I had a conversation once that I recognized was profound only in retrospect. She was a casual acquaintance – we had met through a dating site, and though there was no attraction on either side, we were lonely enough expats even after that mutual recognition to meet up two or three times for the friendly face. We confided in one another, about our places in life, our struggles with love. I whined incessantly about one relationship in particular.
The conversation came during one of these meetings. I was pouring my heart out, about my confusion, my frustration, etc. This girl listened, respectfully. Then almost off-handedly, she said: “You know, maybe Japan is all you had in common.”
I said nothing at the time, but I scoffed inside. Japan, I thought callously, was actually all we had in common. I thought about the girl we were talking about, and couldn’t imagine the possibility that this might have been the case with her. No, I felt confident in thinking, our relationship was stronger than Japan. We had spent enough time together, had too many heart-to-hearts, gone through too much. Our relationship transcended Japan.
I was wrong, of course. It wasn’t the geographical boundaries of Japan that marked the limits of our relationship, but what our time over there represented, what it entailed. Her vulnerability and loneliness, my devotion and desperation, and the shared experience that came consequently. Yet the very need that gravitated us to one another was unsustainable beyond the specific period in each of our lives. I just couldn’t see that at the time. It took another couple of years.
The conversation, I said, was profound. Not only in its prescience for the relationship we were discussing at the time, but for all relationships, really. Because I have come to believe that my conversation companion had – almost inadvertently – elucidated a simple but genuine truth: that there exist relationships confined to shared life experiences, and those that transcend them.
My life thus far has been fairly neatly arranged, divided into a series of short periods demarcated by formal experience, and in the past few years, by distinct geographical settings as well. Almost without exception, my relationships were forged directly from those settings – school or institution. Thus, every time I have moved on and left those settings, the truth of individual relationships has manifested shortly thereafter.
In other words, because of the abrupt switch, it has become abundantly clear whether past relationships were defined merely by the common setting or contain something more fundamental. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the former. Certainly there is meaning to sharing a stage of life in a manner that few outside the bubble could comprehend. Certainly there is profundity in sharing a daily reality that encompassed your entire world at a particular moment in your life.
But the true validation of that friendship, of meaningful relationship, and especially of love too, requires the counterfactual of sorts. It requires confirmation that a connection would emerge even in the absence of the shared life experience. And the fact that a relationship can transcend the setting suggests indeed that the shared life experience was but one of an infinite number of means to the end – the end being the inevitability of the relationship itself.
It’s hard to tell the two types of relationships apart. It’s downright impossible, really, but for the passage of time. Because time is what shifts that shared life experience farther back into the recesses of the mind. Time is what strips away the artificialities of the day-to-day and lays bare the fundamentals of both the individuals and the relationship. Time is what makes apparent whether friendship exists only because friendship used to exist.
I used to wonder whether I would have been friends with certain individuals in any other circumstance: if I had not been forced to switch seats by my sophomore high school English teacher, if I had not joined a regular poker game in college, if I had not been randomly assigned an office in Boston, for starters. I would think about whether I would get along with my friends had I met them at another stage of my life.
But recently I have come to realize that this is the wrong question to dwell on. Because the circumstances of our first meeting says far less than the nature of our bond since. Life, after all, is all-too-often a series of coincidences. And as remarkable as those coincidences can be, it is the aspect of human agency that is ultimately far more revealing about friendship, about relationship, about love.
As for the relationships left behind by that agency (or lack thereof), I would be lying if I said there was no sense of lingering disappointment, of personal or mutual failure. It seems almost an invalidation of something that had been ascribed so much meaning during a specific period in my life. And yet, this appears to me also as part of growing up. Because if I saw the relationship – or anything – the same way I did 20, 10, even 2 years ago, what does that say about the life I’ve lived in the process?