For more than two decades, when 9/11 is discussed, it’s often in the context of a “before and after” moment. From that day forward, we, as a country and a culture, were changed. And yet—with the exception of the first responders facing ongoing health concerns from that harrowing day of duty—most Americans did come to find a “new normal,” and relatively quickly. We still had our family and friends, though maybe we held them a bit tighter. Outside of trips to the airport, the average American’s post-9/11 existence wasn’t vastly different from before.

I found myself reflecting on this while thinking of another massive “before and after” moment in American history, one that also took place in New York: Donald Trump descending his golden escalator to announce his run for president. There was no explosion, no instant decimation of thousands of lives. And yet.

More than seven years later, we are all still living in the dumpster fire that was ignited that day. Families have been torn apart, lives lost, a nearly 250-year-old democratic experiment practically brought to its knees. Everyone–no matter what they think about Trump himself–is less psychologically hinged, more riled, less trusting, and, frankly, feeling more alone than before. In everything but our chaos, that is.

For a time, the dumpster fire seemed confined primarily to the United States. But in the face of COVID, the mounting climate crisis, and political turmoil across Europe and Africa, suffice to say that the United States might be the “global leader” in dysfunction. But we are part of a larger, seemingly worldwide breakdown—one that, completely open-eyed, I don’t see being resolved anytime soon. The old systems—of politics, of sourcing energy, of economics, of work, of engaging in discourse—have collapsed around us. Yet, no one seems willing or able to embrace the radical change that might be needed to ameliorate things. Visionary leadership—the kind that inspires and uplifts—seems to have gone the way of the fax machine. All but extinct.

This nightmare is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s Mile 10 and we—as a society, as individuals—are hurting. And so I’ve been asking myself, against the backdrop of so much catastrophe: How do we as individuals not just survive but thrive?

I have come to the conclusion that only our friendships can save us. No, I don’t think friendships can save our democracy or prevent another global pandemic, or protect us from hyper-capitalism and crises. But, while living amid biblical levels of joylessness—plague, famine, death, discrimination—our friendships can provide us with individual sources of joy and meaning.

I say this from personal experience, having stumbled upon the corollary of joy and relationships quite by accident. My childhood was what a friend once described as “Dickensian,” and though I found that description a bit dramatic, the circumstances I found myself living in—parental abandonment, economic lack, a depressed and verbally abusive primary guardian—were less than ideal. And yet, when I think back, I remember being a very happy kid—particularly as a teenager.

Our house was a sad house, and my instinct was to get out of it. It was not unusual for my grandmother to not want to get out of bed all day or to go to bed as soon as she returned home from work. Friends provided a reason to escape, and the world that my friends and I created together existed absent the dark cloud that hovered over the place where I slept at night. Unintentionally, I discovered that in creating meaningful, tangible relationships of my own, my sense of “my life” and its quality were no longer defined solely by the things around me that I couldn’t control. A “good day” no longer was made or broken by my grandmother’s mood or abilities, but by the life that I experienced alongside my friends.

I was assisted in this discovery by time and place. It was an era when young kids were left to their own devices until dark; we ran wild and feral. Culturally, in Old Brooklyn, loyalty and the ability to maintain friendships over years was seen as a positive character attribute. People who lacked longtime friends were suspect; prioritizing your friends, and the time required to maintain those friendships, was paramount. Yes, we had jobs and school and boyfriends and girlfriends, but the really “solid” people were able to do all of that and never forget their friends.

I didn’t think that any of this was that unusual, to be honest, until the past few years. Leaving Brooklyn to go to graduate school, changing careers, publishing my book—all of it has put many new people in my path, many of them Millennials and Gen Z. The disparity among my friend networks at their ages, and even now, is glaring.

Of course, this phenomenon goes beyond my anecdotal observations. We in the U.S. are experiencing a loneliness epidemic and a crisis of friendship. In August, Vox published an entire issue about friendships, which have been on the decline in America for the past 30 years. This paragraph from the series especially caught my eye:

Last year, the American Perspectives Survey reported that 12 percent of Americans now say they have no close friendships, compared with three percent in 1990. The reasons for this are myriad. Americans are more mobile, often moving for careers and working more hours. Parenting has changed dramatically, requiring more of adults’ time and resources. Covid further fractured relationships: Nearly 50 percent of Americans reported losing touch with friends during the enduring pandemic.

I found this depressing to read; the height of COVID was arguably the time when we needed one another the most, not that it’s markedly less true of the dumpster-fire moment that we are currently experiencing. Because, just like when I was a kid, the relationships I have forged on my own have enabled me, in these past few tough years, to put a different perspective on “problems beyond my control.” It is not that they make the larger world less bad, but they remind me that there is still joy to be felt in the here and now. That there are dirty-bomb accusations coming out of Russia, women protesting for basic rights in Iran, and migrants being shipped like packages here at home but there are also friends’ kids’ first dance classes, birthdays to celebrate, and apartment moves to assist with.  

The challenge, for many people, is that friendships require work; COVID, and the world, has rendered many of us exhausted. But friendships—like keeping ourselves fed—take the kind of energy that leaves us replenished in return. And, much as helping others can ultimately help us, too, being a friend can spread joy.  Just this summer, a study showed how much happiness a spontaneous check-in text or call can bring to friends.

For other people, the issue is making friends, period. Young people who attended remote Zoom school during the pandemic, for instance, have more tenuous friendships as a result. Beyond the pandemic, young people struggle with friendships in no small part because social media has hindered the sense of trust required to open up and form connections.

But even for adults, forging friendships can be a challenge. One reason I worry about the decreased desire to return to offices has little to do with capitalism and everything to do with relationships. The “office comedy” was an entire subgenre of television predicated upon the friendships (and rivalries) made during the many hours we spend at work. “Work friends” were one of capitalism’s few rewards to employees, outside of paychecks.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a bunch of friends I’ve had for nearly 20 years for a large birthday dinner. These dinners were routine when we were all in our 20s and 30s, but now–with many raising young children and bogged down with the demands of matured careers—are fewer and farther between. It was, as I remembered these kinds of dinners being, a lot of fun—the kind of fun that makes you feel warm and fuzzy the next day. I texted the birthday boy the next day to say we can’t go so long before we do it again. Yes, because I adore him. But also because we cannot control the world around us; what we can do is take agency in forming meaningful connections that can bring us joy amid the sadness.