Friends, distanced.

       In this age of Coronavirus, it might be difficult to maintain friendships – or any relationship that matters. On the one hand, we are to keep our distance, wear a mask, wash our hands repeatedly. We may be limited in the number of occasions where we can interact with friends. On the other hand, being quarantined with family members may seem like an exercise in patience or a test of our resilience, straining the gracious forbearance undergirding most families.

    We know that family relationships and marriages can suffer great strain when others are asked to carry too many relational needs. We cannot expect our spouse, for example, to be fully and totally present to us at all times; sympathetic, listening, encouraging, supporting. We all need a break from each other. Those breaks are fewer and farther apart these days, making friends even more important than ever. And yet, it’s hard in this environment to maintain friendships. It seems like a bind. What can we do about that situation?

    I am of an age where my family had one telephone located in a little cubby hole in the hallway. My twin sister and I had to share it and the oven timer was often set to allow for some kind of fairness. I don’t remember my mom and dad ever using the phone, at least when we were teenagers. The cool thing at the time, so I thought, was the long curly cord that allowed us to sit partway down the basement stairs with the door closed, thus giving us some measure of privacy. We also had pretty strict curfew limits. However, since we lived in a small town and our friends were within easy biking distance, we often spent most of our days outside with them. If we wanted to talk, we just did so. Walking to and from school with them, playing on sports teams with them, eating lunch with them and so on gave us ample opportunity to talk.  So, dealing with the shared telephone was not as difficult as it sounds. We had friends. We saw them and talked with them. A lot.

    Starting with our kids, and even more so with our grandkids, I see a significant change. Friends live all over the city – even the world. Moving and changing schools has had an impact on the “permanency” of friends. People come and go in their lives. And we live in the country where isolation and the need to make our own fun is the order of the day. But they have all kinds of electronic gadgets and programs that keep them connected. They can literally see and hear their friends as they talk on an iPad. They can play video games “alongside” their friends as if sitting on the same couch. They are so used to this electronic connectivity, as a matter of fact, that it seems to “count” as much as being physically next to them. (Something like that existed when I was a parish priest. Old timers wanted me physically present in their space, younger folks were just fine with a phone call.) They talk about all kinds of things. Nothing slows them down.

    Learning from them, my wife and I are part of study group that meets on Zoom every two weeks. I’ve come to appreciate the intimacy of the experience. For one thing, I can see and hear who’s talking, which is not always the case in a larger room setting. I also have a regular phone call with a guy I have never met in person. We have only met via phone, email and text. We share similar interests and life experiences. I reached out to him just to comment on a picture that I saw of him in a newspaper story. We have had some very intimate, revealing conversations, being very vulnerable with one another. It’s one of my most cherished friendships that is new but growing. My son and I text nearly every day. We talk on the phone almost weekly. I would say that the two of us are evolving into being colleagues as much as father-son. My wife and I are slowly expanding our “Rona Circle” to include safe people with whom we want to know better. We sit in our treehouse, which is more like a lanai, distanced, without touching, and have some amazing conversations. I look forward to those connections growing stronger.

    Can you be friends with someone at a distance? Of course! Will your relationship be as strong as if you were in person with them? Why not? How many times have we or our friends “held back” in a conversation or “put up” with something because we didn’t want to spoil the moment? In this new reality, I believe it’s easier to cut the nonsense and just get down to business. Why play around? Maybe it’s harder now in some ways but I think that’s just because it’s a new practice. I learned how to use email once upon a time and now it’s a very helpful tool in maintaining relationships and conducting business. It’s not either/or but a case of both/and. I am grateful for new technologies that can help me maintain, initiate and grow friendships – even at a distance! I hope that the same is true for you as you navigate this pandemic. Don’t worry. You’ve got this!

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