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Home / Reality Or Lack Of It  /
Best Friends Or Adios Forever?
best friends forever

How painful is it to accept never seeing another person again?


When I was in grade school, possibly all the way up into high school, the custom was to have your fellow students sign your yearbook at the end of the academic year.   This is a quite interesting concept if what people wrote in your yearbook ingenuously captured the relationship between the two of you at the time.

I briefly re-read some of the signatures on a trip back to my father's recently.  They read like this:  "To Doug, a person in my social studies class."  "Thanks for the fun and the stories."   "Good luck.  See you next year."

Harlequin romances make better reading.

The other extreme is for people to value the relationship as more than it ever was.  When you're 10 or 13 or 17, you know diddly squat even if you aver you know more than your parents.  All too easily you can fall into the trap of believing the people you're close with now will always be your nearest and dearest.  I did.  Every kid and teenager must.  My own stepson of nearly 16 actually thinks he'll remain close enough with his high school buddies and attend the same university in British Columbia with them.   He resents it when I try to introduce my wisdom into the equation.

During my trial of being a youth dependent, you'd often see people signing their buddy's yearbook with "BFF", best friends forever. In all but a minute number of cases, forever boils down to a couple of years.  An obscure department at a university with nothing better to do has probably already invested millions of dollars in a study correlating the use of the term "BFF" with the likelihood of never seeing that person again after five years.

I don't know if students of today follow the tradition of yearbook signing or of using the BFF acronym. In the digital age, collecting people's analog signatures in a yearbook is passť when you can befriend all of them on Facebook. My stepson's private school doesn't even offer a yearbook. A bulky and expensive yearbook of stories and photographs compiled by an editor holds less appeal for the millennials than their own Facebook feeds.

I've written before how my stepson's generation and the generations which come after need not ever lose touch with anyone they've ever met.  The guy sitting in the toilet stall next to yours at a rest stop can quickly become a Facebook buddy. Even after every party has gone his own way in real life, few will delist a Facebook buddy they'll probably never genuinely communicate with again.

My generation isn't the one you observe to see how people communicate with old friends.  Generation X never got the option to perpetually stay in touch with every person we ever laid eyes on.  If I have old acquaintances on my social contacts list now, it's because we found and befriended each other online decades after we'd already lost touch. The damage to our relationship had already been done. A quick catch up on Facebook by itself isn't enough to reinvigorate an ancient relationship.

Social networks on the internet have contributed to the resuscitation of the weak tie, the connections that would have faded from memory in the analog eras.  All these people constitute what I previously described as the V-list, an endless virtual niche list you would never have invested any real time in assembling.

If we want to get scientific about it, the V-list can be further subdivided.  There are those on the V-list who were once true friends or perhaps colleagues we had something concrete to base a friendship or friendly relationship. The people making this more exclusive cut are on the LF-list, short for Lost Friends.

We distinguish the LF-list from what I'll call the Question Mark (Q) List. The Q-list consists of people you met once at a workshop but have not contacted since; fellow students in a yoga class you barely talk to each week; the Burmese girl on a tuk tuk I spoke with for five minutes who then insisted on friending me.  It's referred to as the Q-list because if a year or two goes by and you see this name, there's a good chance you'll scratch your head and ask, "Who the $)@*$)( is this person?"   Everyone knows intuitively who qualifies for their Q-list.

Those on the Q-list are not worthy of further consideration for the following discussion.  It's understood we'd never go a fraction out of our way to see any of these people in the flesh again.   A friend of mine just celebrated a birthday.  As I was dining on a delicious Indian thali with him, he remarked that a Belgian woman he'd met 8 years ago on a kiteboarding instructors course had wished him happy birthday on his Facebook feed.  He readily admitted he didn't care to ever see her again. No matter.  She's on his Q-list, and a Q-list has its own benefits, like bringing in marginal acknowledgement of your life milestones. A well-wished greeting from someone you barely know beats no greeting at all.

But what about those on our LF-list? Can we sadistically fool ourselves into believing that there's a possibility we might see some of the faces from our past again ... someday?

My stepson no longer bothers to look up the BFF's on his LF-list he attended school with six years ago. I acknowledge he may not be a sound role model for Generation Z behavior. He pays attention to whoever is in front of him. When they're out of sight, they're WAY out of mind. I predict his BFF's in high school will quickly recede once he graduates and no longer sees them daily.  There's also a relative experiential explanation. Six years out of his life is like fifteen years to a 40-year old. An adult not seeing someone in fifteen years could easily let the tie disintegrate.

Recently, a colleague of my wife's left Thailand and returned to the United States with her husband and newborn. This woman qualifies for my wife's LF-list. Though not friends, per se, they worked closely together for over four years.  We saw her and her husband on various group social occasions, work parties, and the like but not outside of this.  Is it really likely we'd look them up whenever we're in the Washington DC area, which given that I haven't been back to DC in over 15 years, could be a long, long wait?

Both of them were in the Peace Corps in Thailand in the late 90's and moved back to the Kingdom later for work. There's a fairly good chance they'll return for a vacation in the not-too-distant future.  Considering we never saw them personally when they were actually living here, what are the chances they'd go out of their way to look us up?

Close enough to zero as to be zero. My bets are that we'll never see them again.

That was an easy case study.  What about real friends from the deep past I haven't seen in years? Might I not see them again?

