I have a fair number of “friends” on Facebook—only a few over a hundred, last I checked. Compared to the number touted by some of my “friends” this is, indeed, modest.
And, yet, in my darkest hour, I have—pretty much—zero true friends.
How can that be, you probably wonder? You, who thinks little of posting pictures of yourself with your “tribe” on social media. Who goes on girls’ trips, meets friends out for drinks, traipses around town effortlessly with your besties. I know this and more, because I’ve seen the many posts, in which you’ve been tagged.
I know, I sound bitter—maybe even juvenile. I hope you will forgive my unbecoming middle-aged bitterness in advance.
It’s not that I’ve never had a friend. It’s just that, now that I’m 50-something, I’ve realized that after several moves around the country, I’ve lost track of the ones I did have. True, most of them are now Facebook friends; some still have my phone number, and call once a year or so—which is always a super treat. We catch up, marvel at each other’s family’s progress, exchange empty promises to do it again, soon.
And I do have a husband, who is as good and true of a husband/friend as any one could ask for.
But still, there is this terrible daily friendship void, that I worry you with now, because it weighs so sorely on my heart. It’s hard to fathom that a lack of something could cause such a throbbing, aching pain.
Maybe this is payback for all those years—in school, and in my early days working and raising kids—when friendship seemed effortless, and occurred naturally. As a kid, it seemed as easy as sharing the same taste in popsicles. In middle and high school, we bonded over the same defiant music and fashions. Later, in college, new friends were easily made through sports, clubs and parties. Then later there were company potlucks and weekend barbecues, followed by hikes, coffee, and family playdates with friends.
Looking back, I realize most of these friendships evolved naturally from sharing a mutual stage of life—most recently parenting young children. All of this, of course, was pre-Facebook—before we even imagined that there might be a day when we felt compelled to share and tag every moment spent grinning with our friends. And yet, maybe yearning for those seemingly more authentic, carefree days is where I’ve gone all wrong. In Gravity and Grace, early twentieth century French philosopher Simone Weil writes:
To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).
When our youngest child started high school, we moved from the middle of the country to the East Coast for my husband’s job. Thankfully, our daughter swiftly made a circle of friends at her new school. Meanwhile, I tried church, the local community pool, school events, classes and Meetup.com boards in my search for like-minded people.
I found that fellow parents of teens had moved beyond trying to make new friends through their kids. People everywhere seemed set in their busy ways, and their existing friendships. Each time I tried to step out—garnering the courage to attend a community gathering or other meet-up—I chatted excitedly with a polite person or two, and then ultimately returned home, to face another week alone.
When our daughter graduated high school, we moved again—this time to the West Coast. With a clean slate, I tried finding friends—with about the same rate of success. Last month, we decided to try church again. I scoured the congregation for a friendly face. Strangers shook my hand cordially during the passing-of-the-peace. And then again, we went home.
“Get another dog,” my children pleaded with me. They’ve moved on, happily enjoying their many friends. “We’re not ready, yet,” I lie. I can’t tell them the real reason I can’t even think about bringing another pet home from the shelter: with our last dog, after moving, it seemed all I did was feel guilty for transferring my loneliness onto her. Too many hours were spent staring silently into her big, glassy brown eyes, which only reflected and magnified my isolation.
On the West Coast, we moved into a light-filled house with a lovely backyard—perfect for a garden party. Yet after two years, it’s served as little more than our private refuge, to air our bare toes at the end of a long workday. If I were to have a party today, I’m not sure whom I would invite, or who might consider coming. One thing’s for sure: we’d have a lot of leftover appetizers.
Maybe I’m being overly dramatic, but to me, it all feels utterly tragic. And I’m pretty sure I have good reason to worry: In the Journal of Aging Life Care, author Clifford Singer, MD concludes
“Studies suggest that the impact of isolation and loneliness on health and mortality are of the same order of magnitude as such risk factors as high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking.”
Well-wishers have offered plenty of good ideas along the way: Pour yourself into your work or your hobbies, try volunteer work, or join a gym, they say. I’ve tried it all, to no avail.
In a study by Christopher Carpenter published in Personality and Individual Differences, the researcher found that social media “offers a gateway for hundreds of shallow relationships and emotionally detached communication.”
But the question remains how, then, does one achieve true friendship? Or, I wonder, even launch a “basic,” or “casual” friendship? I, for one, in my middle age, would settle for a starter friendship.
The philosopher Simone Weil would maintain that I need to just sit back and let friends fall upon me, like grace. Which leaves me with my silent, private prayer:
Oh, most divine Grace, wherever and whoever you are, may you fall upon this lonely old heart with abundant abandon—and soon.
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Guen Sublette is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. While raising her two children, she worked as an editor for a parenting magazine among other publications. Now that they’re grown, she’s on the lookout for new ways to feather the empty nest.