My high school class will have a 50th reunion this year. I am not going. If I didn’t live 2000 miles away I might go, but I doubt it. For one thing, I went to a Catholic High School and anyone who has read my writings knows that I rejected Catholicism fifty years ago. So I would feel somewhat out of place around a lot of Catholics. For another, I don’t drink alcohol and I eat a whole food plant-based diet. So there is almost nothing I can order from a typical restaurant. Call me crazy but I want to reduce my chances of getting heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. And for another thing, Missouri is a Trump state, which could make conversation with about half the attendees problematic. Finally, I haven’t seen any of these people in many years so any connection I once had between them has been lost.
These sentiments also somewhat apply to family. For example, my siblings and their spouses and my nieces and nephews are, for the most part, Trump-supporting, Catholics. Fine people just not my preferred crowd. However, the connection with family runs deeper so more compromises must be made in order to accommodate these differences. Nonetheless, this is difficult as religious fanaticism and fascist politics repulse me.
But all this got me thinking about the idea of seeing old friends. While there is something bewitching about the idea of returning to the past, recapturing lost youth, and rekindling old friendships, there is also something futile about the attempt.
Yes, there are a few old friends that when I see or talk to them it’s as if not much has changed and we pick the conversation right up from when I last saw them even if it has been many years. There are others with whom it was pleasant to catch up but not much more comes of it. After all, I have lived all over the country and no longer live near my old friends. The fact is that I will almost certainly never see them again.
And then there are others that I realize that we have, to use a cliche, grown apart. This reminds me of a Leave It To Beaver episode I watched as a kid. Beaver can’t wait to have his old friend over but when his friend arrives he finds that both he and his old friend have changed. They no longer have much in common. This would be the case in which, for example, the religious or political views of old friends or family members are foreign to me and we can thus no longer recreate our past. Perhaps then we should focus on our current friends, the ones we are connected with now, rather than chasing chimeras.
Still, I realize these sentiments may have to do with the fact that I left my hometown over 30 years ago. If I had stayed there, perhaps I would have grown closer to those friends instead of making new ones along the way. But as I moved the old friends are slowly lost and replaced by new ones. With rare exceptions, my old friends from St. Louis, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Austin, and Ellensburg are no longer a part of my life primarily because I just don’t see them anymore.
Now don’t get me wrong. I can think of some old friends I would be delighted to see but my emphasis is now on my friends in Seattle. They are the ones I see and interact with; the ones I can help and who can help me. Moreover, there are lots of potential friends out there to meet in the future with whom I might find myself compatible.
To sum up these “off the top of my head” remarks I refer readers to a theme of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. In it the novel’s protagonist states,
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
And the reason is that things are radically impermanent. As Heraclitus‘ says “One cannot step in the same river twice”
Despite all this, I’m guessing that many of my old high school friends will find joy in seeing their old friends. I certainly understand that. And they won’t have my “can’t go home again” problems because they never left home—physically or psychologically. Perhaps they’ll even find something new in their old friends, or make new friends by meeting old acquaintances, or find new friends they didn’t know back then. Any of this would be great.
But I can’t go home again. Whatever I would return to wouldn’t be the same as what I left, and I am different too. For the Buddhists life’s transitory, impermanent, fleeting, ephemeral nature is one of the three marks of existence. Nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures. To reject this is to be blind to what life really is.
I’ll end with a quote first shared with me by a colleague when I was a young assistant professor over 30 years ago. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life.