By Richard Coca
I often think of the last time I was at Stanford, all of my last memories on campus, surrounded by friends. After receiving the email in March to vacate campus, I remember sitting on the floor quietly, looking around and almost taking it all in.
After we all left campus, we knew things were going to change, but I don’t think we understood the extent to which this pandemic was going to affect our friendships. I think many of us anticipated that this togetherness was more in the community sense, not so deeply rooted in the physical.
I think many of us found ourselves trying to reconnect after we got “settled” and found somewhat of a solution to our new living situations. My friends were all scattered across the country and others in the world. How our friendship dynamics were altered from this point depended on so many factors — not even necessarily the strength of the friendship or proximity to one another, as one might expect.
Rather, I’ve become more conscious of how important physical space is in not only building community but in acting as a conduit for an emotional space where individuals could simply coexist, challenge one another and in that sense grow together.
When people mention the word “love” to me, my mind immediately goes to this one bell hooks quote from “All About Love: New Visions”:
“Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment…’dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’ Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling.”
COVID-19 has revealed to me that the types of interpersonal relationships we have do matter. Some of the more casual relationships I had, for example, with people I would bump into on a day-to-day basis have been some of the relationships I have missed the most. In retrospect, I did not think that a simple exchange of a smile or hug actually impacted me in such a way that it stabilized my mood, gave me a sense of belonging and ultimately affirmed who I was as an individual. I’m almost more worried about re-establishing these relationships in a post-COVID-19 world — if that world even exists — than some of my more serious, mature relationships. This is because I know the more serious relationship will likely be as strong once we reconnect in person. But I think that feeling of bumping into a stranger, saying hello and exchanging small talk was something I didn’t know I really needed for sustenance. Chance will play a large role in whether these smaller relationships will survive or fade away.
COVID-19 has reaffirmed to me of the importance of physical space, especially for communities. One of the places I miss the most is the FLI Office, going there after class, knowing that no matter what time of the day or even night I knew there was always at least someone in there who I could chat with. There’s something so powerful about seeing someone’s facial expression or body language and knowing that they’re being genuine in their thoughts, their feelings with you. This cannot be replicated over Zoom.
There are no side glances in class anymore when the professor or a classmate says some nonsense. There is no chuckling at an inside joke. There is no bringing comfort food to friends after a hard exam anymore. It’s just something that you can’t do over a virtual platform. A lot of the love languages that we usually think about — physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts — just cannot be felt the same over a screen. I think one of the main challenges, in this light, is being honest and truthful about what’s working both in terms of how you both are communicating but also where you stand with that person. I personally would be much more comfortable with having someone tell me that I am more of a B-side character to them and then factoring that into how frequently we “quote” catch up than wondering where we stand and why they have slowly faded from my life.
Quarantine has forced me to ask difficult questions about my own relationships: Where do I stand with this person? Where do I see myself going with them? In an odd way, this pandemic is exasperating the already existing dynamics and accelerating the timeline in a manner that might be both beneficial or detrimental to my relationships. I have found that in certain friendships, we have gotten incredibly closer to one another to the point where we are describing our bowel movements to one another. On the other hand, there have been some relationships that even prior to COVID-19 I think deep down I knew weren’t really going to go anywhere and social distancing provided a convenient excuse for no longer “getting dinner” together. And then there have been the sort of relationships in between where I know they know they matter to me but we haven’t necessarily been as frequently in contact with another as we were prior to the pandemic.
I think my hope after all this is over is that we’ll be able to reconnect and I’m pretty confident in that. I personally have never really viewed relationships as transactional. I know that there are some individuals who believe, “If you are not one to reach out to me, then I’m not going to reach out to you.” I personally don’t feel that way. I feel like that’s pretty petty and a sign of a rather immature or early stage in a relationship. Even if we were to no longer be friends, I personally tend to be the type of person who regardless looks back and appreciates the time and energy we both spent growing it and talking with one. This line of thought brings me yet again to another quote from bell hooks on the intersection of will and love:
“We do not have to love. We choose to love…When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist.”
I think implied in that quote is very much that we are all given the choice to either initiate, continue or end a platonic — really any type of — relationship with someone. Even when those friendships end and even when they’re still there, I’m personally a big fan of stopping and smelling the roses. Those memories, those experiences, the time and love you’ve both poured into one another is something to be celebrated. I personally cherish every postcard, every letter, every email, every text that my friends send me. Those words of affirmation are a reflection of a choice we both mutually made. Even going back to that quick glance between the eyes, or a smile at a stranger, we’re all agreeing to some extent to nurture someone else’s growth when we enter a platonic friendship. And the best part about this agreement is that it transcends the transactional. When you make that investment in someone else, that belief in befriending them, in getting to know them, in encouraging them and getting to see them grow spiritually, that investment comes back and you find yourself a changed individual.
For me, the beauty of friendships lies in that: transformation. The way I know I have great friends is because I know they’ll hold me accountable, I know they’ll be there to support me in times of need and because I know they’ve changed me. It’s as simple as that. My platonic love for them takes on a life of its own when I’m with them and I can only hope the same is true for them.
You can listen to this Lines of Love episode on Spotify. Contact Richard Coca at richcoca ‘at’ stanford.edu to continue the conversation, share your thoughts or simply to say hello.