Scrolling down your social media page you might see regular updates from an old friend or acquaintance whose life has long since gone in a different direction, with whom you maintain no real contact. These online friends perdure in a kind of undead state—you might call them the typing dead. Whatever brought you together originally has gone. Normally, that would lead to a peaceful demise of the relationship, leaving behind memories and photos. But instead of passing away, an electronic web of social media sustains the connection between you in a state that is neither living nor dead. They are your zombie friends.
It may sound a little harsh to say that a friendship should have, at some point, met its end and passed away. But it’s true. Every relationship has a natural life cycle: born when two people are brought together by circumstance and providence, maturing in their choice to become companions sharing life, and—often though not always—coming to a close when their paths diverge. The essence of a friendship is a particular sharing of life, always in the joint pursuit of some good. That good could be business, pleasure, truth or virtue, family, even God himself. The kind of good pursued determines the kind of friendship. A friendship will last as long as the shared pursuit of that good. That could be as long as you live next-door to someone who shares your hobby, or it could be as long as you love God together—perhaps for eternity.
If that shared pursuit, which is the foundation of the sharing of life, comes to an end, so will the friendship. We never leave our friends entirely behind, of course. They shaped our life and character, leaving memories of friendliness and the intimacy of relationship. But it’s unrealistic and fanciful to imagine that the friendship itself would survive without a shared pursuit.
Don’t get me wrong. Some friendships grow deeper than their initial horizon, fruitfully maintained for many years and through many changes in life. Phones and emails are a modern wonder. Postcards and letters are still an option, possessing their own charm. Such friendships, however, are few and far between, possessing unparalleled value but requiring not a little time and energy.
Most friendships perish with a change in circumstances. Or, through the dark arts of social media, they are transformed into your zombie friends, shallow slivers of connection artificially maintained well past their due date, sustained by ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and a yearly ‘happy birthday,’ nothing more.
A brother recently made the insightful comment that “virtual reality” is a misnomer. There is reality—real people, real relationships—and there is the online web of connections between them. Insofar as our online lives reflect and support our real relationships, they are simply our real lives. And insofar as they do not reflect reality and are not conformed to our real relationships, they are nothing more than fantasy and fiction.
Zombie friendships are online fictions of relationships that were once perhaps vibrant and alive, but are no longer. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). So let your zombie friendships pass in peace, and turn to face those who are more truly present to you. Treasure the memories, treasure the people, but delete those artificial connections. Perhaps you will meet old friends again, if not in this life then maybe in the next. But let God in his providence decide that.