Over the weekend I found some old photos of friends – fabulous women whose friendships, over the years, have grown to mean the world to me – and I decided to post them on social media. Partly because I wanted these women to know how important they are, and partly because last Sunday was National Friendship Day.
But as I flipped through these pictures, that took me vividly right back to the moments they were taken, I was struck by the realisation that this is a day that has mostly passed me by in previous years. Not because it lacks importance – then or now – and not because I don’t value my friends, but because I had become too caught up in the balancing act of work and family and everything else in between to notice the day as it came along.
Without doubt, this year, the enforced lockdown we endured has changed this for me. When we couldn’t physically see our friends we found different ways to connect and zoomed them all into our homes on an almost rolling basis. People we hadn’t seen for years were suddenly beaming at us through our screens, holding aloft huge glasses of wine, and I can honestly say that I don’t think I have ever laughed so much (although, arguably, that could have been the wine). Denied their physical presence, it made me realise just how important our friends are – and that we do need to celebrate this day.
The relationship we have with our friends is unique because, unlike family, we get to choose who they are. We have childhood friends who took us through the madness and adventures of growing up, and even when circumstances change and we move in different directions, our expectations stay the same. It doesn’t seem to matter if we don’t speak for months, we always marvel at the fact that we can pick up just where we left off because, quite simply, they know us too well. The make our memories and they keep them safe.
Then we have the friends we make through university, our jobs, neighbours, hobbies, friends of friends, or even on holiday. Thrown together by chance with a common thread, it gives us a sense of belonging. And it doesn’t seem to matter what age we are, we continue to meet people who share our likes and dislikes, who speak our language, understand us, comfort us, make us laugh and, most importantly, who just make us happy. These are the friendships that shape the course of our lives.
I don’t know where I would be without my friends. They make me a better person. They have seen me through times I never want to visit again, and those long evenings spent laughing at the ridiculous and just catching up are to be treasured. But reflecting on National Friendship Day now, I know that I am beyond lucky to have these kinds of friendships in my life – because the flip side of this is that there are many who don’t. Another aspect of the pandemic highlighted.
The Office for National Statistics found that 5% of people in the UK – roughly 2.6 million – reported feeling lonely during lockdown. Even more depressing is that this is also just about the same proportion of people who reported feeling lonely pre-lockdown. For whatever reason – living alone, working unsociable hours, ill health or simply without a family or social network to fall back on – loneliness is very much a part of today’s society.
It seems to me that National Friendship Day has to be recognised, not just to celebrate the friends we have, but to address exactly this. Our lives can become so crammed with the here and now, we stop noticing the loneliness of others and those who don’t have quite so much going on. Extending the hand of friendship isn’t difficult, but knowing who needs it is. People who are lonely rarely say. If we could just stop for a moment, and take that time we had in lockdown when we began to notice everything and everyone around us – well – I know it’s cliché, but the world really would be a better place. And not just when National Friendship Day comes around again next year.