What are the real friends?

What are the real friends?

In the biblical creation story the Creator, having formed the first person, immediately declared our social character: "It is not good that man should be alone." Most of us, most of the time, would rather be with anyone than be alone. And when we compare being with anyone to being with a real friend, there is no comparison. The reasons are endless. Seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon noted two tremendously positive effects of friendship: "It redoubles joys and cuts grief in half." How true. Friends make the ordinary running errands or eating lunch, for example, extraordinarily fun. And good friends ease our pain and lighten our heavy load. They also strengthen us, nurture us, and help us grow. And without our knowing, they can even save our lives. Literally.

There's exciting news about having a kindred spirit these days. Not only are friends good for the soul but for the body as well. Friends help us ward off depression, boost our immune system, lower our cholesterol, increase the odds of surviving with coronary disease, and keep stress hormones in check. Half-dozen top medical studies now bear this out. Their findings didn't seem to be influenced by other conditions or habits such as obesity, smoking, drinking, or exercise. The thing that mattered most was friends. What's more, research is showing that you can extend your life expectancy by having the right kinds of friends.

This brings us to a central issue. What are the "right kinds" of friends? What makes a friend "good"? What are "the real" friends?

We all know "fair-weather" friends are no good. These are the people who walk with us in the sunshine, but they are gone when darkness falls. Overly engaged and emotionally needy friends who don't know the meaning of reciprocity are "downers". They take and take while we give and give, but we never see a return on our investment. On the other end is "know-it-all friend" who mothers and smothers with unwanted advice but never asks for our input. In short, friends cannot be your family, they can't be your project, they can't be your psychiatrist. But they can be your friends, which is plenty.

Real friends are few.  The few real friends we enjoy generally come in one of two forms, both desirable and equally delightful. They are friends of the Road and friends of the Heart. Here are two stories to explain you what we mean.

Friends of the Road
Dale was crazy. That's why I liked him. He could always, I mean, always make me laugh. Whether we were hanging out at the mall, playing basketball in a park, sitting in Sunday school, or giving serious speeches in Mr. Olson's civics class, a mere glance from Dale could slay me. Dale and I had more in common than humor, however. We had countless conversations at all hours of the day and night about everything from pop music to the meaning of life. We also had soul-searching talks about our fears, our futures, our relationships. This was no lightweight relationship. We saw each other through the Storm of adolescence. Like two war veterans, we helped each other survive. At journey's end, however, the friendship faded. I haven't seen Dale, my high-school confident, since the day we graduated.

Is a friendship that fades away necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. There is a line in James Michener's novel "Centennial" that speaks to how even good friendships can be fleeting: "He wished he could ride forever with these men ... but it could not be. Trails end and companies of men fall apart."

Some friendships are meant to be transitory. Like cowboys who ride hard together for miles, sharing both dusty perils and round-the-campfire coffee, we all have friendships that come to their natural end. Not because of discontent or lack of interest. Simply because the road has run out. We've hit the end of the trail together and it's time to move on to other things, other companies of men.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Understand, these are not failed friendships. Not at all. They are friendships of the Road, equally intense, equally necessary, equally worth cultivating and treasuring as the long-lasting versions. We couldn't survive without them. They get us through a particular stretch of road, and for that we can be grateful. The friends we meet along life's road make the journey joyful. And they are just as fulfilling as friendships of the Heart. Well, almost.

Friends of the Heart
Greg. Jim. Monty. Kevin. Mark. Rich. These names sketch out my life, some since childhood. Together, they could tell you more about me than both my brothers. They are my real friends. They are the pals who know my mood swings and my family history. They've watched me soar and seen me fail. Unlike friends of the Road, these guys have stayed with me beyond trail's end. No matter how many months or miles intervene, the friendships endure. Our cumulative years of shared biography preserve our connection, propelling us together on the same path. After years of tireless talks we now speak in shorthand.

None of these friends lives near me now, but we rendezvous at weddings and while passing through each other's towns on business. We plan reunions on occasion, and a few of us have recently shared vacations. Sporadic phone calls, as well as e-mail and a few cards or letters here and there, bridge the connection between long lapses. We don't keep up on daily details, but these friends know my headlines and I know theirs. We count on each other and we share an irresistible impulse to keep going together.

There's nothing like a real friend of the Heart, long-lasting pals who know us sometimes better than we know ourselves. They bring such comfort to our lives. It's nearly inexpressible. Dinah Mulock, however, describes it pretty well: "Oh the comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are - chaff and grain together - certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away."

Are friends of the Heart more important than friends of the Road? Not really. We need both. What matters is how a relationship sustains you right now. An achieved real friendship - of any brand or bond - is among the best experiences life has to offer.