02 January 2009

Childhood friends

When I was around 6 years old, I had a friend, whom I'll call Billy, who lived round the corner from us. He was in my elementary school class, and I saw him virtually every day. We would play at each other's homes, and I recall our walking one day to the Sunnyside Market, which was several blocks from our street. This was a big deal for us, because we were still quite small and our mothers naturally feared for our safety. But this minor adventure was something of a bonding experience for us.

Our friendship seems to have faded after he came over to my house one day to tell my mother that I had said a bad word ("damn") during gym class. He made sure I was in my room before he told her, but I could hear him through the closed door all the same. Not only did my mother not get angry with me later; she didn't even mention it, much to my relief. In any event, Billy and I were not quite as close after that episode.

I had other friendships as a boy, but the one thing that stands out about these is that not one of them lasted even into adolescence, much less adulthood. We moved out of that neighbourhood when I was 13, leaving behind an entire community that I had grown up in. In the context of North America, I doubt that I am unusual in this. While I was privileged to grow up in one town, many have moved from one city to another throughout their growing-up years, thus making it difficult for them to nurture friendships at all.

Two years ago, I read Marilyn Robinson's prize-winning novel, Gilead, and wrote of the experience here:

[A]lthough I have never lived in a small town, I was taken with the setting and the relationships nurtured by it. Imagine living in one place one's whole life and enjoying the proximity of lifelong friendships. In a mobile society friendships are generally cultivated for a time and then have to be maintained in attenuated form over a distance as someone moves away. (I have never entirely reconciled myself to this fact of contemporary life.) But [John] Ames and old Boughton — best friends from childhood — grow old together and seemingly face death at nearly the same moment.

Mobility is definitely an obstacle to long term friendships. But there are other, less context-driven factors, such as different paces of maturation. Because they are children, two friends will connect with each other in, well, childish ways. They toss a football back and forth, play hide-and-seek or tag, or build a snow fort together. Little girls may play dolls, while boys may play cops and robbers. In-depth conversations about personal struggles are unlikely, except perhaps in the form of superficial complaints about parents or teachers. The distance between, say, grades 3 and 4 seems vast at that age. Those only a year younger seem to us hopelessly immature, while those a year older look by comparison to be suave and sophisticated.

Even those of the same age may grow apart simply because one of them is growing up more quickly. Two girls happily playing with barbies only a few months earlier may drift away from each other as one suddenly becomes more aware than the other of how endlessly fascinating are the boys they have shunned so recently. The less mature girl can't understand what the fuss is all about, and it's enough to make both seek company elsewhere.

However, that in itself need not curtail the maintenance a lifelong friendship. There is something powerful that binds us to the land where we grew up, even after we leave. Most forms of patriotism depend on this bond, and it is not unusual for a national anthem to extol something of the homeland's unique topography. It has been said that true patriotism can only be local, and I'm inclined to agree. Certainly Robert E. Lee well understood this as he was weighing military commissions offered by both Union and Confederacy in the opening days of the American Civil War. In so far as childhood friends are shaped by the land of their birth, they continue to share something profound that could conceivably last a lifetime, given supportive circumstances. Having once collaborated in building a treehouse in a familiar nearby forest makes for a lasting relationship that may deepen with maturity.

Yet I fear this is exceptional for those of us who have grown up in one place and now live in another. It is difficult personally for me to imagine having a lifelong friend, because this has not been part of my experience. One of my closest friends here in Hamilton I have known for 30 years, which is in fact the major part of my life thus far. But there is more than a decade between us. Furthermore, we both grew up in different countries and cannot claim to share the love of a common homeland.

As a father, I look at my daughter and the friendships she has formed. In kindergarten and grade 1 these were fairly simple in nature, and she and her friends revelled in each other's companionship. As they grow older, however, these have become more complicated for a variety of reasons. Given that we are far from family on both sides and that she is an only child, we are naturally concerned that she should have stable friendships that, we hope, will endure into adulthood. Yet, if our own experience is any indication, the odds are against this.

It may be that our communities need to be more intentional about fostering such friendships among our children. Perhaps we need to think more deeply about this and discuss it within our families, neighbourhoods and churches. Friendship and community are not the same thing, and there seems to be a paradoxical relationship between the two. Friendship is the basis for community, as Aristotle already understood more than two millennia ago. But it is also true that community nurtures friendship, as we are more likely than not to choose our friends from among the members of the communities of which we are part. Thus the health of our friendships and of our communities is very much interconnected. Building and strengthening community facilitates the nurturing of friendship and, I'm inclined to think, vice versa.

Next: Youthful friendship.

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