Like many parents before them, mine were fond of assuring me that whatever social drama I endured in high school wouldn’t matter in the long run. After all, I’d “never see those people again.” They had no way of knowing just how untrue that old adage would become — not only for me, but my whole generation (and eventually, theirs).
Now, over a decade later, I’m friends with my third-grade crush on Facebook. Several former high school teachers regularly chime in on posts that I share. The idea that we meet people, hang out with them for a few years and then carry on feels like a myth.
What’s nice is that, because we’re so connected, friendships don’t seem as likely to fade away. Yet while I may be in constant touch with everyone from childhood pals to close friends, it’s in totally superficial ways. Social media is a convenient supplement when you can’t give a friend IRL attention — but is that adequate? Sometimes I get so caught up in my own life I pat myself on the back for leaving a nice comment when I should probably have made a phone call or planned a visit instead.
This habit developed over time: I graduated college, worked more jobs than I can remember and moved just as often. With so many peripheral responsibilities, socializing began to feel like both a chore and a guilty pleasure. “Staying in touch” took a back seat. Author Tim Kreider described this in The New York Times as the ‘busy’ trap:
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider wrote. And busy, indeed I was, devoting only the smallest amount of energy toward maintaining friendships and replacing worthwhile relationships with other responsibilities. As time wore on, I felt increasingly unfulfilled in the best friend realm.
The truth was, I had a whole handful of reliable girls on call, if only I’d just take the time to reach out. These were the very same ones who’d made several trips to see me, yet I never dealt with the hassle of returning the favor. I had a growing list of excuses mentally stowed away to justify why: time, energy, the belief that my city was more worth visiting than theirs. Snobby, I know, but there I was. And where I was, exactly, was kind of lonely.
“I miss you” texts were sent at least once a month. “When are you coming again?” I asked each of my best girlfriends as seasons slipped by. Each time, the response was virtually the same: “It was so much fun last time. I’m not sure!” Each time, I felt a little more deflated.
I liked their selfies, their posts about finishing school, the articles they shared. Everything. But the reality of the situation was, I’d reduced our interactions to the lowest common denominator, substituting a phone call with compliments on Instagram. I was not giving back in any meaningful way, and I was paying a price for it, growing more isolated as time went on.
I grew up glued to books and movies like Anne of Green Gables and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, stories that touted the idea of “kindred spirits,” or friendships that had some sort of fated, soulmate aspect to them. From them, I adopted the idea that if friendships were meant to be, they’d just work out, somehow. It’s taken a while to sink in, but I’m finally appreciating that this approach to friendship is just as fantastical an idea as “happily ever after.” Friendships, much like romantic relationships, require effort and nurturing.
I’ll be the first to argue that social media has been a total boon for the art of communication, but it took me embarrassingly long to realize that “liking” and commenting were not a valid way to nurture my friendships — especially when my friends were demonstrably willing to spend time, money and energy to nurture their friendship with me. If I wanted these friendships that I cared so much about to last, I had to learn to put in the effort. Acting as though my responsibilities were more important than theirs would not cut it. I’m no saint for realizing this, but I’m working on it, and I’m lucky to have some very patient friends.
Now, I remind myself that an Instagram like is just that: an Instagram like. It doesn’t replace phone calls or girls’ weekends away together. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg may say, relying on social media to stay connected is not, in fact, a sustainable way to maintain a friendship. And while I’m still as tuned-in as ever, I’m going out of my way to tend to my IRL friendships the way that they should be tended to: in real life.