Over the years, both as a child and as an adult, I have always found it easy to make friends. This is despite (at least in my adult life) having the appearance of a less than outgoing or approachable person. It's not that I scowl at people or deliberately try to keep them at arm's length, but my mouth has in repose always turned down at the corners. I'm not typically unhappy or cheesed off, but I often appear to be so. Nevertheless, anyone who has had the courage to keep their options open and be interested enough to scratch beneath that particular surface has (at least to the best of my recollection) discovered somebody with whom it is fairly easy to have a friendship. Or, at least, that is what I have tended to believe.
These days, I find myself second-guessing my previous impression of what was happening. It's a confusing jumble of memories which are filtered and focused and discarded or preferenced depending upon my mood in the moment of recollection, but the overall feeling I'm left with is one of, well...uneasiness. Did people really like me or were they just along for some sort of ride?
Some bluntness is called for to explain my position. Firstly, I'm sharing this because a) it's on my mind lately and b) I doubt that I'm alone in thinking this way, and hopefully my sharing this will touch a nerve elsewhere - and if it means someone else can identify with another human being's way of existing, the entire blog and its history has been worth it.
Secondly; despite being inherently a shy individual, I have been told by many people over the years that I have what they describe as a 'strong' character - the kind of personality that draws and commands attention in a room. I've been aware of it since I was kid when I would sometimes annoy my friends by being domineering (my own word), and I have spent a good deal of my adult life trying to rein in that side of my projected personality for fear that it would push people away. The truth is, I prefer to not be the centre of attention at all; I prefer to be anonymous (such as here and elsewhere online), quiet and to not take any risks. Life, however, taught me that to be that way meant that my needs, wishes and prefereneces were consistently swamped by other people's. I want to be liked (most of us do, I believe). As a result, there is a gregarious public personality, and then again, for only a very few people, there is the real me.
The real me is the one who finds himself asking (rather meekly) whether I have made a terrible mistake throughout my life. I don't yet know the answer for sure, but I'm leaning towards 'maybe'. You see, I haven't been honest with the world; I haven't been that person who is afraid to simply say hello to a stranger, who was absolutely terrified before delivering his first lesson to a class of adult students, who is nervous about opening the front door of his own home. Yet, somehow, after working as a police officer for eighteen years and as a middle/senior manager for another ten, that is who I really am, even now at the age of forty eight. The world out there - beyond my front door - experiences me (I think)as a confident, opinionated, capable and forthright man. I'm physically larger than average and having played a lot of sport as a younger man, physically capable. Some people who have experienced one facet of my professional persona have described me as intimidating. But that's really not me - at the time, that was simply me playing a role. The idea of being an intimidating person is not an attractive one.
The vast majority of my oldest friends were made in the UK when by virtue of the nature of our work, teamwork was vital for success, and some incidental bonding was a natural consequence. Through shared experiences I became close to a small number of my colleagues, and formed the kind of friendships which, despite thousands of miles distance and years of separation, are no less strong for me. Similarly, a few friends from my school days have persisted (rejuvenated only recently through social media, it has to be acknowledged), but to a lesser degree.
In Canada, since 2002, I have made fewer friends than I expected. In part I think this is because, having effectively re-booted my working life when I got here eleven years ago, the groups within which I found myself professionally were on average, significantly younger than me. My lack of close friends in this country has given me cause to stop and think about the whole idea of friendship, and how, it seems to me, it is assumed that the term means the same thing to all people. I've concluded that this is very unlikely to be true. There may very well be common elements to friendship, but the way I value the term as I experience it is probably different in some important ways to how you experience and value it.
To me, a real friend is someone whom I can trust to wish the best for me - for no other reason than they know and like or love me. A friend shows how they feel in word or deed, sometimes over a great length of time, sometimes over less. A friend can be trusted with confidentialities, can be trusted to empathise, can be relied upon to do what they believe is the right thing. A friend does not judge me but accepts me for who I am, warts and all. I apply this standard to myself and, in all honesty can claim to be an extremely loyal and steadfast friend in return.
There are few people who meet my self - defined standards in this regard. I must have met thousands of people in my life, and only a tiny proportion have ever been what I would call real friends. An even tinier proportion of that group has remained friends with me until today. Many have been acquaintances in a friendly way - people with whom I share much, but who remain distant enough not to be missed if they are elsewhere.
I haven't made any real friends for a very long time - over twenty years, in fact. That statement excludes my wife, who I met (after a twenty-something year hiatus) again in 2008, and who married me two years later. She is, of course, my closest ever friend as well as being my beloved and loving partner for life. Outside of that relationship the numbers are dwindling.
Partly this is a function of my geographical relocation eleven years ago; it's simply very difficult to maintain friendships over huge distances because seeing one another and sharing a real face-to-face conversation is usually not possible. Partly, as I mentioned earlier, I believe that I have less in common with my most recent workmates (I now work alone for the most part) both in terms of age and life experience. There seems to be less and less common ground between myself and the people I meet. My real fear is that partly, I am also becoming less likeable.
So I return to my two most troubling questions; am I running out of friends? Have I made a terrible mistake by not projecting who I believe that I really am?
Firstly: it looks like it. It's hard to convince someone that remaining friends is a better idea than letting things slip - it's a one-sided argument by its very nature, and also usually way, way too late by the time it becomes apparent that this is what's happening. People will make their decisions on instinct, gut feeling and the information that they have available. This state of affairs saddens me; it seems that I valued some friendships more than others did. In some cases it seems that friendships have only lasted because I made the running and put the effort in to maintain contact. The real me now says enough is enough, and it's time to let people make their own decisions. Dammit, perhaps other people need to try harder! Perhaps, on the other hand, having less friends is actually alright, though.
Secondly: on the matter of having made a big mistake - again, in one sense it looks like it. This is a little more tricky to be objective about, because the friends I have held close have all been people I genuinely like and admire for all kinds of reasons. Would I therefore have attracted the same calibre of person as friends if I had simply been the more meek, shy and retiring person I feel like I really am? Who really knows - but it seems unlikely. It's difficult, therefore, to sincerely regret those choices that I made in this regard. The real issue is, as I ponder these things, have I instead become the person I was pretending to be? If that is the case, perhaps the sloughing of people I considered friends is far more complex than can be explained by any single factor.
One final question which perhaps cuts to the heart of the matter: do I actually need close friends these days? I am very fortunate to have an extraordinary relationship with a wonderful partner who is my best friend, my lover and the complete companion for me in every way. Outside of my marriage I do still miss the close friendships I used to enjoy on a regular basis - that regular contact with people with whom I shared values and understanding. Some of those people I loved like family, and all of them I perhaps misjudged enough to think that they would not be hurt by my leaving, and to expect them to be able to maintain a friendly relationship in such circumstances.
I have met and enjoyed the company of a great many wonderful people over the first half of my adult life - I've been fortunate indeed. The rest of my life will hopefully include a great many more wonderful people, and I wrap up my thoughts on this subject (at least in public) with the idea that somewhere, out there in the world that I am still exploring and learning about, there are more people with whom I will become a real friend. More than hoping this is true, I believe it.
I hope to meet you soon.