Are childhood friendships overrated? Are adult friendships, based on shared interests, the only friendships that have a chance of lasting?
We are social beings. Friendships define our formative years and influence who we are going to be. Interestingly, barring a few years in the middle—which are defined by a yearning and search for romantic love—the early decades of our lives as well as the later ones are all about the connections we make with other human beings we aren’t interested in sleeping with. To that end, friends play a greater role in our lives than our partners, spouses or lovers ever will.
However, out of all the friendships that we forge as children, only a few withstand the test of time. When I consider my childhood friends, I realise that there are just a few I like hearing from.
Having spent my early years as a member of an itinerant family—I was the child of an army officer—with each posting I gradually lost touch with those I had once imagined life impossible about. These were girls I hadn’t needed language to communicate with, there had been understood silences, unspoken vows, and, with one of them, even a secret language. And yet, time and distance dulled the emotional memory of what we had once shared.
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Then along came Facebook, compelling us track each other down. We fervently added long-lost connections to our ever-expanding list of “friends” and basked in the joy of imagined reunions in the future. Phone calls were made, long nostalgic conversations followed and ended with promises to meet each other soon.
In the case of most of the once “close” friends I reconnected with on Facebook however, I realised I had little to say in subsequent conversations. I learnt through their repeated efforts to revive our old affections that what was shared in the past was between two people who had little in common in the present. While sentimentality for the bond we shared decades ago made me seek them out, the disconnect between our lives drove me away almost immediately.
We spoke differently, we understood life differently…we inhabited different microcosms. It hadn’t taken me long to understand, from their posts and comments, that while they were perfectly lovely women, some of them had become people I might not have chosen to be close to had I encountered them today. On evidence, we had been transformed intellectually into different people over the years.
Two of such friends unfriended me on Facebook after a few years, having perhaps realised the one-sided nature of the renewed friendship between us. I felt responsible for their disappointments. Had I been too disinterested, too cold, I wondered. Had I made them feel rejected unintentionally?
A few years later, WhatsApp started playing a role in bringing people together through chat groups where various classrooms of our childhood—and in my case there had been many—came alive. What I realised through these online reunions as well, though, was that I had little to say to most of the group members. I opted out of them within days of joining, leaving them with a polite farewell message explaining that it was nothing personal and that I was inherently against chat groups—this is true, I do abhor chat groups.
“Perhaps some of our friendships should just be left in the past,” a well-known author friend of mine told me recently.
Unlike me, she had spent her entire life in Mumbai. But she too had left school and college chat groups after realising some of the people she had called friends while growing up were still stuck in the past. Little had happened in their lives to warrant personal growth over the decades.
While it is comforting to be around people who were an integral part of the early decades of your life and enjoy the warmth of that easy familiarity, those meetings could also sometimes call for restraint and politeness from you.
The truth is that most of us are no longer the people we used to be. We have been shaped by our experiences, by our exposure to the world outside and by our intimate relationships into the 40-something versions of ourselves. We are no longer that raw clay moulding of our teenage years, we have gone through half our lives and come out glazed, baked, differently coloured and sometimes chipped ceramic on the other side.
“We are no longer the same people, then how can our friendships be the same?” my author friend said.
I used to envy people who had known each other since they were barely out of their diapers without having to find each other through apps. But, then, after witnessing their conversations, it occurred to me that I had been hearing the same old jokes and anecdotes from their school being shared over and over again, until the strain of the struggle to chuckle began to show on the faces of those who had moved on from those years.
In comparison, I notice that for a lot of us, female friendships formed in adulthood end up being more meaningful than friendships of infancy because they come without the baggage and expectations of the time you shared in the past. It is refreshing to find someone who’s exactly at the same place as you in life or shares the same interests and world view as you even if they don’t live in the same city or continent. It’s like meeting an agreeable passenger halfway through a journey on a platform and realising you are both on the same train to your final destination.
By their very nature, however, human relationships are fragile. Sometimes, even close adult friendships wither, with hard feelings seeping into the equation at some stage.
Those of us who have chosen to marry and have children have often been at pains to explain to those who have been free of any such commitments that things cannot be exactly the same as before. It is because we are now defined by so many other roles that impose a demand on our time.
We would continue to care for them and be there for them during their celebrations and tribulations. But we couldn’t possibly invest the same number of hours and engage with them as freely as we did as single people even if we wished to. The author friend pointed out something that resonated with me. While some of our single friends have babysat our children and counselled them when our own good senses have taken leave, there are others who refuse to acknowledge them.
“Some single friends resent you for not being as available to them as before,” she said. “But the same friends want us to continue being that same old person to them—they want their old girlfriend back exactly as she was.”
Purely by chance, this conversation coincided with me reading Best Of Friends, a story about female friendships by Kamila Shamsie. The novel, set in Karachi and London, is the story of a lifelong friendship. Despite the deep bond between its two central characters, though, it isn’t free of challenges and threats springing from human frailties.
A few years ago, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels captured our collective imaginations, starting with My Brilliant Friend—an intense meditation on the nature of friendship between two protagonists who see their relationship transform over the years, with insecurities, jealousies and rivalries coming into play even as the ties that bind them remain.
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This, then, is the nub of it. Everything changes. Cities, countries, societies and economies…they all transform with the passage of time. And they transform us along with them. We may have shared our world views and experiences once but our individual journeys have given us varied outlooks, political persuasions, attitudes and ideologies.
You are not your past and you are never too old to find a new connection. Some of my girlfriends from my 20s continue to mean a lot to me today but I have also gained much from my friendships in my 40s, a time when, as a mother of two, I thought I wasn’t open to forging new bonds at all.
Maybe it is all right not to feel the same way as you once did about some of your old friendships. Maybe I am fine with being unfriended by those two friends who decided their life was better off without my social media feed.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. Her latest book is Love In The Time Of Influenza.