Column: Turning the Corner – The Benefits of Friendship

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One aspect of living in a pandemic for more than a year is finding your real and true friends. Facebook friends are not a substitute for living, human beings who can be there when things are not going well in life. It gives pause to ask what one can do to maintain life balance with friends, work occupation, family, partner relations, and self-understanding. In theory, for those with a job, family, and sufficient funds to maintain a household, a year in isolation would not be a difficult task. Instead, I found that for many people depression can run rampant when location is the primary focus. One partial solution is a return to friendship.

A mirror with a broken frame [Pixabay]

This year has been like having a mirror thrust into our faces, with someone saying, “This is who you are, America.” A lot of us didn’t like what we saw. Past efforts focused on succeeding, getting the right job, meeting the right people, and doing the right things. In the process, we dropped the basics of making and keeping face to face friendships. Scatter in divorcing spouses amid the professional success, and a picture emerges: the personal has been sacrificed for the professional.

In a normal year, the balance can easily flow between the need to find commonalities with co-workers and the need to secure a safe space with a trusted friend. During the early pandemic, this balance shattered due to rising unemployment, enforced quarantine, and time taken to see who we really are in the mirror.

Our social lives may be made up of those who have similar social lives to themselves: kids who were overachievers in high school overloading on advanced placement classes plus outside activities that emphasized the need to focus on professional drive. In their own way, the emphasis on work over self means that our friends often connected more through work than those known as a child or in grade school.

The continuing period of pandemic paints a new layer of societal interaction. Virtual meetings emphasize the basics of communication, but not the physical aspects of communication.

Even as we resume living in the open, after prolonged isolation some may have hesitation. Is it okay to touch, hold, kiss – to sit shoulder to shoulder in a packed theater or at a sporting event? For some, the answer is yes. Either they are doing it now or they never stopped.  I tentatively meet friends for practical reasons  – attending socially distanced vaccination clinics or walks around the lake or neighborhood where I can slowly re-acclimate to being around more than a few people at a time without stumbling over my feet.

Friendship in the workplace is especially important after the prolonged divide between those working from home and those who never had that luxury. Text messages and the occasional virtual meeting stretches the reserves built during the pre-pandemic time. Throw in normal work stressors and isolation can set in quickly.  Instead of longing to get away from “work” at “the office”, the desire for many who have been on a remote work schedule is to return to a sense of normalcy, community, and to spend time with work friends.

How can we maintain work relationships after being apart for so long?  I have a standing backyard party with my work colleagues whenever we all have enough time and everyone is vaccinated. Others are looking to when the favorite restaurant or bar re-opens.  The small outside interactions are the grease that keeps the wheels of productivity moving at any workplace. Pandemic life interrupted this pattern for so many. It is a trauma seared into our collective human memory that flows across all areas of our lives.

Like any other trauma, the pandemic marks human lives into jagged edged segments we call “before” and “after”. Before the event lies nostalgic memory, a past that remains sure and certain. We know or think we know who we are before a certain point thanks to visual records and memories. The term “pre-pandemic” now encompasses all the regular trappings of life that we thought would never change. Overcrowded theaters, sports arenas, concerts, dance parties, restaurants, and events like New Year’s Eve in Times Square for now, retain the pre-pandemic designation, as we slowly transition from quarantine life while continuing to fight the the virus.

During the traumatic period, time markers become unclear. We are living and surviving the moments of loss, change, and new beginnings.  We struggle with words and meanings that no longer take the same shape as they did “before” the event.

This current period of time does not flow in a new or different way: when we call someone whom we only see through their written Facebook or visual Instagram posts a “friend,” what does that actually mean in the “after” time post-trauma? Is the closeness of the relationship diminished through an excess distance and the inability to physically touch the other person due to pandemic rules? Does the word “friend” remain unchangeable regardless of the circumstances under which the relationship continues?

In 2019, the closest I could imagine for this new-reality in 2020 and 2021 is from re-runs of the television series Space 1999, which envisioned a community living fully on the moon. Communication with those residing on Earth was through video calls. For a late 1970s show, this glimpse into humanity’s future looked wonderful.

Living it for a year or more in some cases turned “wonderful” into “miserable” and “freedom” into “exhaustion. If the only way that we could connect with loved ones was virtually or separated by a glass door or window, then life appears more like a prison.

The reality of continued isolation with the inability to socialize in the manner of “before” produces a great trauma. Uneven reopening in various parts of the world brings chaos rather than the calm of healing as life returns to a normal state.

Humanity on this planet bathes in a current traumatic state that produces more discussion and increased awareness of  loneliness, depression, and how the pandemic impacts our mental states. Friendship helps to keep our mental health in balance.

As individuals, how we communicate with others is important. With whom we share ourselves matters even more to our long-lasting mental state. Friendship is one aspect that we don’t consider until we are tested through trauma. We count on our friends to get us through the rough passages of life, just as they rely upon us to be there to bear witness and to help them. When we are not able to share our life experiences, our friendship bank balance grows smaller. We draw upon it just as much via social media  announcements or the quick text, but we just don’t notice it right away.

In the before period of trauma, we might remember to make contact if we didn’t see a co-worker all week, at the local after work hangout, or our neighbor in two or three days. We might mention it and someone would call or contact the co-worker to make sure that nothing was wrong. If we did not see a neighbor, we might ask the police for a welfare check.

Now, as we turn to the after-trauma pandemic period, I wonder if these habits will resume, or are they forever lost? Will we remember how much we need each other, in friendship, as humans, or has technology devolved the basic spirit of human friendship to the point where we no longer truly care to take the time to actually connect in person?

I like to think that this prolonged traumatic experience has increased our desire to be closer to our fellow human beings. I see others smile, engage, and enjoy the presence of others precisely because we have been apart for so long. Have we become so used to virtual weddings or smaller in-person wedding gatherings that the elaborate rounds of mailed wedding invitations, save-the-date-cards, and other traditional wedding etiquette will become a past tradition? 

Actually, I see even more celebrations.  One predictable trend is the need to celebrate the rushed or near-solitary pandemic wedding with an in-person celebration now that we can start to come together again. Just as our fashion can change to accommodate looking stylish while getting a vaccine shot, we will survive. We continue to address the intersection of serious issues with reality television in a way that might not have happened pre-pandemic. We just weren’t sticking around home long enough. We can look amazing on the virtual screen in lieu of being in person. I haven’t practiced Christianity for a number of years, but I still admire a good hat and the notion of dressing up for any religious service. It is how we celebrate with each other.

It is how we maintain friendship with each other.

A group of people standing together at sunset, signifying friendship [Pixabay]

At this point, I am ready to gamble on humanity, on our shared willingness to sluice off the waters of trauma as we enter the “after” pandemic phase. In our ability to recognize  how starved we are for emotional connection, physical affection, and mental stimulation, I am ready to risk that we will pick up those traditions that say “you matter” or “we care”.  Too many of us have lost family, friends, or even admired celebrities during the pandemic. While the way out may be through, friendships are one path that can help to start the healing process as we go towards the “after” of healing post-pandemic.


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