After an unpleasant brush with pneumonia, and at the age of 68, I realised I was, after all, mortal. Just out of hospital and not able to concentrate on books, radio or TV, I found myself thinking about friends I hadn’t seen for years.
The ones that get a Christmas card with promises that we will meet up in the coming year and a few scribbled updates about the family, etc. Needless to say, we don’t see each other and another year goes by. Supposing I never see any of these friends again, people I hung out with at university, colleagues who became mates over drinks after work, play group mums, parents on PTA committees?
I had enjoyed their company, had fun, shared grievances, moaned about senior management, compared notes on child rearing. So how had they become one of many names on a mailing list? Suddenly energised I picked up my phone, deciding to go through my address book and give a few of these erstwhile intimates a ring.
Initially nervous as I dialled, as soon as the connection was made, it was as though the intervening years had disappeared: we chatted, exchanged news and reminisced. It was the same with the next call and with both I have made firm plans to spend time together.
My third call drew a blank and my subsequent text was not answered – perhaps we really have lost touch. However, I determined to call some more long-lost friends but did wonder at the same time if there are some who are better left to drift into vaguely affectionate memory.
Eight different kinds of love
This led me into further thoughts about friendship, its intensity, its longevity and the different expectations one might have of various friendships. The Greeks identified eight different kinds of love and the word used for affection between friends was philia which Plato identified as a love without physical or romantic attraction, hence platonic.
I reflected on my various friendships in this context and considered the view you hear from so many people that you can count your true friends on the fingers of one hand. I have to say that I disagree, especially when I think about that lovely word, ‘affection’.
Of course there are some friends whose love and loyalty goes way beyond the bounds of affection. They are the people who can be phoned in the middle of the night, whatever the crisis, the ones who will drop everything to bring comfort and solutions in whatever form is appropriate from a bottle of wine to a massive amount of practical support. They are endlessly patient as your woes are unceasingly repeated, and forever forgiving of your short fuse and bad temper in the face of adversity.
Healing and laughter
Nevertheless, other friends cannot offer to bear your burdens in that way and may still be included in an ever-widening circle of affection, having shared experiences and similar backgrounds over many years. They know your family, remember parents or other relatives who have since died, and times spent with them can be healing and full of laughter as you recollect times past.
Many others whom I love to spend time with bring fun, are full of chat and are happy to drink and eat with you whilst putting the world to rights or playing a silly game. Don’t expect empathy from all your friends – some are just not capable, but each one is life enhancing in different ways. They may be easy going, slow to take offence and happy to be included in any activity even at the last minute. Some I only see when I go to my book group and yet I appreciate their company and their insights. Younger friends are different again, challenging my world view, disturbing my complacency but making me think and stand up for my opinions.
Brexit – a breach too far?
Finally, what of the friends who have shocked me with opinions or views that I never thought they would express. Obviously, there are some which would kill a friendship stone dead but for me, as for many others, Brexit brought this into sharp focus as some close friends voted Leave.
Is it possible to stay friends when such a fundamental rift opens up? Can we just choose not to speak about it and somehow manoeuvre around the enormous elephant in the room? Or are we able to be more philosophical, appreciating the qualities that made us friends in the first place, disagreeing without falling out, even managing a little light joshing? For me it is a resounding yes, having literally realised that life is too short to cancel good friends who, in the course of time, may accept my sweet reason and come round to the right opinion: mine!