Here’s a wonderful poem on friendship I came across, written by David Leonhardt.

Choose friends wisely, the portrait they paint
Is who you are and who you ain’t.
Friendship is life’s great support
When friends are of the right sort.
For all your dreams do they make room,
Or bring you down with doom and gloom?
You will know a friendship is true
When it brings out the best in you.

I was prompted to look at this by a friend, a good friend, who told me that every five years he takes a cathartic, a detergent, and expurgates negativity, including deleting friends who make his “rainbows look gray.”

You can tell a person by the company he or she keeps. Our friendships not only tell a lot about who we are – in many ways they actually make us who we are. I’ve heard it said that one’s peers create an environment in which the self develops. In the famous “Sayings of our Fathers” it teaches, “Come and learn–what is the straight [right] path to which a person should adhere? A good friend.”

Likewise we’ve been taught, “Distance oneself from a bad neighbor, and do not befriend an evil person” This notion of “peer pressure” reflects the notion that our friends influence our perceptions, choices, and actions, either consciously or otherwise–and that it is important to choose friends not simply by who we are, but by who we would like to become. Maybe my friend who takes stock every five years is on to something. After all, we can’t expect much positivity in our lives if we only hang out with negative people.

The friendship poem above says it all. You will know a friendship is true when it brings out the best in you. Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends of all sorts, bring out the best in each other. When you can’t be who you are or your “friend” doesn’t allow or encourage you to be who you are or want to be, it’s time to think about that friendship…and hit unfriend.

The story is told about how a peasant taught another how to love people. He was sitting in an inn with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when the wine began taking its effect, he asked one of the men seated beside him, ‘Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?’

The other peasant replied, “I love you very much.”

Then the first peasant replied, “You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.”

The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.

“But I understood. To know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow–that is the true love of men.”

Take a look at your friends. Do they bring out the best in you? That might seem like a silly question. We all tend to think, “Of course they bring out the best in me. I wouldn’t be friends with them if they didn’t.”

But stop and think why you are friends. Here are a few common reasons why people become friends:

* Common background, sharing a comfort level, from “the same side of the tracks”.
* Common current situations, being able to discuss parenting, jobs, health, home renovations, or some other major life circumstance.
* Common interest, such as cards, bowling, hunting, technology, books, politics, etc.
* For shy people, a person who actually approached you is a candidate for friendship.
* For leaders, somebody who seems content to follow is a likely candidate.
* Somebody you spend time with anyway, such as a colleague, gym friend, or a neighbor, store clerk, or coffee mate at Starbucks often becomes a friend.

These are just a few reasons people choose friends. It is the easy way in the natural, but it is not always in our best interest. Sure, we would be wise to always want to get along with colleagues, neighbors, siblings, and anybody else. But we would be wise to choose our friends, the people we open up to, very carefully.

For instance, even a sibling or spouse can bring you down, pour acid on your dreams and load you up with negativity. “Ha! You think you can do X? What do you know about X – you are such an idiot?”

Even well meaning friends can be dream slashers and life-suckers. “Oh, do you really think you should go into business for yourself? I mean, what about your family’s security?” On the other hand, some friends have a way of building up your dreams. “Go for it! You could really do well. And at worst, you’ll at least have given it your best shot!” Friends will often lend a hand. “Gee, I don’t know much about fitness, but is there any way I can help you reach your goal?” Dream-slashers usually don’t. “Hey, if you insist on pursuing this crazy scheme, leave me out of it.”

As the friendship poem says, a true friendship is best when he or she:

* Encourages you to live your dream.
* Supports you toward your goals.
* Sympathizes for your losses and help you find a silver lining.
* Builds your self-esteem.

If happiness and life-satisfaction are your goals, you would be wise to choose your friends on the basis of how well they can accomplish those four goals. But don’t forget to be a good friend too. “Be a lamp for the world,” Leonhardt said, “For if you are the lamp, surely you will never live in darkness.”

I heard a story once that brings this home. In ancient times, two boys had grown up together and become very close friends, lamps for each other. After awhile, they moved far apart to distant lands, yet they remained very close friends.

One time, when they were visiting each other, someone falsely accused one of them of being a spy. So they brought him to the Emperor, and he was sentenced to death.

As the young man was being led out to be executed, they asked him if he had any last requests. “Please, let me go back home to settle my affairs and say goodbye to my family. Then I’ll come back and you can execute me.”

The Emperor laughed. “Are you crazy? What guarantee do I have that you’ll come back?”

The young man said, “I have a friend here who will stand in for me. He’ll be my guarantor. If I don’t come back, you can kill him instead.”

The Emperor was intrigued. “This I’ve got to see. Okay, bring your friend.”

The other young man was called in. Sure enough, he agreed to take his friend’s place in prison, and be killed instead if the friend did not return.

The Emperor was so startled by this arrangement that he agreed to let the accused go. “I’ll give you 60 days. If you’re not back by the dawn of the 60th day, your friend is dead.”

The wrongfully accused young man raced back to say goodbye and put his affairs in order. After a hectic time and a lot of tears, he started back in plenty of time before the 60 days were up. But those were the days of sailing galleys, and sometimes you could sit for days waiting for the right wind to come. As luck would have it, there was no wind for several days, the sailboat was delayed, and by the time the young man arrived, dawn of the 60th day was breaking.

As agreed, the jailors led the brave stand-in to his execution.

In those days, an execution was a gala affair. Early in the morning the crowds began to gather. Finally, as they were just about to perform the execution, the accused young man came breathlessly running in. “Wait! I’m back. Don’t kill him!”

But his friend whose head was on the chopping block protested: “You can’t kill him. He came too late. I’m the guarantor. You’ve got to kill me instead!”

Each friend was equally adamant. “Kill me!” “No, kill me instead!” The executioner didn’t know what to do. The crowd was in an uproar!

Finally, the Emperor was called. In wonder and amazement, he turned to the two of them and said, “I’ll let both of you go free on one condition. That you make me your third friend!”

Happiness is a personal choice that comes from within. But, as the friendship poem says, it sure doesn’t hurt to have supportive friendships that help us achieve our goals.