OPINION: Revisiting friends from our youths has many benefits
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About 15 years ago, I read an article by someone I greatly admire, the celebrated American psychotherapist and writer Irvin Yalom. He described a change, as he aged, in the sort of friends he wanted to spend time with.
I recall him using a wonderful phrase: "The past is ever more with me." And he said he had reached a point in life where "events from long ago pull at me."
He also described how in his late seventies – as he was then – he suddenly had an urge to attend school reunions despite having ignored such events for decades.
I was very taken then with what he had to say, and it resonates with me even more now.
But what is the reason for this ‘stage’ in our lives? Perhaps it’s to do with a wish to escape somehow from the complexity of what our adult lives have become. It’s certainly common to yearn for more simplicity as we grow older, and that taps into emotions and memories about our parents, who may no longer be with us, and friends from years ago.
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I know many adults who have rediscovered childhood pals and who genuinely enjoy their company now as much as they did when they were younger. There’s something heartening about this.
Maybe it tells us that the essence of who we are was always evident and established before we took on the many trappings of adulthood.
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Reconnecting with people who knew us as children, or teenagers, or very young adults, also reconnects us with ourselves. And that can be so important.
I’ve seen dozens of clients over the years who have felt they have somehow lost themselves.
This frequently happens when a marriage goes sour and a certain amount of numbness creeps in, and the spirited, fun person you once were becomes a distant memory.
But even in happy relationships, decades of looking after a house, working to pay off a mortgage, endless DIY and the relentless routine of laundry for a growing family can leave us with a sense that we’ve lost the individual we once were.
Usually that person is still alive within us, but we often need people who knew us years previously to help us bring him or her out of hiding.
To come back to Irvin Yalom, I wonder if he were writing on this subject now whether he would have any thoughts on the impact that the pandemic is having on adults seeking out friends, places and experiences from earlier in their lives.
And whether we are doing more of it in the wake of Covid-19. I suspect we are.
I think that there is something in us all that looks for old familiarities when we feel threatened. And we have felt threatened, haven’t we? So, it makes sense that many of us are seeking out elements from our past that feel safe, secure and familiar.
One of my greatest friends lives in Cambridge. He went to university there and never left.
But recently a number of his former fellow-students have returned to the city and have sought out his company. Again, I really understand this.
Our further education years are full of stimulus and development and learning and we often make friends for life among others making the same journey.
These are the individuals who knew us before we became all the things we are today – a mother, a stepfather, an executive, a salesman, a scientist, an actor, or whatever.
Somehow being with them, and in a place that once was the centre of our being, strips away the complicated layers we have added through the years and helps us to feel grounded and reassured.
So, who would you like to contact again? Is there someone you laughed with unlike any other? Someone you went to Brownies with. A pal who was your conker opponent.
A girl you played piano duets with in the school assembly. An older student who got you through your first drunken night at university. Someone you nursed through a desperate heartbreak who later did the same for you…
It’s easier than it’s ever been to trace people.
For a start you may have some contact details tucked away in an ancient address book.
Then there’s social media – which basically helps more than anything these days and so often leads you to a person you want to get in touch with.
And even if your old pal is not on Facebook or Twitter, they may well have an online presence whether they like it or not.
Maybe they judge dog competitions, are active in their local Am-Dram company, or are on a parish council somewhere.
Nearly of us can be found via a Google search. Sometimes that seems a frightening thought, but when you’re hoping to link up with old mates it can be a huge bonus.
Of course, not all these reconnections go brilliantly.
Sometimes too much has happened, and we’ve developed into very different people, but it’s surprising how often they work well. And there’s something very satisfying about finding someone again who knew us back in the mists of time.
It completes an emotional circle, and that feels good!