I recently completed a yearlong writing project with some friends. We committed to writing an article once a week, leaving each other feedback on the drafts, and supporting each other as we hit the inevitable obstacles of life. So far, nothing too weird about this. Except I have never met them in person.
They are what we might call internet friends. But their friendship has meant an incredible amount to me over the past year. It’s taught me a lot about relationships, what I look for in my friends, and to expand my view of what’s possible.
Because these weren’t friendships of convenience, they required effort — coordinating Zoom calls and doing work on our own, making time to read other people’s drafts at times when the other responsibilities of life made our undertaking seem a little frivolous, or at least unnecessary.
And at the same time, they were so meaningful to me because these were people with full lives who showed up week in and week out of their own free will. We were all getting something out of it, it wasn’t a charity effort. But we helped keep each other accountable and it felt really good to me to accomplish this thing together. We drew out more from each other than would have been possible alone and got to know incredibly different people from this shared commitment.
If you had told me a year ago I’d become so close with a preacher’s son who runs marathons and an Australian business coach/mother of two teenagers, I would have thought you were high. And yet, we’ve developed a warm familiarity akin to family. It’s pretty wonderful to know myself as a person who can get so much from an unexpected partnership, and it’s even more wonderful to know there are others from different walks of life who can dig it too. They’re curious, kind, courageous, and consistent. They’re my people.
It’s been an intense year for me. I’m coming up on a year of sobriety from alcohol. I’ve had a lot of sober ‘firsts’ that provided great fodder for thinking, reflecting and writing. I’ve had the opportunity to redefine what I look for in relationships. Sobriety makes people way more intense for me. I don’t have the buffer of alcohol to insulate me from their presence — I am stone cold sober (well, probably caffeinated, but I’ve got to have some redeeming petty vice) as I navigate difficult conversations, tension, awkwardness or misunderstandings. I’ve started saying no to social things I used to enjoy, or at least be able to tolerate, like big concerts, late dinners and loud parties. When I do end up at these events, I’m exhausted for days.
In some ways, my online friendships conducted on Zoom, phone, email and Google hangouts are a much more manageable portion size. We’ll talk for an hour or 90 minutes (still a solid chunk of time for an intentional conversation) then say our goodbyes and close our laptops or take off our headsets. No stressful late-night transit, no expensive Uber with a chatty driver, no achy feet yelling at me to get off them while I navigate my way across town. Nope, with my online friends, I’m already home, happily outfitted in sweatpants and slippers.
They are still meaningful conversations. I share myself honestly, learn more about these people and their lives, learn more about myself and cackle a whole lot. There are occasional internet issues that are annoying, but those keep improving. I’ve had a lot of long-distance relationships with friends and family since moving across the country 10 years ago, but this opened my eyes to the possibility that distance can be an asset in a relationship. Distance requires you to make an effort and the connection can look however the involved parties want it to. There’s a lot of possibility there.
Having such a positive experience with my online interactions has made me reexamine the in-person relationships that so often wear me out. Are there ways to bring some of that condensed-yet-potent zest to them? Daytime activities help a lot. Setting hard endings to our dates instead of open-ended all-night affairs. Even just (gasp!) calling friends I live near instead of always coordinating a hang out. I know, I know. It’s weird to use a smart phone for this basic function. But it works.
It’s worth assessing whether our relationships are nourishing. We might be able to plug the leaks that drain our energy. Experiencing friends I’ve known forever without drinking has brought out sides of them and our dynamic I didn’t know existed. Being intentional about what we do or talking to them in advance about some things I want to get their take on helps too. Just like in fruitful business meetings, setting agendas with our loved ones can make the most of everyone’s time. It’s our most precious resource.
I’m grateful to recognize that it’s possible to connect deeply with people anywhere and everywhere. As long as there’s a shared desire to show up, I think we can build and maintain relationships with all kinds of wonderful people. We can reconnect with our families, old friends, and new ones.
We can accomplish great deeds with our people, wherever they are.