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On Irrevocably Changing Matter
And the Ephemeral Nature of Friendship
I’ve never been particularly good at friendships - a fact that’s extended into young adulthood. One year out of college, I can tell that adolescence is behind me - I’ve reached its summit and can glance backward with a sense of accomplishment, relief, and sadness. I can admire its many peaks and many valleys, all of which gave me the knowledge and muscle to handle the long (but also short) road ahead. Even so, friendship is a feat I’ve yet to even partially master.
Throughout life, it feels as though every person I’ve encountered - every coworker, every crush, every friend - has been a fellow hiker I’m passing on some great long trail. All of us have some kind of path we’re following up some unknown mountain - millions of routes winding upwards and outwards like arteries pumping blood from the heart. At times, our paths intersect and sometimes converge - I find myself walking alongside others for a period of time. Sometimes we walk and walk for years, no sign of our paths splitting. In some cases, they never split - in others, they stray and then veer back together. Other times, they diverge with little sign of re-merging.
The reason why friendships can feel even more meaningful than familial relationships at times is because of their ephemeral nature. There are no blood ties to friends - there’s no genealogical contract tying them to you. There’s just a desire to connect - to see someone laughing or crying or screaming and thinking I would like to join them. This lack of ancestral connection can make our friendships feel self-validating. There’s this sense that this person is seeing me as I am - either myself in totality or selective parts - and communicating their approval by willingly engaging in a relationship. It’s that intentional choice, that decision to sit with you, that fills your chest with warmth.
At the same time, friendships feel like the most fleeting kinds of relationships. Sometimes they go out with a bang - a loud, orchestral conclusion - as familial and romantic break-ups more often do. And most times, I’d argue, they go out with a whimper. Your paths start deviating ever so slightly and then before you know it, you’re walking in opposite directions.
Lately, the temporary nature of friendship has been the subject of my fascination and fear. One day, you can know somebody inside-out - spend every weekend re-watching the same movies, watching each other brush your teeth - and then suddenly you realize it’s been years since you’ve even uttered their name. You stumble upon a memory in the wild - hear that person’s favorite song, smell the aroma of their favorite food, run into that guy you both hated - and it’s like someone has hit your chest with a mallet, your hollow insides reverberating. Grieving any relationship involves a kind of disembodiment. You have all of this affection and remorse - all of this feeling - but nowhere to put it. And so it collects and collects, filling you to your brim until it practically tumbles out of you like a rife raincloud. How can someone feel so utterly full and so completely hollow?
I’ve heard that grief is like a ball rattling inside a box, hitting the corners - the pain points - causing the occasional ache to flow over in waves. As you live more life, the ball stays the same size, but the box gets bigger - there’s more space for it to breathe, it hits the box’s corners much less. But it doesn’t go away entirely - the twinges of disembodiment persist, at times duller and at other times boisterous.
I’ve found that this emotional disjunction - no matter how quiet or boisterous - almost always pangs me following the collapse or fizzle of a relationship. It creeps into my chest cavity in all cases - even when the relational dissolution was my choice. How bizarre - I can want a friendship to end but still feel dejected when it ends, even though it’s what I wanted. This experience is paradoxical and disorienting, it makes the room spin and my heart sink. You can want your reality to change and then when it does change, you’re upset by the unfamiliar. How more replete with contradictions can humans be?
In many ways, this grieving isn’t exactly a contradiction though. I’ve heard some say that people are a composite of the five people they spend the most time with. We adopt the traits of those around us like a chameleon adapting to its environment. We are quite literally a complex mosaic, a collage. We explicitly and unknowingly snip bits of others and Mod Podge them onto ourselves until we’re an abstract composition - one thing but also a million things.
To lose a close friend - either by choice or not - is to flake off pieces of our collage. To chip off a shard of our mosaic. When we cut ties with a dear companion, we aren’t just losing that person: we’re losing a bit of ourselves. We don’t just have to re-interpret the terms of our life without that friend, we have to figure out how to view the world through a new filter. Our composition shifts as new people are cast in the supporting roles of our lives, making fresh marks on our collages. Pasting new bits of themselves over the old ones until we’re somehow something both unrecognizable and familiar.
Humans are tiny bits of clay collected over years, smushed together and molded and smashed and molded again. There is something so unsettling about the fact that we are just pieces of the people whose paths have intersected with ours. It’s troubling to think about how malleable our relationships and sense of self can be - if they’re constantly changing, can there ever be a true sense of stability? What is that sense of stability?
As fluid as friendships and selfhood can feel, I believe there is security in the colossus of human connection that accumulates over time. Sure, we are a composite art project, influenced by our intimate relationships. And yes, parts of ourselves can feel like they chip away when we lose a friend. But they don’t ever really go away, at least not entirely.
There are some forms of matter that when changed, can’t be brought back to their original state. Proteins, for example. When you crack an egg and scramble it up, you can’t just unscramble it and put it back in its shell. I think our relationships are similar. We can’t un-brush shoulders with someone after we bump into them. We can’t unknow people, let alone unknow the impact they make on our lives, no matter how hard we try.
Everyday, I see the people I love and have loved in me. In my laugh. In the face I use to express disgust. In my choice of breakfast and my choice of shoes. I look at the world through a kaleidoscope, hundreds of colors and images placed by the people around me, constantly changing and refracting. I’m confident those people see me in themselves too. There is sadness in the fact that some of those relationships were momentary. And there’s joy in knowing that the essence of those relationships will endure in some capacity, even if it’s small and soft.
Maybe I’m not as bad at friendship as I think (though I’m definitely still learning). Perhaps the point of life is to connect, some paths are meant to converge and others to waver in and out. Atoms colliding and bouncing. We’re all just irrevocably changing one another, altering each other’s matter in pleasant and undesirable ways. Uplifting and breaking each other’s hearts, forcing one another to experience the totality of the human experience.
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