives that I’m trying to connect with are all already connected. In, like, the art world and the coffee world, everyone knows everyone already. It feels a lot smaller than the city really is.”
Given all these hurdles, it’s amazing that any adult here or anywhere else ever manages to forge or maintain true, life-sustaining friendships. But then again, plenty don’t. In 2018, health-care behemoth Cigna published a survey showing that nearly half of us “sometimes or always feel alone” or “left out”; 13 percent of the people polled reported zero people who knew them well. And though much ado has been made over the aging boomers as the ostensible epicenter of American loneliness, this survey (and others) have indicated that existential isolation is actually getting worse in each successive generation, right on down to Gen Z. It’s the youngest people surveyed whose loneliness scores top the charts — the most “connected” generation living in the most connected moment in history that’s struggling the most to know or feel known by other people.
In this strange, silent COVID season, it’s been impossible not to philosophize — probably too much — about how life as we’ve lived it is going to change.
It strikes me that our friendships might get a real boost. That perhaps they already have. For one thing, 200 free hours suddenly doesn’t sound so nuts. But also, I’ve lost track of all the essays talking about the phenomenon Twitter quickly dubbed #socialclosening: It’s 2020’s version of old home week. In between reporting bits of breaking news, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted: “Did a zoom today with my college buddies, scattered all over the world, and it was great to just laugh with a bunch of knuckleheads again about what idiots we all are. Recommend it.” But he didn’t need to advertise: Just about everyone I know — including my 69-year-old parents — was talking to friends again, on Skype, on FaceTime, on Zoom. Within the first two weeks of isolation, I talked to five separate friend groups — people whose faces I hadn’t seen in months or, in one case, years. One writer friend I know described to me how overjoyed she was to finally connect with her best college friends “after almost a year of communicating just through texts and maybe a handful of phone calls.”
All it took was a life-altering global catastrophe.
But as great as it was to have that time, she told me, the relative lack of contact before this moment hasn’t really put a meaningful dent in their relationship. “I don’t think there is any one way to be a great friend, honestly,” she says. Their relationship had changed since college, sure, but touching base every six months or so has been enough to keep the spark alive. “I think maybe our friendships all stay sort of the same now, except in really dire circumstances — a death, a divorce, a pandemic — until we’re old and have more time to sit in rocking chairs and shoot the shit. I think knowing we have that when the time comes is enough. At least, for me it is.”
And as it happens, it’s in those later, slower years that our friendships are most vital. Yet another study — this one from Michigan State in 2017 — showed that while family ties remain steadily important to us throughout our lives, the value of friendship actually has an increasing return the older we get, particularly in terms of keeping us happy and healthy. Meaning that by the time we’re in the old folks’ home, we need friends more than ever.
Not to be melodramatic, but sometimes I actually worry about this. Have I been doing enough to keep the spark alive for the long term? Shouldn’t I be investing more in my once and future best friends? Never mind planning for the ashes-in-the-river moment: Whom will I hang out with until that moment comes?
Meantime, in the same Times story that made note of friends’ role in surviving breast cancer, the writer, Tara Parker-Pope, suggested that consistency in friendship matters far more than frequency. Her most compelling evidence was her mother-in-law, who’d made a joyful ritual out of the annual reunions of her college cheerleader squad for the past 60 years.
I’m heartened by this, in part because I am myself nearing year 20 of annual summer get-togethers with Leisha and the other two girls who make up our little foursome. (Excuse me; I should say “women,” which is what we are now, even though we still think of each other as the girls we used to be. That’s the deal with childhood friendships: You might have grown up to be someone truly impressive, like a state senator or Jake Tapper, but with your old pals, you’re still just the brainy one, or the wild one, or the funny one, or whatever you were at 14. There’s no escaping it.)
That’s the deal with childhood friendships: You might have grown up to be someone truly impressive, like a state senator or Jake Tapper, but with your old pals, you’re still whatever you were at 14.
Anyway, this group has maintained our yearly catch-up despite — no, because of — the fact that we’ve grown apart. This is true both literally (we live in three different states) and also a bit figuratively: My most compelling evidence is a moment two summers ago when a pair of us wound up weeping together in the bathroom over a minor political disagreement. Life and time make it impossible to keep some walls from going up. But once a year, at least, we do our best to vault over them.
Last summer, though, we missed our chance. Someone had a new job, couldn’t get away; plans for a fall getaway never stuck. I was mildly disappointed, but I didn’t dwell. And then, suddenly, it was spring, and the world turned upside down. And somewhere in those frenzied, confused early days, while we were trying to adjust to the concept of social distancing, I read the news that Kenny Rogers had died. Over the next few weeks, I sat in my basement alone, attempting to work, hiding from my kids, and listening to Kenny and Dolly on a loop:
You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
It was me and you, since way back when.
But you can’t make old friends.
Eventually, I texted the girls: “Hey, y’all wanna Zoom?”
And so we did. It’s astonishing how quickly we’ve all adjusted to this new virtual reality. It’s equally astonishing how voices sound the same over Macs, how those old tics still come out in a 45-minute online call. Like other old friends — like all kinds of friends, actually — we sat there alone, staring gamely into our computers at each other. We planned our next online get-together and wondered with the rest of the world: Why haven’t we been doing this all along?
But, also like everyone else in the world, we talked about how great it would feel this summer, or whenever the world allows it, to all be in the same place, finally together again and catching up on everything we’ve been missing.
Published as “A Few Good Friends” in the June/July 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.