Obviously, there is more incentive to look up genuine old friends from the LF-list than the Peace Corps couple, but practically, when would I ever revisit any of these old friends? If any lived in my home town, I'd have made some effort to drop in and visit during the two times I've returned to the USA in the last 11 years. None do.

Let's take Chuck. I wouldn't classify Chuck as a friend, really. I met him in 1985.   He grew up an hour north.  My parents knew his parents.  He happened to be on a 6-week high school age trip I took to Holland and Israel. By some crazy twist of fate, Chuck then happened to enroll in the same university as I a couple years later.  We barely socialized there. I graduated ages ago and haven't seen Chuck since.  Fast forward decades, Chuck befriends me on Facebook and joins my LF-list. He's messaged me personally a few times over the years to ask about my life in Thailand, which is more than can be said for most on my LF-list.

Chuck lives in New Jersey now. The only time I've ever been to New Jersey was to pass through it on my train ride from New York City to Ohio in June.   My chances of seeing Chuck again are almost as low as my chances of seeing the Peace Corp couple.

What about my old friend Marcus? I befriended him on the same Israel-Holland trip as Chuck, but unlike Chuck, Marcus and I maintained a real friendship. We made the 60 mile drive over to each other's homes over long weekends. I visited college campuses with him during our senior year in high school.  I got invited and paid to film his youngest brother's bar mitzvah.  He enrolled at the University of Texas and married his college sweetheart shortly thereafter and relocated to Houston.  I don't think I've seen Marcus now in close to thirty years.

As I was quite close to Marcus at one point in my life, I would go out of my way to look him up if I were ever in Houston. But when do I expect that to ever happen? In all my years living in the USA, my only visits to Texas were driving through its panhandle and layovers at the Dallas-Ft Worth airport.

The USA is a large country I hardly get back to. I've accumulated a large share of names on my LF-list over the years. That doesn't leave the odds very high of seeing any American LF'ers outside a very limited circle.  If I want to be honest with myself, there are very few people back in the USA (or anywhere else, for that matter) I'd exert a significant effort to see. An LF-listee has a better chance of seeing me again were s/he to come to Thailand and look me up, and I don't appraise those odds as very high. 

Well before the explosion of social networking and an online way to database your LF-list, I culled my offline address books through a very simple test.  I asked if I were ever in a person's locale, would I look him or her up?  The answer to this question changed over time. If at least three years had passed between last seeing each other, and we hadn't exchanged correspondence since, their status sank from the LF-list to the inferior Q-list.  Whenever I defied this "rule", like calling up a South African girl in Durban I hadn't seen in over 8 years, my overture turned into an act of embarrassment for both parties. If you're not famous, people forget you after eight years.

With everything moved online, that three year window of LF maintenance status may now be extended to five or six years. People are less likely to forget you if you send an occasional birthday greeting.

But real, if not seen, LF-list erosion still occurs if you don't put in some sweat.  My wife once had a close Malaysian friend when she lived in Kuala Lumpur, Allison. My wife gave me Allison's contact details when I visited Malaysia solo for 7 weeks in 2007.  I didn't look Allison up because I was visiting Malaysian Borneo and not the mainland. Two years later, my wife and I visited Kuala Lumpur together for the first time and had dinner with Allison, listening to her vent the entire three hours about an Iranian lover jilting her. Three-and-a-half years later, Allison visited Bangkok during the Christmas-New Year season, and we pulled out all stops, taking her out to lunch, dinner, and drinks.  That's the last time we ever saw her.  From her Facebook postings, we noticed she's been back to Bangkok several times without bothering to contact us.  By the time we got to Kuala Lumpur for an April 2015 visit, Allison was already on the Q-list.

This is an almost identical story to another friend's, a Canadian we'll call Stu.  I met Stu in Hua Hin right around the same time as I met my future wife. He moved to Singapore a couple years later, but when he came to Thailand on a vacation he regularly looked us up. When we made a trip to Singapore in early 2012, we looked him up in turn.  He last came by our Bangkok pad in 2012. I know he's been back to Thailand numerous times since and neglected to look us up.  I've seen his Facebook feeds.  So when we returned to Singapore for a very brief 2-night visit in 2015, we didn't make time for Stu. Without us consciously making the decision, Stu had fallen onto the Q-list.

That's how it works.  If you don't use the connection, you lose it. As time passes, people on the LF-list, even if they were once close friends, diminish so significantly in importance that relaxing in your hotel room for 4 hours watching reruns of a 1990's TV show sounds more appealing than looking up this old friend when you're passing through his or her town.

The honest to goodness truth is that less than 10% of the people on our LF-list are people we'll ever see again. They really should be on our Q-list. Family relatives on the LF-list are exceptions. They can never be entirely demoted to Q status. Being related to someone geometrically increases the odds of seeing them again.

It sounds so sad to declare you'll never see someone again. Say that statement out loud to yourself:  "I will never see _______ again for the rest of my life." There is a pain to that finality, like a door has been closed. But let's be realistic. That door was closed a long, long time ago. If either of you wanted that door open, you'd have made better efforts to stay in touch.  What excuse do we have nowadays when connecting virtually to anyone in the world costs virtually nothing?

We prefer not confronting that finality head on. We fool ourselves that we might possibly see someone again. it sounds so much brighter and optimistic. This is our excuse for deluding ourselves all these people still remain on our LF-list.

We're tied together with the loosest possible thread. That thread is sufficient to allow us to eavesdrop on their lives. In one very true sense, we actually do see them again ... and again ... and again and appreciate that what we're seeing, in cyberspace, is already more than enough.


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