It’s a question that I hear over and over, and it used to stop me in my tracks every time. I’ve heard it from people who think we’re crazy, and parents who believe that their sons and daughters are capable of anything, and from almost everyone, because it’s a questions we all grapple with: “How is any of this friendship business sustainable?”
Part of the reason this question is hard for me is because I’ve struggled with that myself. Like lots of people in their 20s, I can track my friends electronically, and there is evidence that I have a full social life. I have just over 600 friends on Facebook, I have just over 200 phone numbers in my phone, and yet, there have still been long swaths of time where I felt like I didn’t actually have any friends. Even though I’ve made plenty of friends in my life, they’re not all around me right now. They moved away or I moved away, some had kids, some just kind of fell off my radar. They got lost after a friends divisive break up, they got busy with school or work, or they weren’t who I thought they were, or vice versa. We’re all familiar with what causes friends and acquaintances to become social relics of a time in our life. We all know that it hurts, or is awkward, or just kind of sucks when people who drift away from us. But most of us are fortunate to not have to stress over how to stop our current friends from joining the ghostly crew of former friends that live in our past.
When I think about my former friends, no single loss hurt too bad. I’ve been sad to see friends go, and I’ve struggled to rebuild my social circle from time to time, but even through my most friendless hours, I was never really alone. There was always someone to call or talk to. Even when I didn’t have really close friends, I had people at work I could joke with over breaks, or who would ask what I did over the weekend. They may not have been deep, intimate, soul sustaining friendships, but they helped me feel less alone. And lots of us can think of a time in our life when our social landscape looked like this.
One story I hear variations of from parents goes like this: “Suzanne had a few girls in high school who were really nice and would take her out to dinner sometimes, but they went to college.” Or, “Tyler knew a guy in the neighborhood he would play basketball with, but he got a job and moved to Oregon.” Or, “Natalie used to go shopping with a woman at work, but she had kids and is just so busy now.” Most families of children with disabilities can recall a time when their son or daughter had a friend or few, but most have not experienced their children having the deep and diverse social circles many of us have. When only one person leaves, they don’t just create a little hole for others to fill in, they tear apart the whole network. So, when I would hear these stories and parents would ask me “How is this sustainable?” I knew the real question behind it. It was “Friends are great, but she’s made friends and they leave, so how can you promise me these people you’re bringing into our lives aren’t going to be gone in a few years like all these other people were?” And I couldn’t. And in me, that questions became a feeling that was not great.
For a while, day after day, I’d drive home and think of the fear of people leaving, and of temporary friendships. I’d let the fear limit me and I’d try to forecast where people were in their lives. If they seemed too “in transitiony,” I had some reservations about introducing them as a possible connection for someone. I’d think of the pain of loss, how well some families knew it and how badly I wanted to protect them from ever experiencing it again. I’d reflect on my own former friends, and how much more it would hurt if each friend moving on left me alone and building a circle from the ground up. And then I realized that was the difference. While my individual friendships weren’t extra-sustainable, the circle they made up was. And that was the closest answer I could figure out to the fear of being the friend left behind.
None of us can make people promise they’ll always be there. That turns friendships into assignments and commitments, and that isn’t good for either person. We can’t make people sign loyalty contracts, we can’t meet someone new and ask what their 5 year plan is, and we can’t roll our eyes when our friends tell us they’re taking a new job, or having a baby, or moving to the other side of the city. What we can do is make sure while people are around, they’re acting as connectors, bringing more and more people into a person’s life so there are always new friends on the horizon. That way, if and when they leave, there are a few people they’re leaving behind to keep expanding that circle. And if everything is perfect and they never leave, their presence is exponential.
I can list off dozens of people who I swore would be my friend forever and who aren’t around anymore. But I can also list off the people I’ve met through them. I can tell you how Bob introduced me to Sherri, who is one of the most caring loyal friends I’ve ever had. I can tell you how I met Hannah through some people whose names I don’t even remember, and now she’s the person who I think has the most faith in me of anyone I know. I can tell you how Emma introduced me to Jason, and they introduced me to Jen, who is in D.C. now, but she introduced me to D’Vaughn, who was one of my best roommates ever. I can’t say that any of these people will still be around in five or ten years. Of course I would love it if they were, but I would also love it if they did what made them happy and helped them grow, no matter what it meant for me. I’m not worried about if or when our trajectories will split, because they are great connectors, and I know every time I’m out with them I’m likely to meet someone who could become my next BFF.
I can’t promise anyone that I’m introducing them to someone who will be around forever. But I can suggest that they look at people not as the finish lines of friendship, but as the support to help you keep moving forward. I can help someone work through the fear behind “when will they leave?” and ask the more hopeful “Is there anyone you know you could invite to join you guys?” I still don’t know how to make individual friendships sustainable, but I do know how to make them exponential, and I know that growing and building is better than sustaining any day.