SINGAPORE: This pandemic will reveal your real friends. Pay attention to who reaches out.
Even before the coronavirus strengthened its hold on Singapore in March, this sentiment was rife on social media.
The seemingly straightforward argument parrots the platitude that crisis reveals character: These are rough times, so the people who check in are those worth keeping in our lives.
Granted, there is a modicum of truth. Everyone treasures active, two-way friendships, where both parties work to keep the friendship going in good and bad times. These friendships should be effortless but intentional, so neither party has to worry about it fading.
Under the circuit breaker, these friendships would’ve ideally manifested in frequent Zoom calls or increased text messages that act as temporary stand-ins for the monthly catch-up over food and drink.
Understandably, if these supposedly solid friendships petered out when you most needed them, you might feel resentful.
But, just so we’re on the same page, we are in the middle of a pandemic.
PUTTING A PAUSE ON FRIENDSHIP
Considering how 2020 has upended the economy and our general lives, it’d be nice if we could collectively call for friendship timeouts.
This doesn’t mean abandoning our nearest and dearest, not least because it’s crucial to lean on each other during this time.
But maybe we should abandon all expectations we will be there for each other with the same pre-pandemic intensity.
While we’re individually drowning in pools of uncertainty and anxiety every day, it’d be selfish and mildly sociopathic to test our friendships or expect the dynamics to remain the same.
Not only should we cut our friends some slack, it’s also unrealistic to expect ourselves to continue living by these absolute standards of friendship from the Old Normal.
I, for one, have weeks where I’m anchored in a thick mental fog that I struggle to complete any work, reinforcing the general anxiety around pandemic living. So forgive me but catching up with friends, albeit expectedly cathartic, is a tad less important than trying to keep my head above water.
Moreover, many of us conflate having time with having capacity, making us resentful when we assume reaching out or replying to a text message barely takes a few minutes.
Cutting ourselves some slack might mean we can feel less guilty when we can’t afford a few minutes to talk to supposedly good friends.
In reality, checking in with a friend requires mustering up the mental and emotional bandwidth to actively listen and be there for them.
Unlike family ties and romantic relationships, which come with a minimal sense of obligation, friendship is wholly opt-in. Even before COVID-19, hard work and intention were fully required to keep each other in our busy lives.
With friendships as tough as they are, the last thing we want is another arbitrary gold standard in friendship Olympics to reach for.
That said, it’s inevitable that a crisis will sharpen our focus over our hierarchy of priorities. Rather than begrudge certain friends for not reaching out, however, I wondered why I hadn’t reached out.
FRIENDSHIP IS A TWO-WAY STREET
During the circuit breaker period, I decided not to ask certain friends to hang out on Zoom or make plans to see them in the New Normal.
In the three tiers of friendship — primary, secondary, and tertiary — these friends fell into the secondary and tertiary circles. From being in the same school clique to sharing relationship struggles, we’d been there for a season but now lead vastly different lives from one another.
Even when we hung out pre-pandemic, our meetups had started veering towards superficial topics and required the distractions of a physical setting, like good food, to ease us into conversation. The current friendship hinged on guilt, obligation and shared history.
So the thought of being on a one-on-one video call felt unnatural and awkward. Video chats feel oddly intimate — the COVID-19 version of after-school phone calls that would stretch for hours, where we jumped from pining over crushes to complaining about family in a single session of vulnerability.
Even texting each other simply to catch up without having plans to meet felt stilted.
With these friends who fell by the wayside, I found myself unexpectedly content with remaining distanced acquaintances or letting the friendship die a slow death, precisely because I couldn’t imagine us developing the closeness that was necessary to weather uncertain times together.
Even after the restrictions lifted in Phase 2, I still hadn’t sought to rekindle the friendship or acquaintanceship, and neither had they.
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On the other hand, there were a couple of friends who’d gotten closer after the circuit breaker, because we’d made equal effort to hold onto each other through our darker days.
In some ways, it was sad to realise COVID-19 sounded the death knell for some friendships, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t already felt the spark slowly burning out.
All I needed was a global pandemic to lay bare the truths I wasn’t ready to confront — and the friends I’d willingly undergo another circuit breaker for.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.