Covid lockdown restrictions have strained many friendships, but the true ones will remain – Alastair Stewart

There are many portrayals of friendship on TV and in movies. Kirk and Spock. Holmes and Watson. Riggs and Murtaugh. Pop culture has no shortage of iconic duos.

William Shatner, right, and the late Leonard Nimoy, the actors who portrayed Captain James T Kirk and Science Officer Mr Spock, in the original Star Trek television series, recall memories of the show in 2006 (Picture: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
William Shatner, right, and the late Leonard Nimoy, the actors who portrayed Captain James T Kirk and Science Officer Mr Spock, in the original Star Trek television series, recall memories of the show in 2006 (Picture: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

While ‘bromances’ remain an indelibly joyful part of our culture, it seems everyone has some Covid story about losing touch, growing apart, or falling out with their friends.

‘Friendship fade’ is a reality for many who have been struck down by the oppressiveness of lockdown restrictions. Zoom calls and online hangouts provided a brief reprieve that has worn itself out.

Previously, calling folk was always interspersed with actually meeting people, getting drunk together, eating together and just doing stuff.

Restrictions ebb and lateral flow. But there's a permanent sense of worry, particularly if you have vulnerable family or friends. After nearly two years, there is an almost Pavlovian response to seeing people. The sense is to rarely meet or not at all.

There is too much faff around what does and does not count as an essential meeting. Pre-meet testing, social distancing, track and trace, and constantly fearing that someone has ‘it’ have all killed the spontaneity of roving fun.

But the situation has also made for some candid reappraisals. Some people have fallen by the wayside precisely because the relationship was a vehicle for other activities like meeting up and drinking.

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The pandemic umbrella has left relationships stuck in a perpetual limbo, propped up by the odd Whatsapp message or email.

There's this bizarre disconnect between births, engagements, marriages, separations, sickness and death. They all still happen, but most of these experiences are lived digitally now. We can scarcely mourn in person, let alone celebrate.

Friendship fade is very real, but so is friendship paranoia. Relationships left in the gulf of two-dimensional messaging will inevitably suffer from “did they mean that?” syndrome. A full stop can be a passive-aggressive punch.

Classical Greece may bear little resemblance to today’s world of smartphones and digital avatars, but it helps to answer a question.

Is there a breaking point for even the oldest friendships during the endless cycle of Covid responses? Plato devotes the major part of three dialogues (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and love.

The Athenian philosopher did not believe that friendships were possible between different social classes. This seems particularly true when we compare ourselves to what we read on Facebook.

We are victims to petty envies, both real and imagined: who got promoted, owns a house, or has started a family. The online world has exacerbated the chasm between people.

For Plato, relationships are rarely mutual. He argues the only people who can have such genuine friendships are the middle class. According to him, neither the rich nor the poor tended to be exceptionally virtuous, and friendships require virtue. Times of struggle and strife are often easier when met with others on an equal footing.

But some are a little less cynical. Friendship can prevail whether you are in regular contact, long-distance, or at different stages of your personal and professional life.

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said: “Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long lasting.”

The ancient Greek philosopher added: “Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.”

Cicero even produced a treatise on it, How to Be a Friend, or Laelius De Amicitia in Latin, written in 44 BC.

“The reward of friendship is friendship itself,” he wrote. Although there are many types of friendship, he accepts and encourages it to change over time.

For the Roman statesman, a friend must be someone with whom you can be equal with during times of prosperity and challenge. “Adversity would indeed be hard to bear, without him to whom the burden would be heavier even than to yourself.”

Whatever the challenge, for Cicero, “friendship embraces innumerable ends; turn where you will it is ever at your side; no barrier shuts it out; it is never untimely and never in the way”.

He added that, fundamentally, the bedrock is honour. A real friend never keeps score since the reward of friendship is a celebration in itself.

The author EM Forster echoed it somewhat more dramatically: “If I had to choose between betraying my friend and betraying my country, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Most of us are much more bunkered down, living in our respective silos of home-working and immediate family. Isolation has induced fluctuating bouts of mental health for many. It is a quietly ticking timebomb since 2020, and it has yet to explode.

The irony is it can be challenging to sincerely express how you feel in a culture of emotional haemophiliacs. It simply feels awkward and sounds cliched.

Friendships can and will survive Covid and the cruel need for distance. For all the relationships that do fall away because social activities cannot prop them up, the ones that matter will find their way back, evolve and thrive.

General William T Sherman and General Ulysses S Grant were one of the defining partnerships in the US Civil War. “We were as brothers,” said Sherman of Grant.

The two men developed unshakable trust in one another. As the years rolled on, they did not see each other as much. Family, obligation and duty got in the way.

But they also quipped one of the best summations of friendship, perhaps without even realising it.

“I knew wherever I was that you thought of me,” Sherman wrote to Grant, “and if I got in a tight place you would come – if alive.”

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