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I have tried to find similar topic with no luck. Maybe I just don't know the right keywords to ask. So if there is already an answer to this question I am sorry.

The situation: I had a long time friend. We could talk hours about everything and nothing. Then I switched cities for university and we got out of touch. After some five-ish years I got to meet him again while visiting my hometown, we went for a board game session and talked some. The thing is, he looks extinguished. He lost his physical condition, is stuck in a job he apparently hates and uses board games as a last holdout for a semblance of a self-esteem. I know his situation quite well as I have been through something similar myself - took me dropping out from the Uni to wake up.(simplified version) The thing is he used to be the "brighter" of us. He is few years older so he was the driving force behind a lot of stuff we did. I used to look up to him. He used to be handsome. Now he looks like a nightmare. A shadow of his former self.(He wasnt perfect though. Took me a while to figure that out back then.)

The question: Is it possible to "rekindle" someone? Do I have the right to try? He seems to be semi-comfortably rotting away and I have no education in fixing people. Just some observations from my own case. Maybe the correct solution would be to let him be and hope for the best. But somehow it pains me to see him in this state.

As a sidenote he is not the only person with this disposition that I have met. Sometimes you see it written in the face and in the behaviour. I do not want to become Amelie from Montmartre though. Neither can I take responsibility for someone elses life...

  • I am not familiar with the word rekindle and I had to look it up. Personally I would use the word revitalize. But this is a worldwide forum and maybe most people understand "rekindle". – user8838 Mar 31 '18 at 1:05
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Please do try to rekindle him.

Would trying to rekindle his lost spark qualify as not minding your own business? Of course it would.

Would it be a negative thing? Absolutely not. Let me explain.

Many times we are told to mind our own business, to not interfere with the choices of people etc. This is all true. But this approach to life also allows us not to get our hands dirty with closer relationships. Close relationships are filled with the responsibility of the consequence of our actions on the other person. If I see a friend acting in a strange way (for instance, he looks dull and sad), I can choose to intervene or not. The intervention comes with the risk of failing, of being wrong, of being perceived as nosy... The not-intervention, on the other hand, doesn't carry any risk, it's a disengagement. This is the safer option. But, in my opinion, relationships are built on the moments in which we decide to engage, to expose ourselves to risk, to go out of our way for the other person. What do you remember, that day when a person tiptoed around your pain or that another one in which a friend told you "Come on, you're not ok, now let's go grab a beer and you will tell me what's wrong"?

Sorry for this introductory paragraph, but I felt it was needed. Now I will step down from my soapbox and I'll give you some practical advice.

Rekindling the spark of a person is a difficult task. It can be broken down in some bits:

  1. Make the person aware that he lost their spark.

  2. Make the person aware of what caused the loss of his spark.

  3. Help the person build a plan to rekindle it.

  4. Help the person follow through the plan.

1. Make the person aware that he lost his spark.

In his "Tale of the Unknown Island", José Saramago says: "You have to leave the island in order to see the island". That is, no one recognises their current situation until they can step out of it. For this reason, I'd suggest you to engage in a long(ish) activity with him, preferably one that the two of you used to do with great enthusiasm. It can be a one-day hike, a short trip to a nearby city, a tour in the archaeological site in the city center... I'd recommend an outdoor activity. The farther from his everyday life, the better. If he's trapped in a dull routine, it will be beneficial for him. Moreover, the two of you can directly compare his current behaviour to the one he used to have in such situations (or his behavior in a nice activity vs the one in his routine) and recognise if it has significantly changed. If you see a very different behaviour and he seems unaware of it, you can speak up your concern.

Do you remember that time when we kayaked our way from Washington DC to Chicago? Without your energy, I'd have been stuck after ten minutes. How is it that you can't manage to cross the river, now?

If he makes up some excuse, push the subject some more. There is not an universal recipe about the amount of pushing to do: some people are very sensitive and fragile, so some subtle hints will do, while others are completely blind to reality, so you may want to opt for a more intense approach. Keep in mind that the realization itself may be a shock and that several activities of this kind might be necessary in order for him to recognise his novel dullness.

2. Make the person aware of what caused the loss of his spark.

This step can start the same day of #1, but it will take a lot of time to finish. It consists most of dialogue and active listening. It's probably going to be very long and intense for him. If you can trigger in him the desire of reflecting on himself and to investigate the root cause of things, it's already a great thing. It's already a small spark.

We don't know what the cause is right now, so I can't really suggest you anything specific. Maybe he even knows already the cause of his dullness (a family grievance? His girlfriend left him with his best friend?).

3. Help the person build a plan to rekindle it.

Now, what practical things he can do to improve his situation? Even better, what perspective on life can he have to not perceive his situation ad hopeless / depressing? What point of view did he gradually abandon during the past years?

4. Help the person follow through the plan.

When he has identified the approaches to follow to have a sparkling life again, your role is to just be there. Applaud his successes, acknowledge when he is full of energy...


Now some quick and general notes.

1. You cannot "save" him nor "fix" him.

You're not a knight nor a saviour and he's not a damsel in distress. That is, do not put yourself above him. You have your set of problems, he has his. You don't go and approach him because you're "healthy" and he's not. What is needed is empathy and not sympathy.

2. Your solution is wrong.

Even if you come up with the best solution ever, it will be inherently wrong, because so far it's only yours. He needs his solution, not yours. So in order for your solution to be effective, he has to accept and digest it. A good suggestion from you will come with some hint on how to digest it. That is, a good suggestion is always a personal one.

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Rekindling a person is possible, but it requires skill. I'll recommend something slightly different which is easier, but takes more time and persistence.

