The sorrow of friendship

I had a late-night call with an old friend yesterday, after the girls were long in bed and I was on my fourth IPA. He’s an older buddy; we used to be business partners, but our lives have diverged quite a bit since we worked together, about fifteen years ago. I was twenty five then and he was thirty four, and although we’ve stayed in touch over the years, we’ve drifted apart. This call was the first time we’ve spoken in several months, and it just served as a reminder how different our lives are.

There’s a common saying in self-help and other circles: you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. My wife and I took this saying to heart some time ago, realized that the crowd we had been hanging with were not travelling in the same direction as us, and pretty much grew apart from most of them. I can honestly say that I was a fuck-up back then.

I remember once, in my twenties, I had a conversation with the local police chief. He was off duty, I can’t remember the context, but there was some religious context to it. The subject turned to rock music. The chief started wistfully recalling his band days, playing Stones and Zepplin, Back Door Man, he said, but the message behind all of that was fleeting — he didn’t use the word sinful to describe it, but all that paled in comparison to the purpose he felt after he found Jesus.

Of course I haven’t had any similar religious conversion. The story I tell people is that I had to make a choice with my life. Whether to keep “pursuing music”, an excuse to go out and get wasted at open mic nights and bars, or focus on my wife and the family we were building. I made the right choice. The alternative would have been another DUI, another job lost, I likely would have cheated on my wife and lost her too. So a lot of “friends” got cut in that decision as well. I haven’t regretted it all, je n’rein pas, as they say.

Another friend, one of my oldest, reached out to me out of the blue several months ago, and stopped by for a very short visit. We caught up, it seemed like the same ‘ol, same ‘ol, even though the details had changed. It seemed that he at least was in a better place than when I had left him last, he said he’d been sober for over a year. I was in the midst of one of my abstinent periods. He was staying fit, and working out, but if he had found any professional success I was expecting it to be short lived, as his pattern had been since I had known him.

Both of my guy friends have been single for some time. They had come off of bad breakups that had left them broken and emotionally scarred in some sense. I had been in similar relationships earlier in my life, and I’m lucky that my wife and I had a long history together before becoming romantically involved. And the fact that she has her shit together hasn’t hurt, either. If there was one single factor that I could point to with regard to the change in my life’s trajectory this past fifteen years, it would be her influence. It took a long time to turn the ship around, but I can only imagine where I would be without her.

I’ve got to reiterate again how lucky the two of us and our girls are in the midst of this Great Lockdown. My friend seems to have gotten the short straw at his job and is stuck being the one to have to come into the office and help the other “essential” staff. He’s making money working overtime and it burned out, but feels compelled to continue because he’s under endless student loan debt. He’s not taking care of himself, I have no doubt. We talked about politics and bitcoin, but when I found out just how deep his situation I was reminded why we had grown apart in the first place.

I’ve tried to offer advice and solutions in the past, but I usually wind up feeling bad about it, like a man in a boat telling a drowning man to swim. At least last night I managed to catch myself before I became indignant about it. I think it was just the sadness, and hopelessness that my friend seemed to be resigned to. It’s easy to imagine a way out of things for someone else, but only they can take that first step.

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