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Dear ex-schoolmates whom I haven’t met in a long time, we really don’t have to

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Joshua Lee | November 16, 11:59 am

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Friend 1: “Anyone going for the NTU alumni thing next week?”

Me: “I’m not”

Friend 2: “What’s that? (Not free but want to kaypoh)”

Friend 3: “Don’t think I’ll be going”

Friend 4: “Don’t think so”

Friend 5: “Don’t think I’ll be going too!”

The other eight participants in the chat opted to blue-tick our friend and with that, our WhatsApp group died, languishing at the bottom of my chat list over the past year.

Since then, except for a couple of close(r) friends, I have not seen my university course mates — people that I spent the better part of four years eating, talking, b*tching about professors (oops), and in general, going through life with thinking we would be friends forever and meeting up with one another till we were old and grey.

We went from hanging out every day to blue-ticking one another

I must admit I didn’t quite expect this to happen — these were people I saw every other day, and over our years in university, grew to know quite well.

I was there when two of them started a relationship, and like everyone else in our group, experienced the awkwardness of our group outings when the couple broke up.

I was also there when another friend’s father passed away. The outpouring of comfort from the group is something I’ll remember and cherish for a long time.

And then there were lunches at the South Spine, late nights at McDonald’s, and almost-weekly group meals at Jurong Point.

We even visited one another over Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, getting to know one another’s families.

But fast forward to 2019 and the deafening silence between us is a sharp change from four years ago, when we were all graduates fresh out of school looking to take on the world together.

It got me thinking: Can we still call ourselves friends if we don’t talk, or meet one another?

And my conclusion is: ehhhh yes and no, I guess.

Let me explain.

The group of us, post-graduation. Image credit: Author’s own.

We do move on in life without our school friends and that’s OK

Here’s one thing I learned quite early on: the ideal of being able to keep up with every single person in my group like we did in school is naïveté. Trying to make that happen in practice will inevitably result in a very exhausted and very unemployed me.

Maintaining friendships requires time, and since I don’t have an unending supply of it, some friendships have to be sacrificed, and sometimes the ending of these friendships happens naturally, and mutually.

I might refer to it as a type of unspoken mutual neglect, where both parties kind of know we’ve moved on in our lives, are going through different things, and accept it.

And that’s one thing I appreciate about technology: I’m able to keep in touch with these friends online. Scrolling their Instagram feeds or Facebook albums takes far less effort, energy and time than having to think of things to talk to them about in person.

But is it bad of us to not want to meet one another, or not really want to make an effort to catch up in person over that big group dinner? Personally, I don’t think it is at all.

Our priorities have changed

People say that if you really treasure your friends, you’ll make the time to keep in touch with them, to meet up with them regularly, blah blah blah.

But let’s be honest. Nobody can make that kind of time when work/family/romantic relationships demand so much of us.

How many times have you tried to jio your ex-school friends out to a reunion dinner, only to be met with:

“Sorry guys I can’t make it! Really busy with work!”

“I’m celebrating my kid’s birthday. You guys go ahead.”

“I’ll be overseas in Thailand. Have fun~”

Or having successfully set a dinner date only to have most of your friends pangseh on the actual day.

In fact, if I were completely honest, I would choose working overtime over meeting my ex-schoolmates in a heartbeat (Editor’s note: Great!!!).

I mean, keeping the guy who pays my salary satisfied with my work performance (please notice me, boss) is for me, at least, more important than ensuring a group of people I rarely meet are not upset with me by turning up.

Even if we do make that group dinner happen, I’m probably not going to be able to exchange that many words with more than two of them throughout the evening anyway.

Certainly, when marriage and kids come along, those take top priority — and that’s perfectly fine. So my point is, our priorities change. And so it’s entirely understandable if having perfect attendance at group gatherings isn’t top of our list.

Even if we met, things may be awkward

And even if all of us really put in the effort to meet, what would we talk about?

There’s this romantic notion that true friends can pick up from wherever they leave off, even after years of silence. But I can tell you now that from my experience at least, that doesn’t necessarily hold true.

Not too long ago, I met up with A, one of my closest university friends, after she had given birth to a beautiful baby boy.

Being unfamiliar with matters of child-raising, there wasn’t much conversation I could initiate beyond “So cute!” and “Awww, look at his little fingers”.

Reminiscing the old times seemed like a pointless waste of breath given what must occupy her mind these days — her son, obviously — and there just weren’t enough common topics between us to maintain the friendship we once had, which I think both of us know was between two different people — she, and I, had moved on. Unspoken mutual neglect.

That was the only time I met up with A and her baby. We still stay in contact on Instagram and WhatsApp, but I’ve accepted — and I’m pretty sure she has, too — that we have both moved on from each other.

Truth is, your brain just can’t handle that many friends

Here’s another thing about maintaining friendships: as marvellous as our brains can be, this pile of grey matter we possess can only maintain about 150 meaningful connections at any time, according to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar (those of you with over a thousand Facebook friends, don’t kid yourself).

If we were to talk about close, intimate relationships (close enough to, say, help bury a body perhaps), that number plummets to a measly five.

I have two close friends, Z and C, whom I have known for almost a decade.

They might not help me bury a body — the most they will do is lend me a car and a shovel — but they are kindred spirits who have been with me through ups and downs through the years.

Aside from them, I had schoolmates — friends whom I called my BFFs — who subsequently drifted away, and now, I doubt they will be able to remember my favourite ice cream (I know I don’t remember theirs).

Am I a terrible friend? Maybe.

But is it a bad thing for friends to drift apart? Not to me.

And it’s led me to conclude that the people in our lives generally do not and cannot follow you throughout your entire life, and that’s fine.

This phenomenon — call it unspoken mutual neglect, moving on, or any other term you’d like — doesn’t discount and definitely doesn’t take away from you the meaningful connections you and your friends formed in your life at the particular point that you were close.

It makes sense that as we move on to different stages of our lives, the people who were part of them also move on to theirs. You’ll meet new people, so will they. It’s fine and dandy, nothing to feel sad about.

Your junior college friends probably won’t follow you to university and your university friends aren’t likely to follow you to work — if they do, you’ve either found yourself a soulmate, or you need to take out a protection order.

But ultimately, what I’m saying is, the next time a longtime friend you haven’t seen pops in to wish you a happy birthday, or a “Hey! It’s been a long time, let’s meet up soon!”, instead of replying with “Yeah! How about next Tuesday?” it’s ok to just say, “Yeah, totally!” so both of you can move on and feel good about yourselves that just for those fleeting seconds, you showed that you still care about each other.

And it’ll be just fine. Really.

Top image credit: Author’s own.

About Joshua Lee

Josh has found the perfect Nasi Padang combination. Ask him about it.

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