Shared Stories

I can remember my parents explaining a number of things to me about college before I left: what early morning anthropology classes were like, what a “credit hour” was, and how it worked with roommates. “They’ll assign you someone your freshman year as a roommate but more than likely you won’t live with that person after that. You’ll make a friend somewhere and you’ll probably live with that person after your freshman year.”

So, I will admit that I was surprised to discover that not only would I room with my freshman year suite-mates sophomore year, but with one or another of them junior year, senior year, and my year of grad school. In fact, of the four suite-mates I had my first year, three of them remain among my closest friends in the world to this day.

I have kept in touch with each of them individually since we graduated, and on occasion three of us might be in the same space at the same time for a wedding, but the four of us had not been in the same physical space since we graduated in 1990, twenty-eight years ago.

Last weekend, we fixed that and got together in New York for something of a reunion. I had proposed the idea a couple of months before because I missed seeing everyone and thought that the opportunity to get together would be a lot of fun. I was right about that. What I did not anticipate was just how meaningful it would be.

John and I arrived first and waited for the others at a hotel in midtown. Sitting in the hotel bar surrounded by the noise and sights of the metropolis, we settled in to a relaxing time as we anticipated the arrival of the other two. Matin was next to arrive and beyond the usual “Long time no see!” and “What have you been up to?” kinds of questions—it was as if no time had elapsed.

John, me, Matin, and Dave: 1990 & 2018.

Because while the subject matter of the conversation had changed, the rapport had not. It was as if we were all still in our freshman or sophomore suite, sharing stories of the day or of our most recent visit home. Or recollecting something that had happened the previous week or semester. This only increased when Dave arrived later on and we made our way to lunch.

The lunch time conversation was more of the same—and funnier—as more stories came out, more recollections, more of the usual kidding of one another. And once the lunch was over, we made our way back to the hotel room and there the conversation continued. And as it did a couple of powerful realizations took place.

The first was the truth of a line I’d heard somewhere that you can make a lot of new friends, but you can’t make any new “old friends.” Those friends who knew you when. Who knew you before you were anybody. Who see you not as an accomplished professional or as the businessman or the lawyer or the clergyman, but as that goofball 18-year old you used to be. The one who tried to hang a hammock in the suite room without finding a stud. The one who had long hair and listened to heavy metal. The one who used to play the same mix tape every Friday while showering to go out to the clubs. The nerdy one who was from the small Upstate “hick town.” I know objectively that my friends and I are all 50—but when I look at them, and they me, all we can see are those 18 year olds. And there’s something healing about that.

The second revelation was something Dave said. As we were sharing stories and reminiscing, Dave said that we were in some way his memory, to piece together some of the aspects of his own life that he’d forgotten. On a very basic level, he was right: each of us was the subject of a story that we’d forgotten about. “Really? I said that? I don’t remember, but I guess it sounds like something I’d do.”

But Dave was right in an even more powerful way.

See, one of the great lies of modern civilization is that we are individuals, solely responsible for our own fates, our own destinies, our own successes. Thus we are inclined to think that we sink or swim on our own, claiming too much credit when we succeed, taking upon ourselves too much blame when we fail.

But the reality is that our lives are always bound up with others. Our stories are incomplete without other people. Gaps in our own memory aside, we cannot know ourselves unless we consider who we are in the eyes of others, especially in the eyes of those closest to us and those who have known us the longest. Part of the restorative power of gatherings like the one we had was that in such a gathering you aren’t simply brought up to date about the lives of others, you are reminded in a profound way who you are. I went to spend time with my closest friends, to learn what they were up to and to catch up on the details of their lives, but in the end, I came back having been reminded of myself and why it is that such friendships are so vitally important.

Dave was right: we are one another’s memories, for the story of our lives cannot be told only in the first person. It is a narrative that requires a second person voice, too: “You are ….” For we are all bound up in relationship. My story is also the story of those in my life and vice versa. We are one another’s memories. We are one another’s stories.

There was a lot of laughter, a lot of reminiscing, a lot of sharing. But it was this lesson that was the great takeaway for me. I was glad to be reminded of this basic fact of our lives after 28 years, and am determined not to let another 28 years go by without a refresher.