POOL PARTY! Everyone from the family is here, and everyone brings their friends. The atmosphere is lively and exciting. The energy of each person entering the house explodes from the doorway. One by one, a parade of colorful, whimsical personality is expressed in every direction.
People are laughing candidly, gesturing openly. They're hugging and kissing, joking and eating. Dogs jolting around the house, tongues out, wagging their tails, hitting everyone around them. Kids are running and jumping around with exuberance, playing dress-up and catch near the food. Their parents yell at them to stop, but the kids laugh it off and run away.
As I witness this scene, I can understand why connection is important. Why being close to loved ones and friends is the most sought-after experience in life. At six years old, I didn't know much about connection. In fact, I'm not good at it. At six years old, I do not speak. I sit on a couch that is way too comfy, often sinking into it while simultaneously being pulled further in by my discomfort. As the youngest person in my family, I couldn't relate to anyone. I didn't know why I was quiet and why I couldn't speak up. Why can't I understand the people around me? Even if I thought I could relate, I couldn't speak. As years went by, that gap widened. I couldn't get close to the people I wanted to know the most, the people I had watched and looked up to. I could see the genuine joy of everyone embracing each other.
As a child, I felt completely and utterly alone.
Do you ever feel alone? You're not alone because, besides me, according to a 2020 study done by Cigna, 46% of Americans feel alone, 47% feel left out (Nemecek 4). That's nearly half of our country and 1 in 2 people we meet. But how can we trust people when our government works against us, when we can't afford to survive, when we aren't allowed to be who we are? When we're told to fit in or we're worthless, when image is everything and who we are is nothing unless we have money? You might feel alone, or you might feel like you can fend for yourself, but the reality is we are all alone. Even with family and parents, when we come into the world, we're born alone. When we die, we die alone. Our bodies and minds are the only things we have control over. We are each responsible for our own aloneness.
What does that mean as we operate in this reality? It means we can only experience our own lives, and each individual has their own version and interpretation of life. One person might think nature is necessary and beautiful; another might see more value in destroying it all for money and power. Each of us wants something completely different, and with so many distinct perspectives, it's rare to find other people who have common interests. Luckily, we share environments where we can do stuff together and create interests together. We are even more lucky to live in a time where we have access to the internet, a utility used to find people we have things in common with.
I was in second grade when I met my first actual bully. Let's call her Sarah. Every day in class, I would be my usual quiet self, often not paying attention to anything we are learning. Sarah sits right next to me all class taunting me. Telling me I'm gross, that I'm a loser, weak, dumb; all the words second graders know. As a quiet kid, I would react by crying. It was common for me to cry instead of talking because I would get frustrated that I couldn't communicate.
At some point, my teacher finally saw Sarah bullying me and pulled me aside to ask me if we needed to go to the dean to discuss our issues. As a second grader, it was an uncomfortable conversation. I shook my head. At that moment, I felt I had some sort of power, that at any moment, I could get Sarah in trouble by telling on her. Would I be able to communicate what she did was wrong? Probably not, but I felt at ease. The following week Sarah didn't bother me.
Earlier that week, my 9-year-old sister taught me how to draw a dog with four circles. This was the first thing I have ever learned to draw. I would draw that dog constantly, everywhere. Sarah walked up to me one day as I was drawing and made a joke to me. I didn't understand it, but I wasn't having it and ignored her. She kept trying to talk to me about my life, about my drawing, about my sister, about stuff I like. I had never talked about that kind of stuff with anyone. At the end of our talk, I gave her a dog drawing. The attention I got intrigued me. The next day she made me teach her how to do it, and I was happy to help. Sarah became my first genuine friend.
Although we are effectively alone, history has proven we work better together. We've led progression in social, cultural, and organizational development to create an advanced civilization. We can go to a cinema, drive to a theme park, and play games on our phones while we wait at a train stop. When we work together, it is proven historically that our imaginations shape the world we live in.
Imagine a world where none of us have to feel alone, and those of us that pretend we're not alone can be vilified by concrete evidence. Why do any of us even feel alone when 7.9 billion people populate the world as of 2022? Are there not enough people? Our worlds are a lot smaller when we're struggling with our daily lives, we are programmed to follow the same routine every day, and we have no time to explore our options to find a solution that works. Making friends allows us to expand the world we live in. They allow us to see the world from another person's perspective. Through friendship, we learn how to better navigate our individual lives. We gain access to other people, ideas, and concepts we might have never even considered.
When I first moved to Chicago for college, my first roommates became my only friends. I still hadn't mastered communication, even in a place like a college, where everyone is so much more open to connecting. We even tried to meet other people, but my first college roommates didn't have the confidence to put themselves out there, and neither did I. They would complain that we weren't meeting people, but I couldn't change anything.
After my first year with these roommates, I wanted out, but I didn't know anyone else. I was too afraid of taking risks with someone I didn't know and moved in with the same roommates once again. I spent all summer looking for an apartment on my own for the three of us and ended up taking the smallest room because two of them threatened to move in together without me, leaving me alone.
This was one of the most miserable years of my life. People I would call my "friends" would laugh at my expense, they would make me pay for things I couldn't afford, they would ignore every single word out of my mouth, they would abandon me when things were not going their way, and they would constantly pressure me to be the decision-maker. I had enough sleepless nights crying and made the best decision I have ever made in my life by meeting new roommates through Craigslist.
I didn't know what to expect when I first moved into my new place. It was right next to Wrigley Field and inside the apartment was a giant Pulp Fiction mural on the wall. My roommates consisted of a Musician from Indiana, a CTA worker from Michigan, an Irish engineer who had just flown in, and some other random Irish engineer, who didn't really live with us, but he lived with us on the weekends. He was our Kramer.