The challenge with rekindling a person is visible in the imagery. You are looking for a spark to spring to life, and engulf the fuel around it in a way that roars back into the kind of person one wants to be around. But the trick is that first step: finding the right place for a spark to form. There are literally as many opinions on where to look for such a place as there are stars in the sky. If you rekindle the wrong one, you may burn out something that your friend needed, and he will resent you for it. Only rekindle a person if you are confident you know what you are doing (and I would suggest that asking an internet forum for advice is a strong indicator that you are not confident at the moment).

The alternative takes more energy and time. It's not as flashy as rekindling a person, but it's just as effective. Help him rekindle himself. Let it be his spark that starts the fire, and there's no risk of resentment. It's a minor rephrasing, but I find that rephrasing helps keep the focus in useful directions.

I won't pretend that's easy to do. It can be thankless and difficult, but worth the time. The best secret I have found is to make yourself into someone which encourages rekindling to occur around you. Be someone who is there to listen to the frivolous stuff. It doesn't have to be a deep listen, you don't have to pile firewood on every spark you see. But be there to listen with at least as much zeal as they have when they speak. One of the things I have found is that people who are crushed by external forces like dead end jobs don't need a giant roaring fire, they need one solid inextinguishable spark which they can call their own. It's the little things that start the big things. You're not trying to start the fire, you're trying to make sure that when a feeble attempt to restart the fire is made by him, it lands on fine tinder, ready to accept a spark.

This process takes time. At points along the way, you will see opportunities to directly rekindle something in him which you are confident about. Those are your opportunities to start a fire, if you so choose. But when you don't have that confidence, just stay calm and patient.

If your personality encourages it, it's possible to get lost in such a process, so there's one last piece of advice I'd give. Don't tend his fires. Tend fires [in general]. Seek out this rekindling process throughout your life, not just in him. There will be some time where you fail to tend your own fires while tending to his. It's a fact of life. If you've gotten in the habit of rekindling all fires, including your own, it will be much easier to relight your own. And, personally, I find it to be a useful trait in modern society.

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If you're going to go into it with the idea of "fixing" him or "taking responsibility for his life", then don't do it. He might not actually have any serious problems (we all lose/gain weight and have bad hair days/bad days at work), and you assuming he does have a serious problem and trying to fix it is only going to make the two of you become more distant.

Unless you did something horrible that caused the two of you to lose contact, then I don't see why you wouldn't have the 'right' to want to be their friend again. Friendships grow and shrink all the time. You don't only have one chance to be someone's friend.

My advice

If you're that concerned by what you've seen (it appears you're basing all this mostly on how he physically looks), then talk to him. Ask about his work and what aspect(s) of it are giving him trouble, and see if he opens up more after that. It would probably be easiest to have this conversation over a board game he enjoys. That way you can spend some extra time getting him comfortable with your presence again, and if he doesn't want to talk about it, there doesn't have to be any awkward silence. Simply keep playing the game. If he wants to take up your offer of talking, then he will. If not, don't push it. Play a few more games and simply try being his friend again, and let the rest come naturally.

  • Ugh. Lately it seems I have issues getting my point across. The appearance is just the thing that is easiest to describe. I did not want to write two page essay on the topic: "Something is seriously wrong with him. I think I know what since I have been in similar situation." And as far as I know there happened nothing extraordinary. He just let himself slip into desolation... I kinda agree with the not-fixing approach. Fixing did not work with me I am afraid. Not until I had the will to actually fix myself. – Shamis Mar 30 '18 at 21:02
  • My advice would apply either way. Talking to your old friend is really the only way to figure out what's going on. – DCOPTimDowd Mar 30 '18 at 21:05
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    I like this answer and I might add: Maybe try to go out with your friend to something "new". Maybe a new restaurant opened or a concert or something else he might like. It might motivate him to get more active in his life and see the bright side. – user8838 Mar 31 '18 at 1:00
  • @Edgar That would be part of the end goal. :) – DCOPTimDowd Apr 2 '18 at 17:33
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I've encountered this same problem in a longtime childhood friend that I've since grown apart from.

In my case, he cut off most of the people in our circle and retreated into a mental "cave", I didn't hear from him for a very long time. Many people were concerned about his well-being because he simply wouldn't respond to anyone's inquiry. We knew he had some issues with depression and was going through a very difficult time with the health of a dear family member. And like your friend, he was a bright, central figure in our circle. It was incredibly hard to watch him become a shell of his former self.

Unfortunately, I don't believe there's a way for me to rekindle that person. Not that he can't be rekindled, but I belong to a part of his life that somehow became damaged, and his defense to whatever wound he suffered was to apply a tourniquet that I happened to be sitting beneath.

I think it might be the same with your friend. My initial issue was that I thought he was just spiraling down and down. In reality, he was coping in his own way and learning to re-invent himself, and ended up creating a life that I was no longer a part of and couldn't understand.

Do you think that you've possibly made some assumptions in the way you view your friend's situation? A few that I picked up on based on the way you worded your question (I could easily be wrong):

  • He apparently hates his job
  • Board games are a last holdout of self-esteem (does he truly have a self-esteem problem or does it just appear that way?)
  • The experience you had dropping out of Uni is very similar to his current experience
  • He's rotting away

I would look at these assumptions and test them, if you're still in contact with him. Maybe you caught him in a bad week or month. If you aren't in contact with him, you could reach out and just spend time with him. Get to know this new version of him and find new ways to value him the way he is. It could be that if he doesn't value himself because he also misses the way he used to be, then he needs to realize what he is currently bringing to the table and lean into that.

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