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Those Friends Thou Hast, and Their Adoption Tried

Old friends are true friends.
Old friends are true friends.

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”
-- Polonius, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3

It may not spark as much press as the economy or as much poetry as romance, but meaningful friendship is one of the most important contributors to human happiness. In fact, it’s so important that companionship or loneliness can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health, especially as we age.

Yet one of the challenges of modern life is finding friends as an adult. The bigger the cities in which we live, the harder it can seem to find compatible people—and now that it is no longer the norm necessarily to live in the same town from birth to death, it’s all too easy to lose touch with the people we do find when one party in the friendship moves away.

This line of Polonius’s is part of his very famous speech to Laertes offering life advice, which also includes such familiar phrases as “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “This above all: To thine own self be true.” Although this quote hasn’t entered the language as an aphorism, it remains as relevant as the others. Indeed, because of the increasing mobility of the modern world, it may be more relevant now than ever. Polonius advises Laertes to retain the friendships he has cultivated and tested, the relationships in which he has invested time and placed his trust, rather than allowing them to fade under the influence of time or distance.

The quote also implies a warning to be cautious of new friendships. Until we have been through a difficult period with a friend, we don’t know whether the connection will withstand the stress of trauma or struggle. If Laertes takes his father’s advice, he is sure to have trustworthy people about him and not only acquaintances who will vanish when he needs them most.

Although Polonius is far from an ideal role model, his advice to his son in this speech is solid, and the approaching holidays provide an opportunity to follow this line of it at least. As work slows down and attention turns to community, hearth fires and mulled wine, we can choose to set time aside for our oldest, most trusted companions, to invest an hour in a Skype call to an out-of-town friend instead of simply sending a holiday card, to worry a little less about shopping for gifts and focus a little more on giving of ourselves. Sure, it’s cliché, but so is everything about Polonius’s speech. And those friends we have and their adoption tried won’t mind a little seasonal sap. We’ve been through worse together.

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