I like to fill my house with people. I’m more comfortable hosting dinner for a boisterous group of ten than when our family of three eats alone. However, my excitement is coupled with stress when I invite people who don’t know one another well. It’s a little like organising blind dates. There’s a small chance the guests will make an inspired combination, chatting the night away and demanding far too many bottles of red wine to be opened. A more significant probability is that awkward silence dominates the night.
On Saturday evening, my friend Astrid and her partner were due to arrive in ten minutes time. I was wearing exercise gear, sporting unwashed hair and covered in a combination of sweat and cocoa powder. Dashing to the shower, I hissed at my introvert husband, “This is really important to me so be friendly please”. I could hear his bemused laughter floating into the bathroom, between the sound of running water and my furious soap lathering.
“I’m always friendly!” he indignantly shouted back. “That is not true,” I replied.
While getting dressed and anxiously straightening the corners of the doona cover (why?), I inspected my own internal process of thought and assumption, anxieties and action. I wasn’t trying to impress or show off to our guests, it’s just that I really wanted the dinner to go well. It feels almost pathetic and childish to put it in these terms – but I like this woman. I want her to be my mate. In fact, I hope she’ll become a friend of mine whose companionship lasts a long time. If our partners get along then that would be a definite bonus.
Making new friends as an adult is hard. Grown-up etiquette means no longer being able to bowl up to a stranger in the playground the way my son does at kinder and after a brief exchange of words (or perhaps a particularly exciting rock) declare yourselves best friends for life. Once you finish studying, have established yourself at work and perhaps found a life partner, the opportunities to develop new bonds start to shrink. Our social circles feel fully formed. They rarely expand and contract like hairbands, the way they did during youth.
“Making new friends as an adult is hard. Grown-up etiquette means no longer being able to bowl up to a stranger in the playground the way my son does at kinder and after a brief exchange of words (or perhaps a particularly exciting rock) declare yourselves best friends for life.”
There are, of course, the invaluable old friends who we carry with us. The ones whose company is comfortable and familiar. For whom you never have to explain or provide a back story. The ones who remember things about your personal history that even you’ve forgotten. The people who give you a warm glow while reminiscing about good times and selves past. However, they’re also people with whom you likely have less in common now than previously. Your memories are the foundation of conversation, rather than a shared current experience.
That’s makes a new adult friend so special. You come to the relationship as fully formed individuals, who then get to delight in making discoveries about one another. There is a lifetime of knowledge and experience to relate. The possibility for shared opinions, understandings and moments of, “Oh yes, I feel exactly the same!” seem endless. And as your own life experiences grow and expand beyond those of your existing friendships, a yearning for someone who “gets” your new reality becomes increasingly important.
Astrid has become that friend for me. She reached out after our paths crossed at work, explaining she’d read about my brain surgery earlier in the year. Astrid has MS and generously offered her companionship and solidarity if I ever needed someone to talk to. Initially, I was grateful, but I didn’t bother taking it further. I reasoned to myself that we were in different positions. Mine was a one-off medical horror story whereas this was her permanent reality. When my tumour grew back a few months later and I realised how foolish I’d been. Astrid, this relative stranger, was one of my first phone calls.
To my delight I learned afterwards that Astrid had booked herself into my recovery walking calendar every single week, for several months. Diligently, she kept every walking appointment – in literal rain or shine – and provided what nobody else in my life could: the understanding from knowing what it’s like to be young and sick.
“I love the view of Astrid’s world that is still emerging for me, as the watercolour painting of her life is filled in bit by bit, walk by walk, week by week.”
Since then our friendship has evolved. Our conversation only occasionally turns to health. We share a passion for books, films and television and both enjoy dissecting them at length after consumption. Our working lives intersect, which provides even more fodder for conversation. I love the view of Astrid’s world that is still emerging for me, as the watercolour painting of her life is filled in bit by bit, walk by walk, week by week. I anticipate seeing her like a kid who watches the clock at school, anxious to be home and playing with a new favourite toy.
Friendship changes for each of us over time and so to do the friendship patterns amongst communities. The loneliness of 1950s housewives came in part from the white picket fence prisons that families built themselves in the western world. Wrongly assuming a nuclear family and the odd dinner party could sustain the human need for connection. That isolation continues to a significant extent for many people today. Loneliness is a genuine health and happiness concern that the UK Government has created a ministerial portfolio to deal with.
Modern technology facilitates our seclusion. Indeed, technology can even lessen the desire and propulsion to make new friends, while not eliminating the deeply human need for it. I so often hear friends or family dismiss their lives as too busy or too full for more people. The truth is that making space in our lives for other human beings is one thing we will never regret. More people equal an ever-expanding horizon of feelings, thoughts and ideas. Our relationships bind us together and bring us joy, yes, but they also bring a raft of benefits when it comes to a broader and more compassionate world view. They even help us to live longer.
The dinner party went smoothly, by the way. Jeremy overcooked the steak a little but otherwise met all key performance indicators set by his dictatorial wife. Astrid’s partner is open and friendly and funny, just as she is. That meal reinforced the potential happiness I might have missed by failing to respond more generously when Astrid first reached out to me. A new adult friend takes courage to make but like most things that require a little bravery – you never regret it once it’s done. We’ll walk again soon.
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