Sunday, 5 September 2010

Never give up on distant friends

There was a time when people were born, grew up, lived and died in the same place. I remember Rabbi Hugo Gryn telling the story of a Jew who’d been born in Austria-Hungary, gone to school in the Ukraine and university in Poland, been persecuted in Germany, and lived out the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. ‘He moved around a lot,’ a journalist commented. ‘No – spent his whole life in the same village,’ came the reply.

Well, these days few of us stay still that long. We go from place to place doing either the same thing or, at best, the next: from one level of education to the next, one job to the next or one spouse to the next. The latter, by the way, is often curious to watch: it generally bears out Oscar Wilde’s view that a second marriage demonstrates the triumph of optimism over experience (for the record, my wife is an optimist, while I’m perfectly satisfied with the experience). Down the years, I’ve moved through a series of homes in wearying succession. My grandmother once told me I’d completely filled the pages for one letter in her address book.

Generally, those who do move around this way don’t usually do it by choice. We live like corks among the waves, buffeted first from one side and then from the other. One aspect of this existence which seems particularly sad is the way we make friends, grow close to them, and then have to part again. Recently, though, I’ve decided that it’s far less sad than I thought.

In the first place, there’s a pleasure that doesn’t fade in remembering times spent with friends. A statement on the lines of ‘Do you remember when we got stuck in the snow with Alice and George?’ usually leads to something much more enjoyable than the original experience itself. There are also incidents which were pleasurable both at the time and in recollection. While we were living in Germany, we were introduced for the first time to the celebration of the Chinese New Year – twice with a Chinese friend who will no doubt head back to China in time, and on three other occasions with friends who turned up at our place to prepare a meal for us, and who are now back in Singapore.

But there aren’t just pleasures of memory. Because ultimately friendship is about contact with someone, today, not just in the past. And that matters not just because it’s a pleasure, but because it’s an expression of what matters most in life: a link to others.

Friendship gives links that last. I say links deliberately, because bonds are something else: they bind, they tie us. That can be a source of just as much happiness – if you’re lucky, bonds with your family are invaluable, if you’re unlucky they’re murder (if Sartre was right and hell is other people, surely it’s at its most hellish with bitter relatives). So the friend you haven’t heard from for years remains a friend for all that: we saw a friend some months ago for the first time in seventeen years, and only a few months before her death. The real tragedy would have been to have missed the chance to see her again, and we’re both delighted to be in touch again with her widower.

We were able to see her again because the Internet brought us back together. It’s fashionable to knock contact via the Internet, but to me it’s a tremendous tool to maintain old relationships. We’ll exchange messages with a friend several times in a couple of weeks, and then perhaps won’t hear from them again for several months, but it’s wonderful to know that the exchange can happen again. It can even maintain a new kind of friendship: I had a message the other day from a friend, now in Shanghai, whom I’ve never met; Danielle corresponds regularly with a friend in Minnesota she’s never met.

Then one day someone will write and say ‘I can come and see you on such and such a day’, or you can say ‘I’ll be with you in two weeks.’ Soon you see a smile coming towards you at an airport or a station and a burst of recognition, not just of the person, but of the joy you had in being with them.

And the most amazing thing? With a good friend, at least, it’s as though you’d never been apart. You pick up the conversation as though it had been interrupted only minutes before. I’d like to say that it’s as pleasurable as slipping into a jacket that you love for its familiarity, except that’s only half of the feeling, because familiarity is comforting but not uplifting. The other half is the feeling you get when you hear a burst of music that you’d loved as a child, and you sense again the well-being it gave you then. Well-being isn’t so common that we should ignore any chance to experience it.

So keep in touch with your friends, however distant they may be. You never know when paths can cross again. And you must know as well as I do what a magical moment it is when they do.

1 comment:

Pino Urbani said...

Thank you, David, for your lovely words.
Ciao, Pino.