A Letter to First Years on Friendship

When I fell on hard times over the summer, I turned to writing. I wrote down my thoughts and feelings. I poured my heart out. Then, when I was finished, I shared the story with my friends online. I confided, and in doing so, relinquished ownership of my story. My history — my life — was no longer just mine. It was now also the readers’. Through surrender, I had achieved catharsis. I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I could finally breathe.

Almost immediately, I received a call from a friend asking if I was all right. I was taken aback — I had never received such a phone call. Most of the time, people reach out to me through email or online messages.

More surprising than the call, though, was the influx of support and well-wishes that came out over the next few days. In three days, I received more messages from different people than I had in the previous year. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by friends and people who knew me.

But I realized something. Many of the messages came from unexpected sources … Many prefaced themselves by saying: “I know we’re not close, but I want you to know that I care …” I was lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful people that I had met at Amherst. But the scary thing is — had I been in a different place, or a little less lucky, or had these folks been a little less wonderful, I would have likely endured alone.

After all, I had few close friends growing up. I moved around a lot during middle and high school. During junior year of high school, I transferred to three different schools. My life was so unpredictable that I didn’t even know if it was worth it to remember the names of my classmates in homeroom. Friendships were hard to come by, and those I had were even harder to maintain. When I went to college, I tried to keep in touch with the few high school friends I had. But messages were time-consuming, and I always had to initiate them. I found myself wanting to initiate messages less and less, which naturally led to fewer and fewer close friends. I felt that absence, but I didn’t recognize the vacuum until I fell on hard times.

My story is not unique. The 2005 General Social Survey reports that the adults surveyed reported having no one with whom they talk about important matters three times more often than respondents to a 1985 study. “Zero” was the most common response when people wereasked how many confidants they have. Loneliness, it seems, follows our generation. Caroline Beaton opines in an article on Forbes that loneliness follows millennials because of two reasons: 1) It has reached a critical proportion where its contagiousness now snowballs and affects a greater number of people, and 2) The advent of the internet has worsened our ability to maintain social relationships.

It seems counterintuitive. Why is it that we are drifting further apart when surrounded by technology that makes it possible to speak with any person, at any time, anywhere in the world?

Friendship isn’t something you have. It’s something you work constantly to maintain and renew. It requires constant care and attention.

Technology is supposed to help us with that. It increases the ways we can communicate with someone, but also leads us to a false sense of complacency. When we know for a fact that we can always reach out to one another over the internet, we are less inclined to actually come through. The knowledge that we can is enough. Before that certainty, our lack of communication options created a distance that gave value to each and every interaction. We had fewer options that required more effort, so we worked harder in each and every interaction. That distance made every communication all the more precious. When the internet came, we lost our appreciation of communication as it became cheaper, more plentiful and easier. The Internet cheapened our letters, so we forgot the sense of working hard just to communicate. At a certain point, for me, I was satisfied with just knowing that I could reach out to my high school friends. I stopped putting work into maintaining those relationship and so I lost those friends.

But I’m still lucky. As mentioned previously, I am surrounded by wonderful people I met at Amherst College — people who, despite some not even knowing me too well, offered me overwhelming support, care, love and compassion. Were I in a less special place, I would have had no one, and I would have trudged through my hardship alone. So, it is my fortune to be surrounded by everyday heroes like them.

But I am not naïve. My luck won’t last forever. Hard work will. Friendships require working towards a destination. It is a constant journey — an adventure you take together. Like any adventure, it will have its ups and downs, and it will most certainly require legwork.

So, this year my resolution is to put more work into my friendships and to appreciate these relationships. I want to be more proactive about hanging out with friends and being a pillar for them when times are difficult. I didn’t before, and so I found myself lacking in close friends when times were tough.

I realized that many of my friends may also be experiencing a similar isolation, and so I want to be there for them. I was saved by my great luck. But I’m a senior now, and I don’t want my friendships to end at college. I want them to be a journey through that great odyssey of life. I want to have people by my side and be at their side as we embark towards that frontier, together. It is a little late for me to realize this, which is why I am telling you what I wish I told my younger self.

Incoming first years: You will meet lifelong friends during your time at college, but only if you continually work and put love, care and appreciation into every friend. That is what it takes to form lasting friendships.