Is childhood the golden era of friendship? And can you get those relationships back? The other day, I took down from the shelf a beautiful novel by William Maxwell — “So Long, See You Tomorrow” — and I realized the title alone summons the unspoken bond, the constant availability, the relentless promise that friendship is when you are 12. My great friend at that age was Mark MacDonald. In those early, rain-soaked days on Scotland’s west coast, Mark was my constant companion and my secret weapon: Whatever happened at home, there would always be Mark to brighten the day and spit with style like River Phoenix did in “Stand by Me,” via a rolled-up tongue. We would be up at the crack of dawn to wander over the fields, scan the beaches for coins, climb the hills together and sit in the graveyard comparing our plans for world domination. Mark had Crohn’s disease; he was often in hospital, and we’d write to each other planning our adventures for the summer. He told me I was a good writer and I told him he was a great painter, before we disappeared from each other’s lives. I haven’t seen him in 30 years.
When I recently tried to find Mark again, he didn’t appear to exist. Like the boys in Maxwell’s novel, he seemed like a figment, or a fragile piece of memory that crumbles when you turn it in your hands. He wasn’t to be found at the old address I had for him in the seaside town of Saltcoats. His name is a popular one on Facebook, but none of the Marks I found was the one I knew, and he wasn’t on Twitter or Instagram either. None of the search engines reveal anything about Mark. I tried death certificates, fearing, as I have for a long time, that my old friend might have died. I asked my mother if any of her friends had kept in touch with the family but none had. I could remember two of his sisters’ names but they didn’t show up on the internet either. When I went back to Scotland recently, I drove to the square where we once lived, and I looked up at the window of my old house, remembering how I used to shine a torch from there to Mark’s bedroom. Two flashes meant good night. Three flashes meant see you tomorrow.
I wonder if technology has changed the meaning of friendship. My daughter is 12 and most things that happen to her are photographed. She and her friends get together and spend hours trying out poses, making videos, retouching them, setting them to music and posting them on this or that social media network. I’m sure the girls are bonded in many of the traditional ways, but I also wonder if they’ll ever lose sight of each other, which was always one of the possibilities of friendship, an aspect of its mystery. I think we always knew we would move on in life and that our great friendships would be a matter of memory. I don’t have a single photograph of Mark MacDonald. I don’t think we were ever photographed together, and that adds to the notion that our friendship was a fiction. Social media is a vehicle of self-promotion, a means of fixing an idea of yourself in the social sphere, without people actually knowing you at all. And that’s a change: The thing about friendship used to be that the ideal was shared entirely by the pair of you, or sometimes by a group, yet it remained local, and that was part of its power.
It’s the mindfulness I miss. A pair of excellent youngsters in my wider family have over 1,000 Facebook “friends” between them. They say they don’t know half of them, and that some of them are “frenemies.” The social network gives them the option of corralling people into “close friends” or “acquaintances,” and, naturally, they always have the option of clicking “unfriend.” But are the majority of these people friends or are they just names? You can know everything that’s going on in people’s lives without knowing a single thing going on in their hearts. But is that friendship? I’m told that empathy still flowers in the usual way, but I have my doubts. People now in their 20s have a lot of self-advertising talent, but are they, I wonder, close to the point where a bad breakup, say, or a death in the family, isn’t a moment of opportunity for the protective and dignifying balms of old friendship, but simply a quiet day on social media?
The times we live in are big on loyalty. Technology has driven us wild with questions of loyalty to flags, to nations, to a “way of life” or to brands who give out “loyalty points” to those who stay tight. But the only kind of loyalty that matters is to know your friends and stick with them. The relationship has nothing really to do with outside people, or with your self-image or with status updates, and perhaps our vision of friendship has been degraded by the instantaneous, relentless nature of our communications technology. Replace “watch and click” with “listen and feel,” close the curtains and mix two drinks, download nothing, “share” nothing, but lose yourself in the sort of communication that has nothing to sell.
Love gets all the big headlines, but friendship is where the action is, especially if you consider that it is really a lack of friendship that makes an unhappy marriage. Fundamentally, it’s the art of friendship that warms you in the various winters of your discontent, and when you’re in trouble you don’t want 1,000 people, but just one. “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain,” the late Muhammad Ali is thought to have said. “It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” And that is why I miss my old friend Mark. There was something there that stood outside of achievement or romance, money or technology, religion or reputation. As I say, I was never photographed with Mark MacDonald and I never hugged him or bought him lunch either. But sometimes in a dark hour I’ll look up and imagine I see him, not far distant, a living guarantee that there will always be someone in life who really knows who you are. When all the machines are off and when all the chips are down, I see his light. Three flashes.
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