I no longer recall the specifics, but years ago when I first traveled to Long Beach, California from Princeton, New Jersey for a job interview, I took time afterwards to visit UCLA. I thought I would look up a graduate student there who had done graduate work with me at Brooklyn College a number of years before. He had gone on to UCLA at the same time I had gone on to Princeton. He was someone I had considered a friend. As fate would have it, he was out of the country doing field research and we didn’t connect.
Subsequently, I ran into him, I believe at someone else’s wedding, and I expressed great pleasure and excitement at having caught up with him again. He was distant and rather cold in his response and he proceeded to tell me, not in a hostile way but more matter-of-factly, that while we had known each other at graduate school and had hung out a bit, we were not really friends and that he felt no reciprocal warmth or pleasure at seeing me again.
I’ve never forgotten that incident no doubt in part because I was hurt but even more so because of what it potentially said about old friendships, or the memories of old friendships, and whether or not they truly survive, other than in one’s memory.
The internet in general and AOL and now Facebook in particular have given me and many others the opportunity to rediscover old friends, colleagues and classmates. Coming across them, whether by chance or by affirmatively searching for them, is often accompanied by a rush of old memories, as well as feelings of delight and elation, wrapped, as most old memories are, in nostalgia. And nostalgia is the great distorter. In most instances we remember the good and either forget the bad or diminish its significance. To be sure, some memories reflect just the opposite, but I have found that to be the exception and not the rule.
But when we reach out to these old friends or they reach out to us, we may discover that we cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again, if it ever truly was as wonderful as our memory suggests. Often, within short order, areas of conflict between us reappear, the way conflict among siblings often resurfaces within about fifteen minutes to two hours of a family reunion.
I’m not trying to discourage efforts to renew old acquaintanceships. I am reconnecting with old friends weekly through the World Wide Web and enjoying it. Nor am I convinced that rekindling old friendships won’t work or is destined to result in bad feelings and failure. But, I do want to warn that we shouldn’t necessarily expect ecstasy or nirvana, that we should be aware of the distorting effects of nostalgia, and that perhaps it is wise to proceed with modest expectations that may be exceeded rather than lofty ones that may prove illusory.