Although scientific studies hold that having close friendships raises your life expectancy, 2020 has up-ended that age-old nugget of wisdom: Your life is now safer with nurturing close friendships from afar. Keep your friends close, exhorts the government, but not too close – preferably at a 2-metre distance while wearing face masks (in the meantime, ‘keep your enemies closer’ has a whole new set of disturbing implications).
Lockdown earlier this year saw anxieties rise over our relationships, as national restrictions kept us firmly apart. Mental health worsened across the country, the existing ‘loneliness epidemic’ exacerbated by the compulsory self-isolation. In July, a UCL study observed that 20% of respondents said their friendships outside of their households had worsened. ‘A Lot of Friendships Won’t Survive This’ declared Ashley Abramson, content-writer on Medium, very darkly. ‘Why do they feel so hard?’ laments another article on Vox.
It is my guilty confession that, after finding first year generally difficult, online Trinity was a godsend. I wasn’t sure I would have got through ‘intact’ otherwise. Moreover, as an introvert lockdown initially seemed a relief from the loud-loud world; at last I had time to think and to gather myself together. Part of me was asking, how do you sustain friendships during a pandemic?
People often talk about how the pandemic highlighted which friendships were more valuable or true; like other moments of crisis, you saw who reached out first. In these cases, the pandemic is framed as a test to weed out the toxic or low-quality friendships in your circle. This way, you figure out who cares and who is worth keeping.
The trouble however with the logic of testing friendships is that it’s easy to test them to breaking point. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone is under strain of some kind (albeit to differing degrees), it can be unfair to excoriate someone for not being there. And we do not really have a handbook for friendship – and thus specific, culturally-defined obligations and expectations – the way we have for love. Attempts at any are usually mocked, as with Melissa Fabello’s 2019 viral template to answer a friend’s call for help:
“Hey, I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity/helping someone else who’s in crisis/dealing with personal stuff right now and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later time or date] instead/do you have someone else you could reach out to?”
As critics were quick to point out, the tone sounds less like a friend than an automatic-response generator. Coco Khan, writing in The Guardian, noted a ‘collective creep towards extreme, capitalist thinking where we see ourselves as a scarce resource’. ‘As necessary as self-care is,’ she argued, ‘it is also an individualistic quick fix.’
But Fabello’s template is not so different from Victorian etiquette manuals, while striking a resonant note in acknowledging the way time in the 21st century is carved up into hours and even minutes, whether on your timetable app or, nowadays, ruled by study slots booked in the library and slots for ‘Eat in’ or ‘Takeaway’. To be ‘busy’ is a social norm, even an ideal, connotative of productivity and a healthy, fulfilled lifestyle. Even in lockdown, social media exhorts us to learn a new language, start an artistic project, take up gardening. There, you’re ‘at capacity’ now.
Such a mindset can raise interesting questions.
If you helped all your friends, were you therefore someone who had less to lose, someone who could afford to support individual friends in emotional crises because you didn’t need to dedicate yourself to ‘greater’ causes? A ‘scarce resource’. Likewise, is it more sophisticated to dismiss someone’s self-harming scars by saying ‘Yeah I know, it’s so common’? Should you put your friend’s mental health before your grades/career? Are you a better person if you put charity fundraising for refugees over a friend’s panic attack?
The tensions and complexities of modern friendships have been echoed by recent literary explorations of the subject, from Zadie’s Smith’s damnatory Swing Time to Sally Rooney’s ironic-and-sincere Conversations with Friends (‘What is a friend?’). Technology affords some simulacra of closeness that is complicated by physical, and in some senses psychological, detachment. Social media networks give the illusion of interconnectedness without the accompanying responsibility; or, conversely, with the potential of responsibility ever at your fingertips.
Still, the effect on friendships depends, of course, on how you use it. One self-consciously anxious email checking on an absent friend reads like this:
“Habit compels me to check whether you are still alive and kicking, despite the misfortune of being on the Other Side (or are you back?). This time I have a global pandemic to excuse me.”
“So, are you? Definitely alive? I do hate losing bad habits.”
On the other hand, there were also times where I texted to quickly arrange videocalls… It is as though different friendships, when sustained online, enter alternative time continuums. I learnt that scheduling weekly calls with a friend is useful for preserving one’s sanity, but similarly beneficial is the intermittent sharing of amusing cat memes.
Sometime during the Mid-pandemic Morbids, a Totoro postcard magically appeared on the doormat. It had a cat doodle and an affectionate message, lightened my day and opened up another wonderful dimension of writing cards/postcards/letters.
Friendships fascinate me because they are so amorphous and elusive. One of my favourite articles from The Guardian (surprisingly addictive app, please try it), is Ella Risbridger’s essay on friendship from January 2019, simply entitled ‘When my world fell apart my friends became my family’. Call me sentimental, but it is so beautifully written. ‘For now, though, I’ll just keep flying this flag: it’s nice to have a friend.’
As we enter the second lockdown, I am taking up this flag, rather quietly it is true, and I think you find out who cares by caring first, even if or exactly because we’re living in a world run amok, if not falling apart. Sometimes you get lucky; sometimes words make all the difference. It did for me the other night, and will again.