A friend hears the song in my heart and sings it to me when my memory fails. – Anonymous
If you have ever been in a really tight spot, then you will know who your real fiends are. They are a sub-set of your acquaintances and they are few and far between. A true friendship is something that we only become aware of when the chips are down. When you are in a difficult situation, when you really need help, before you are in despair, without being asked, a friend appears, to be with you. They may not have the answers and they may not know how to help, but they are there to be with you and share the burden as much as they possibly can.
To be a friend therefore is to give of yourself and there are times in life when the privilege of being a friend falls to each of us. So you know that you are being a true friend when you respond without concern about the amount of support the other party needs. You simply make yourself available to do whatever you can, even if it is just to be there enduring the pain with the other person. That’s what friends do.
There was an Aesop tale about two people running away from a bear. One person, thinking only of his own safety, immediately climbed a tree whilst the other person, unable to fight the bear alone, pretended to be dead. The bear sniffed the man’s ear and eventually went away. When the first person climbed down, he asked what the bear had whispered. The reply he got was to the effect that it was not wise to keep company with a person who was prepared to desert a friend in a moment of danger.
The modern version of that fable goes like this: two hikers come across a bear in the woods. The first guy immediately opens his rucksack and gets out his trainers. The second guy, seeing his companion putting on the running shoes, remarks that it would be impossible to outrun the bear. The other guy replies that he doesn’t actually need to outrun the bear, he only needs to outrun his friend.
Despite George Herbert Palmer’s assertion in his book The Nature of Goodness, that ‘self-sacrifice is psychologically impossible’, friends – real friends – do not always act out of self-interest. It is certainly the case that some people have been known to act very selflessly, even self-sacrificially, in times of grave danger in order to help or save their friends.
Take for example, the act of self-sacrifice made by Lawrence Oates during Scott’s expedition to the south pole. Aware that his poor health was affecting the chances of his friends’ survival, he voluntarily walked to his own death famously commenting that he was ‘just going outside and may be some time’. There have, similarly, been many documented cases of self-sacrifice in conflict situations where individuals have died in order to save the lives of their colleagues. Such extreme bravery illustrates the lofty heights the human spirit is capable of reaching.
Self sacrifice is the central act of the Christian faith, of course. Jesus himself said that there was ‘no greater love than that a man should lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). However, even in less dramatic circumstances, real friends identify themselves through a kind of self-sacrifice, not usually in the sense of laying down their lives, but in the sense of ignoring self-interest. True friends put themselves out, voluntarily, and they don’t mind that they are the ones who seem to be doing all of the giving. That’s what friendship is about and that’s why true friendship is something to be cherished.