Saturday, May 03, 2008

Old Friends, Lost and Found

This is an op-ed piece written last summer that never found a home:

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest I tested a classic  
controversy in the field of psychology: how stable is personality  
across the life span? Many psychologists believe our unique traits-
the qualities that make us extraverted or introverted, anxious or  
calm, open to new ideas or resistant to change-are stable across time.

In a variation of the perennial nature-nurture debate, they propose  
that personality is primarily genetic and therefore largely unchanged  
throughout life. When placed in different environments, we may adapt  
to fit the surroundings-our work persona may be different than our  
out-on-the-town persona-but the characteristic dimensions of  
personality are consistent. Similarly, as the passage of time brings  
new demands, we may change in subtle ways, but the central qualities  
that make us distinct individuals remain. Other researchers believe  
that personality is more malleable, nurtured by our experiences  
throughout life. According to this view, any stability we see in a  
person is the result of exposure to unchanging environments.

My experiment involved a reunion with two long lost friends. The  
three of us were very close in college. One was my roommate, and both  
were part of my inner circle-and I part of theirs-for several years.  
We were fast friends, buddies who shared many memorable adventures, but after college we went in different directions and soon lost track of each other.

Eventually, thanks to the Internet, we found each other again, and  
for some time there has been talk of getting together. By  
coincidence, my friends are now both employed in the high tech  
industry and living in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon. They get  
together occasionally, but I never found a time that was right-until  
this summer. Hit by a nostalgic impulse, I booked a flight and headed  
west. It had been thirty years since I was in the same room with one  
of the pair, and I shared just a single evening with the other,  
approximately ten years ago.

I had a great time, and there was a strong sense of continuity and  
connection. These were the same two people I left behind so many  
years before. Each of us has a divorce and children under our belts.  
Jobs and residences have changed a number of times. So much has  
happened in thirty years-much more than could be conveyed in a single weekend visit-but somehow nothing had changed. I felt as comfortable with these two as I did three decades before. We shared personal information unhesitatingly, with a deep sense of trust and caring. The two are very different. One is quiet, hard-working, with a natural confidence, and the other is highly verbal, somewhat disorganized, with a subtle and sharp sense of humor. But these  
traits have lasted across the years. I don't know whether they looked at me with the same sense of recognition, but I was instantly at ease, walking on familiar ground.

It isn't always this way. Many of us have known people who changed  
over the years and became opaque. Addictions or traumatic events  
rendered them somewhat alien—still recognizable, but not the  
comfortable companions we once knew. Sometimes the movement is in the other direction, people who were untrustworthy misfits in their youth, somehow right themselves. We don't recognize these reclaimed  
lives, but we are happier with the people we encounter today than  
with the ones we remember from the past. Although dramatic  
transformations are not the rule, it is good to remember that under  
some circumstances they are possible.

My experiment didn't prove anything. Big personality changes are most likely the effect of powerful experiences, but when we see consistency in the people around us, it is more difficult to  
determine the reasons why. Stability is caused by a mixture of nature  
and nurture-our behavior is always a mixture of nature and nurture-
and because there are no controlled experiments in the real world,  
for any given person we can never know what that mixture is.

But my trip to Oregon did teach me something important about  
friendship: it can sometimes last a very long time. Under the right  
circumstances, people whom you loved and trusted in the distant past  
can remain loved and trusted today. If you are very lucky, even  
prolonged separations will not change the basic qualities that once  
drew you together. Given how valuable and rare such friendships are,  
this is a lesson I was very happy to learn.

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