Every day was an adventure. We would blast music in our house and scream songs together. go to multiple bars late at night, go to sports games, get trapped in elevators. We would go to really weird house parties and meet random people on the street that would become our best friends. We'd crash college parties and sometimes stay up all night talking about life.
Before these friends, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I didn't think I would ever have friends. I thought I was stuck and that I would never get out. Their different life experiences and the experiences they brought to me changed me. I learned to like baseball, I learned about Molly Malone, how to cook Jamaican dishes, and suddenly, after experimenting by talking to people at many bars, I could communicate.
Friendship comes in many shapes and sizes. Just as we all experience our lives differently, we share our relationships with friends differently. Friend A might be drawn to Friend B by relating to their fashion sense and ability to socialize with everyone. Friend B might be drawn to Friend A because they relate to their sense of humor and broad understanding of cars. Each person in a friendship can be drawn to different characteristics, but one thing friendships will always have is respect. Two people can have a lot in common, but they may not connect if one person in the relationship doesn't listen. If one person in the relationship doesn't reciprocate interest, or if one person in the relationship decides the other person is inferior, the relationship doesn’t work.
Every time we make a new friend, we make an exclusive connection between two people that is interpreted in two different ways. Even though friendships are understood differently by different people, there are ways to bridge the divide. One of those ways is communication. With conversation, hollow friendships that might seem isolating can become long-standing relationships more akin to family.
When I first moved back to Los Angeles, I was optimistic and open-minded. At this point, I moved in with my father, who was now seeing me differently, like I'd grown up and become an adult. We've always had a strong father-son connection, but I'd never been interested in hanging out with his friends or other "old people." What I had gained in Chicago was wisdom; I learned that everyone's perspective on life is unique, and everyone has interesting nuggets of information that would broaden my worldview and my understanding of myself.
I started going to parties with my dad's friends. Not all of my dad's friends are my kind of people, but I enjoyed hearing perspectives from people that think differently. One of my dad's friends in particular, stood out to me one night. His name was Etan. He remembered me when I was a kid and how I wouldn't interact with anyone. He told me I reminded him a lot of himself when he was younger. I was surprised because he is a chatterbox. While he talked a lot, he was brilliant. He knew stories and could talk for an entire day about the experiences in his life. He had an enthusiasm for stories – for life. For everyone he would meet, he would talk to them as if they were the most special people in the world, and in learning about him over the years, I genuinely believe he thought everyone was special.
When I met Etan, I didn't have a direction in life. I couldn't drive, I was living with my dad, and I didn't have any friends in Los Angeles. After he learned about my life, he told me he would help me. I started to draw every day, and my drawings were really bad, but he supported me. He told me they were great. My family was tired of seeing my drawings, and he was the only one that consistently supported my ambition.
Etan showed me how to support other people because no matter what, self-judgment is everyone's greatest obstacle. He was there for me when no one else was, and I try to be the person he would have liked me to be for other people. As close as we were as friends, Etan was family to me. I wanted him to meet my nephew and get to know everyone in my life. He would get something out of any kind of new relationship and I know they definitely would. At Etan's funeral a little over a year ago, a long line of people wanted to give a speech on his behalf.
By communicating our experiences in life, how we feel, what we think, and what we're doing, we open ourselves up to stronger connections with friends. However, if communication isn't mutual and there isn't a common understanding that both parties want a stronger connection, we might be setting ourselves up for an uncomfortable situation. It takes trust and effort from both sides to be vulnerable, and when one side doesn't take the risk of opening up, the relationship becomes lopsided.
Friendships, like family, or almost any relationship, are about commitment to people we care about. Be it emotional, physical, or communicative. I've learned that someone who is a friend will sacrifice time for us, they want us to be happy, and they'll show us that we don't have to be alone.
In my life, I've experienced many types of friendships. Some I regret believing in, some I will always cherish. I've considered some of the worst people friends, I've believed some friendships were real when they were only real for me, I've had unconditional friendships, I've had friendships that don't make sense, and I've had friendships that inspire me to become a better person.
Friendship is a malleable concept. It can be lasting, fleeting, affectionate, trusting, sincere, insincere, supportive, reliable, generous, and everything in-between. They are experiences we define, nourish, and grow from based on what we want from life. We don't need to be friends with anyone, but we can also be friends with everyone. By making a conscious choice to put ourselves in a position to be what we define as a "friend," we can inspire others to feel the same way. This is how friendships are formed and how they are maintained.
As that child sunken into that super comfy sofa, I wish I'd thought about being the type of person that could inspire others to care about me. I wish I understood that everyone has their own perspective on life and experiences things differently. By communicating and responding, I could have gotten to know others and understood how to better my life through them. Without judging others based on an initial reaction, I could have found friends unexpectedly.
Just as each person is unique, friendships are unique. They only exist when we want them to, and they're only as strong as we make them. Everyone has a choice to be friends or not, even if, at times we don't feel that way. We can feel alone, stuck, or even isolated by people we consider friends. Not everyone will inspire our friendship, and we won't always inspire friendship in others. That doesn't mean we have to be alone. Each of us can choose to share our time, effort, and trust with anyone.
I still see the kid at the pool party in myself. Sometimes I'm comfortable being alone, but other times it's painful to think that I can't find the joy in living life with other people. As much torment as I feel in those moments, I can now see the possibilities in others that could be fulfilling for my life. It is up to me to make connections, it is up to me to reach out, and it is up to me to trust others. In showing others that I am friendly, I can be a friend to anyone.
Cover image by Afta Putta Gunawan via Pexels
Nemecek, Douglas. Loneliness and the Workplace. Cigna, January 2020, https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-report.pdf
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: Opportunities for the health care system. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663.
Holland, Kimberly. What Are the 12 Leading Causes of Death in the United States? Healthline.com, March 29, 2019