Socrates once asked a simple old man for what he was most thankful. The old fellow replied, “That being such as I am, I have had the friends I have had.”

Take it from me, that elderly gentleman had figured out what really matters in life.

I have enjoyed hundreds of companions over the years. A few I met over trivia—collecting baseball cards or playing basketball together. Others, old poker-playing buddies, for example, moved into my life through common vices. Some were classmates, partners in ministry, or fellow church members.

I would have sworn at the time I made their acquaintance that I would never forget “what’s his name.” Unfortunately, many people audition for closeness in our lives. A few get the part, but most don’t.

Some friends, unfortunately, end up as merely shadow friends. They walk with us in the sunshine, but they are gone when darkness comes. “Wealth brings many friends,” noted one wise observer of life, “but a poor man’s friends desert him.”

But the maxim that “a friend in need is a friend indeed” is not the entire story. A friend in triumph may be even harder to find. Isn’t it easier to be a savior than a cheerleader? It takes 24-karat loyalty for a friend to soar alongside us when we are flying high rather than to bring us down to earth. In my life I have had a few friends who both hurt with me and clapped for me, and when I die, they will find their names engraved upon my heart.

The ties that strangle

Our word friend springs from the same Indo-European root as our word freedom. It means “to love,” and those whom we love we set free.

My friends have set me free to be who and what I am. When I spent a period of my life on the sloping back of a question mark, it was friends who rescued me. When I risked talking ...

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