As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania from the age of five through twelve, I had the best friend ever. We did everything together. Ran around and played everyday. Learned about girls as we grew older, and joined the same baseball team. Hours were spent sitting on the long, sturdy branches of the giant apple tree in his yard. We’d talk about life and our families.
But then my father moved our family moved to Illinois. Some letters were exchanged between my old friend and I, but it wasn’t easy back then to keep in touch. By the time I got back east even a year later, things were entirely different between us. There were competitive instincts brewing about who was doing better at this thing or that. But one of the subjects caught me completely by surprise.
He asked me, “Do you still jerk off?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question right off the cuff.
“Because I don’t. I quit that,” he told me.
Okay, I thought to myself. More power to you. But I was in 8th or 9th grade at the time. What guy didn’t yank it now and then?
We saw each other again at fifteen or sixteen years old when I returned back east for my older brother’s wedding. The distance between us by then was even greater. Plus I made the mistake of choosing to stay for the weekend at the home of a next-door neighbor. Something permanently broke in our relationship from then on.
Twenty years went by. Then I got word that he’d moved to Illinois with his new wife and child. Eager to perhaps rekindle some aspect of our friendship, I made contact and visited his home. He was less than interested.
Perhaps I should have given up at that point. But there’s always been a part of me that treasured those early years and what he’d meant to me.
Of course, there had been difficult moments in our friendship as well. At one point he moved south to live with his dad in Florida after his parent’s divorce. When he returned there was a new aspect to his character, a cynicism that I hadn’t seen before. It emerged in odd ways, especially in the way that he led me on with stories that weren’t true, only to reveal the truth and have a laugh at my gullibility.
That harshness was no doubt handed down from his father, who was a stern bugger as I recall. When my friend once climbed to the top of the apple tree and got stuck up there in fear, his father came out of the house and barked dismissive commands at him. Up to that point I knew that his parents were divorced, but did not know why.
As it turned out, my friend got divorced from his first wife as well. I don’t know anything more about that aspect of his life except that he made the decision for reasons of his own. The new wife that I met was charming, intelligent and sweet. It wasn’t my business to figure out his past. I was happy for him in the present.
But the past is a funny thing, and sometimes you don’t recognize profound changes in the moment. I recalled receiving a newspaper clipping from a friend back east who sent it to me during my high school years. It featured my old friend being quoted in the local paper about his political views. I recall being surprised that his views on a certain subject at the time were quite different from mine. That’s when I realized that had I stayed back east, we might well have grown apart as friends anyway.
Fading from view
It happens throughout all our lives. The people we spend time with in certain parts of our lives often fade out of view as time and circumstances change. Even during elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, our friends shift and change. Beyond that period of life, we develop work friendships and relationships. Some of these we leave behind and others we maintain. That’s become easier with the advent of social media.
Yet there is also a burden that comes with that ease of communication. In some ways, the expectation that we’re going to keep friendships going through thick and thin is unrealistic. In no other part of life have we typically behaved in that way. In the past, if people crossed us or changed in ways that don’t make sense to us, we simply moved on. Sometimes with regret, at other times with relief.
That twisted dynamic has grown in complexity as social media has been used to manipulate public opinion. Often we’re quite shocked to find out how our “friends” seem to think, or not. On the other hand, it is sometimes the people with whom we once seemed to disagree that become exceptional friends. There is no predicting the outcome.
I recall that during our years of training and racing together in high school cross country and track, there was a social order governing our time together. Generally the team leaders dictated the workout dynamics and how things went down. Most of it was happy. Some of it was harsh. If someone got really out of line and was annoying the hell out of the rest of the team, the team leaders stepped in to put a stop to it.
But in the world of social media, we’re largely on our own. We have no “team” to fall back on. When friends post annoying memes and false information, we face a choice. We can comment and risk alienating them from our circle of friends, or we can remain silent.
It is most disturbing to find out that people you considered fairly smart and considerate turn out to be close-minded and possessed of dismissive or prejudiced ideologies. The hot-button issues are everywhere. Gun control. Gay rights. Religious freedom. Economics. The environment. Democrats. Republicans. Conservatives. Liberals. Progressives.
The dog-whistle arguments and labels get ugly from there. That’s when propaganda and dogma enters the picture. And to make things worse, America is essentially a Petri dish of Coronavirus belief and disbelief right now. Yet one fact remains clear: the nation is at risk of economic collapse thanks to presidential inaction and obfuscation. Yet Trump supporters continue down a path of complete and utter denial of the damage being done through this and other actions. Commutations. Obfuscations. Blocking criminal investigations. Corruption lurks around every corner of every day.
And if you don’t understand that, I really don’t want to be your friend anymore.
So the question from both sides of the equation is profound: Does one keep old friends who adamantly disagree with you, or whom you find suddenly absurd and living in denial of even basic truths?
I know how I feel about the subject, because I’ve watched old friends turn into ghosts for all sorts of reasons. I’ve not been shy to challenge the beliefs of others on social media or anywhere else in life.
During my time at a conservative church whose beliefs align with the evangelical political movement now dominating culture in America, I did not sit quietly when people opposed evolution, pronounced gay people irredeemable sinners, or barked about abortion while opposing access to birth control.
Ultimately we left that church because while the people were nice on the surface, the ideology behind the synod was intolerant and dogmatic to the point of being hateful. Sometimes in life it pays to use your feet, move on, and embrace a more rational and loving worldview. It will take exceptional fortitude in the present and near future to hold to those principles, especially in the face of a regime whose every move points toward tragedy for someone.
Ignorance and confidence
For one, I will not stand down even in the face of religious friends claiming this is all an act of God. As Mark Twain once said, “In politics and religion, most people’s opinions are gotten secondhand, and unexamined.” He’s absolutely correct on that, but he was also correct in saying, “All it takes is ignorance and confidence, and success is sure.”
That describes life on social media, for sure. And if people persist in being ignorantly confident in their treasured opinions, I have no regrets jettisoning them from my orbit. They’re clearly not going to change even when confronted with the facts. In fact they fear them so much they typically exit the picture when presented with them. In either case, it is both a lost cause but not much of a loss. Your life will go on without them. That much I have learned many times over. The fine art of leaving old friends behind is that sometimes it is the right thing to do.