There are people we are friends with for one major but often maligned or overlooked reason: because we were friends with them some time back. At one stage, it might be decades ago now, we had a lot in common: we were both good at maths but bad at French at school and had a shared liking for table tennis; or we had adjacent rooms at college and used to help each other with assignments and commiserate in the bar about failed dates or maddening parents; or maybe we were interns in the same big firm with the same (as we thought at the time) bizarre and intemperate boss.
But life has taken us on radically different courses. Now they’ve got three young children; they moved to the Orkneys where they are managing a fish farm; they’ve gone into politics and have become a junior minister or they’re working as a ski teacher in the Rocky Mountains. The daily realities of our lives may be miles apart; we may know little of their world and they of ours. If we were introduced today, we’d think each other pleasant enough but would never get close.
Yet it can be hugely helpful and very redemptive to catch up with these people, with a one-on-one dinner, a walk in the woods or the occasional email. These friends function as conduits to earlier versions of ourselves that are inaccessible day-to-day but that contain hugely important insights. In the company of the old friend, we take stock of the journey we have travelled. We get to see how we have evolved, what was once painful, what mattered or what we have wholly forgotten we deeply enjoyed. The old friend is a guardian of memories on which we might otherwise have a damagingly tenuous hold.
We need old friends because of a crucial complexity in human nature. We pass through stages of development and as we do so, discard previous concerns and develop a lack of empathy around past perspectives. At fourteen, we knew a lot about resenting our parents. Twenty years later, the whole idea sounds absurd and ungrateful. Yet the old friend reconnects us with a particular atmosphere and, like a novelist, makes us at home with a character – ourselves – who might otherwise have seemed impossibly alien to us. At twenty-two, we found single life extremely painful. We hung out a lot with a particular friend and shared a litany of wistful, alienated thoughts. At forty-five, with a young family around us, we may find ourselves increasingly curious about being single again and fantasise about the joys of casual hook-ups. The old friend has crucial news to impart. We experience life from a succession of very different vantage points over the decades, but tend – understandably – to be preoccupied only with the present vista, forgetting the particular, incomplete but still crucial wisdom contained in earlier phases. Every age possesses a superior kind of knowledge in some area or other – which it then, usually, forgets to hand on to succeeding selves.
Remembering what it was like not to be who we are now is vital to our growth and integrity. The best professors remain friends with their past. They remember what it was like not to know about their special topic – and so don’t talk over the heads of their students. The best bosses are in touch with their own experience of starting out as a lowly employee; the best politicians clearly recall periods in their lives when they held very different views to the ones they have now formulated, which allows them to persuade, and empathise with, hostile constituencies. Good parents keep emotionally in touch with the feelings of injustice and sensitivity they had in early childhood. Kindly wealthy people remember what it was like not to dare to walk into a fancy food shop for fear of being patronised. We are always better long-term lovers if we have an avenue of loyalty back to who we were when we first met our beloved and were at an apogee of gratitude and modesty.
Old friends are key activators of fascinating and valuable parts of the self that we need, but are always at risk of forgetting we need, in the blinkered present.
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