Too many times in this world we use the phrase, ‘guilt by association.’ I know I am guilty of it. I used that messaging quite a bit when I was teaching and trying to mentor middle school students that were making important decisions and trying to figure out who they wanted to be associated with. They would often try to blame their problems on their friends, or make excuses for why they were being judged unfairly because of the people in their life. They couldn’t seem to figure out why bad things were happening to them while they were hanging out with bad people.
I tried to teach them that some things are out of your control in life, but who you choose to be friends with is something you can. Unfortunately for some people, they fall in with the wrong crowd at an early age and can never pull themselves away from them. They always try to point out the positive traits that their friends have, but people on the outside can see the negatives loud and clear.
It seems to be a natural human reaction to point out the negatives before dwelling on the positives. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s that way for me more times than not. I justify it by saying that I’m just being a realist or objectively evaluating a situation, but I can’t help but think about what can and will go wrong with things before I see all the good and positives that can go right. If I want things to improve, I need to take on the negatives and make sure they don’t happen. Positive things happen to people who make positive and proactive decisions.
All of this relates to a recent experience and awakening. I just returned home from a trip over Thanksgiving to my original home outside of St. Louis, and I was beyond lucky to grow up with the best friends a kid could ever have. While we all had our negative traits and moments, I cannot think of a more positive and supportive group of people to share the best years of my life with than the people of Caseyville, IL.
I moved away from my hometown almost 30 years ago, but my parents moved back 11 years after that initial move. This has allowed me for the past 19 years to return back to my original hometown a handful of times each year. Originally those trips focused on opportunities to catch a concert or a sporting event, with visits to catch up with old friends mixed in from time to time. While I loved seeing childhood friends, I was too often too fixated on trying to go to big events and experiences in my twenties and early thirties, so I didn’t always make a point to let people know when I was in town. However, as my kids started getting older, I began to value family time more and more, and the visits shifted away from doing big things more to spending time with my parents and prioritizing visits with old friends. Instead of going to a ballgame or event, I’d much rather spend quality time with my friends from the past.
I have to say that the last few years of going back to my home have been some of the best visits I have ever had, and it’s because I’ve focused less on what I am doing and more on who I am doing it with. I have reconnected with the people I used to be most closely associated with for the first 15 years of my life, and it has been the best experience I could ever ask for. Maybe it is a sign of maturity, or maybe it’s just a sign of realizing what is important in life. Sometimes we take people for granted in life, and it’s not until we add more experiences that we realize those experiences aren’t as important as finding time for the people you truly care about. My friends back home seem to understand this too, without it ever being said. It truly amazes me how every time I come back into town and ask to get together, people just drop everything they are doing and make it a point to get together.
I am quickly approaching my 45th birthday, which means that I literally will have spent two-thirds of my life away from the town and the friends that I grew up in. Two-thirds! Yet, the people that I spent a third of those years with are the people that are the nearest and dearest to my heart. I’m not sure if it is where I grew up or who I grew up with, but those people will never be replaced or topped in my life. All I can say about the town and the people I grew up with is that you’ll never get it until you experience it. Even if you haven’t seen someone for 10, 15, or 20 years, the conversation picks up like you just had dinner at their house last weekend. This applies to someone if you were the best of friends, or just casual acquaintances connected through others. If someone is a friend, family, or spouse of yours, they are instantly welcomed into the group with the same warmth and openness that you have experienced for years, without question. Every time my wife meets someone new, she is taken in like she was the one that grew up there.
Somehow, in just a few short, formative years, bonds were formed that will never be broken. As I was talking with my best friend from my childhood that I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, we were joking that there is a special bond that exists between two people that nearly died together. While we didn’t necessarily almost die together, we did plenty of stupid things and experienced many of life’s firsts side by side. It was just a given that we would be spending the night at one person’s house every weekend, and some weekends it was both nights. His parents were like my second parents and vice versa. It is hard to flip through a family photo album of my youth for more than a couple of pages and not come across a picture with him in it. That might explain why after not speaking for nearly 20 years, the time we spent together flew by and could have gone on even longer if we didn’t have to return to our families.
Coming back home from those weekends where I grew up is always bittersweet. I am so thankful to have been able to enjoy myself, but I am equally as disappointed that I only get those opportunities once or twice a year. Maybe that is what makes those gatherings so special. Maybe that’s why we always drop everything to make sure we see each other. I often contemplate if I would feel the same way had I never moved away. In fact, my last year that I lived there I felt those relationships changing and slipping away. Yet, somehow and some way, time and absence seem to make the heart grow fonder. Relationships that may have otherwise faded away like so many others if I had remained in town, now seem to be cemented because they were ripped away abruptly by distance. There are countless people now that I used to be close with that just live across town or places I visit frequently, but there isn’t the same strong desire to go out of my way to see them like the people I grew up with.
