Essay

IS ANYBODY THERE?

Modern life makes friends more important than ever—but a lot harder to find

BARBARA WICKENS January 10 2005
Essay

IS ANYBODY THERE?

Modern life makes friends more important than ever—but a lot harder to find

BARBARA WICKENS January 10 2005

IS ANYBODY THERE?

Essay

Modern life makes friends more important than ever—but a lot harder to find

BARBARA WICKENS

LIKE MANY women I know, I vowed when I was younger that I’d never be like my mother. And like many of those women, I can see my mother looking back when I look in the mirror. There’s a hairline that’s high at the temples, a chronic case of the fidgets, you name it. But there’s one crucial difference—in middle age I suddenly find myself wanting, needing even, to make some new friends.

Three years ago, we threw an 85th birthday party for my dad. It was a small gathering, but in some ways an extraordinary one: eight couples, all married for 50-odd years, all

friends for nearly as long. They had a shared history of good times, bad jokes, and tolerating one another’s foibles. Sure, there were shifting allegiances over the years, one foursome being closer for awhile, then another. But there was always that core group, and that night there was a sense in the room of just how special it was. It would be the last time they were all together like that. In the early spring of 2002, my parents died just four weeks apart. They were mourned by these wonderful friends they’d known virtually their entire adults lives.

Maybe I’ll be so lucky—if I live into my hundreds. But right now I’m dangerously close to becoming a hermit. Oh, I have people with whom I can go to a movie or hiking or some such. But as my friend Ruth puts it, you have friends for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. You expect those first two types to come and go, but the last group? One was transferred to Vancouver, another has a new man in her life, as well as a new job and a new house out in the suburbs, and might as well be in Vancouver. A third, a former six-figurea-year Bay Street lawyer, is no less busy now that she’s a full-time soccer mom. A fourth friend’s husband is gravely ill and it is only natural that I’ve dropped low on her list of priorities. Email and bargain long-distance phone rates make it easy to stay in touch with all of them. But there is no substitute for a tête-à-tête, for just picking up the phone and saying, “Hey, let’s go grab a coffee.”

Again, I can’t help but think about my parents’ disappearing world. After spending the first few years of their married life in Vancouver, they moved to Brantford, Ont.,

my mother’s hometown—and there they stayed for the next 55 years. They even kept the same phone number all that time (I pity whoever got it after it was recycled). While I’ve lived in Toronto for some time now, I’m not from here and neither are most of the people I know. And how long any of us will be here is anyone’s guess. The simple act of getting together has become an elaborate ritual, preceded by emails planning when we’ll talk on the phone to make our

HOW DOES one go about making new friends? These are muscles that have been allowed to atrophy.

plans. We set up a lunch date three months away, only to change it several times so that it’s actually more like five months before we ever get together. My parents never had Day-timers, never needed them.

I’m hardly alone in my aloneness. According to a study presented in June at the International Housing Conference in Toronto, Canadians spent 34 per cent of their spare time by themselves at home in 1998, a fiveper-cent increase from 1986. In that same period, they spent slightly more time socializing with friends and family in such places as cafés and restaurants, but this did not make up for the overall decline in social contact. Still, knowing that major social and demographic forces are at play hasn’t made writing this any easier. I feel as if I’ve placed

a giant L on my forehead—Lonely or Loser, take your pick.

Part of that stems from the exalted position friends hold in our lives today. With family members sometimes thousands of miles away, nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce and individuals who live by themselves constituting the fastest growing type of household in Canada, friends for many people are de facto family. Popular culture reflects that change. Early sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best were all about family life. On The Dick Van Dyke Show in the ’60s, the star goofed around on the job with his co-workers, but his family remained central. A decade later, the actor who’d played his wife would star in her own program, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now she was a single career woman whose co-workers stood in for friends and family. By the time Friends came along in the ’90s, well, the title pretty much says it all.

The flip side is it’s almost impossible to find positive images of solo individuals. The Lone Ranger, for one thing, isn’t “lone”— he has Tonto. Spider-Man is about as good as it gets—and that Peter Parker is one conflicted guy. No, the natural instinct is to be suspicious of the friendless, to loathe them even. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature is one of a kind—a freak. Quick, storm the castle! The character generally regarded as the first anti-hero in literature—not counting the Devil—is Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a loner. And of course, real life is worse. The Unabomber. Jeffrey Dahmer. Now there are some guys without friends.

I know that couples can feel isolated as well, especially when the only adults they talk to besides each other are co-workers or the parents of their kids’ friends. Still, being single pretty much cuts me off from that world of coupledom. In fact, it’s hard to shake the notion that if I’m feeling abandoned, it’s because that’s what I deserve.

We’re talking the long, dark tea time of the soul. After all, there are all those sins of omission: the phone calls I let slide, the help offered too late to be genuinely useful. Not to mention the sins of commission, even if offence was given where none was intended.

Still, blame, even where deserved, is not productive. Better to move ahead, to make new friends. This is not just about wanting more to look forward to on Friday night than the latest DVD (though, of course, that’s part of it). Studies have repeatedly shown that those who are socially isolated have greater health problems and even die younger than those who are surrounded by friends and family.

The question is how, in practical terms, does one go about making new friends? These

are muscles that have been allowed to atrophy over the years. When you’re little, you can play all day with a kid whose name you never learn. Later, school and even first jobs provide natural breeding grounds for friendships—they offer a shared experience to a group of people at relatively the same stage in their lives. Much beyond that, though, and obligations and preoccupations are established. People hardly have time for the friends they do have, let alone new ones.

There’s little help to be found on the bookshelves. Mainly, there are self-help tomes for the lovelorn and much of their advice boils down to, “do something you enjoy and even if you don’t meet someone special, you’ll make new friends and maybe they will have a sibling or cousin they can introduce you

to.” Making friends, it seems, is the means, not the end, no explanation necessary.

Any extroverts are probably wondering just what the problem is. But fellow introverts know just how hard it can be to be outgoing, to be friendly and relaxed in unfamiliar situations. I could draw on one of the skills Fve acquired as a reporter, actually asking the sorts of questions that draw people out—but that would make it feel too much like work.

For some, the holidays can be the loneliest time of the year. I’m fortunate that I do have family, however small, and that farflung friends returned home. There was a busyness to the season that was distracting. But now January is here, and I should make the effort to make new friends as if my life depended on it—because, in a way, it does. 1^