That is what separates the people I grew up with from the rest of the people I’ve encountered in my life. It likely has to do with the fact that we are separated by nearly 400 miles, but when one of us has an opportunity to see each other, everything gets dropped, schedules get re-arranged, and the most important questions are when and where. The people I grew up with will literally drop anything and everything to get together and catch up on things. Those meetings are usually filled with conversing on life today, but they always will fall back to the days spent together growing up. Those memories and stories are a reminder of what shaped and formed me as a person.
Moving away had a traumatic impact on my life and my personality, and it changed the course of a lot of things in my life. Being with the people I grew up with is a great reminder of that. It is humbling to be reminded of my flaws and my short-comings growing up, and I love that my wife gets to learn about that side of me. That side that she never got to know and understand, but gets to learn about through the people I grew up with. She is able to understand me better just by being around the people I grew up with.
I am a firm believer that the best friends a person will ever have in life are the ones had as a child. It doesn’t mean that a person won’t have better friends later in life, because I am surrounded by amazing people in my life every day where I currently live. However, the bonds that are created growing up are never broken. Childhood friends experience so many firsts together, but rarely do they judge, even decades later. Childhood friends are there for the most vulnerable moments of your life, and the great ones are there to help see you through them. Even today, when I visit with those same childhood friends I feel that innocence brought back and the weights of my current life temporarily lifted. Those moments with my friends truly make me feel like a kid again, and that is the only time and the only people that can replicate that feeling. I love going back to being 12 years old with the people that experienced it with me. They are the only ones that really understand the stories from the good old days, and they are the ones that can help fill in the details that I have forgotten because of time.
When I was fifteen years old, I had my best friends ripped away from me when my family moved six hours away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was truly a traumatic experience for me that significantly impacted me as a person. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was and still am an extremely loyal person. If I trust you, I’ll do anything for you. If I don’t care for you, it’s an uphill battle to ever change that in my mind. I was born that way, but I was raised within a community that valued loyalty and trust above all else as well. That loyalty has held us together as friends and people for multiple decades now. That loyalty is what makes the people I grew up with and the town where I lived the best combination a kid could ever ask for. That loyalty is why today those people are just as likely to buy you a beer as they are to tell you that you have changed in a negative way.
This past trip home, I got together with a number of my closest friends and their spouses. It felt like a family gathering from the moment my wife and I walked in the door. There are no awkward pauses in conversations or cliques that form among the people there. It is a sensation like no other, that I truly wish other people can experience just once in their life. Even though I hadn’t seen most people there in a couple of months, and some for many years, it felt like we had just hung out the weekend prior and were catching up on the week gone by. There was no special treatment or welcome mat because we were visiting from out of town, and I wouldn’t want any of that.
When we get together, It is not the typical crowd where the women go one direction and the men go the other. At any time, you can find mixed groups speaking to each other, and then without knowing or realizing, the groups just naturally shift to different people and different topics. It isn’t how friends interact when they get together, it’s how family interacts when they get together.
For all of the downside that social media has, it allows all of us to see and feel like we know each other’s kids and are still connected with each other, so when we get together we can immediately have a genuine and current conversation. It allows us to quickly catch updates on those who could not attend. Social media also helps us communicate with those we haven’t seen in a while.
This last trip back home, I was also using social media to help promote a book that I recently had written. All of my friends knew about it, and were quick to ask for updates when I got together. That party on Friday night with a lot of my childhood friends was the highlight of my trip back home, or so I thought. Most of the people there had bought and/or read my book, so I thought I wouldn’t see many of them the rest of the weekend after we left Friday night. The next morning I had my book signing at the library of the town I grew up in. Without fail, a number of the people I saw Friday night came out Saturday morning to support me. They didn’t need to buy a book, they didn’t need to catch up on things, and they certainly could have gotten a book signed before that morning. However, they were there to support me in person. Not with a text message or social media comment. They were there in person, and that meant more to me than they will ever know.
As I try to wrap this blog up, I’m struggling to find the words. I have started and stopped typing on this topic multiple times because I just can’t find the words. I’m worried that I’m not doing any of the relationships I have with these people and feelings I have for them justice with any words. It’s just one of those, if you know you know type things, but I really don’t think people know what it was like to grow up with the people of Caseyville and St. Stephen’s elementary school.
Everybody will swear that their childhood friends are the greatest, and there really isn’t room to debate this. However, I wish that everyone could meet the people I grew up with because I’m convinced they would realize that mine really are the greatest. I truly can’t wait until the next time I get to go back home and see those people again. Of all the places and times I could have been born, I am truly blessed to have been born exactly where and when I was. I have un-ending pride in my friends, and I am unbelievably proud to be associated with them.