"He is terribly afraid of dying because he hasn’t yet lived."


Franz Kafka


I have come to realize over the past few months that my friends are better friends to me than I am to them. They are quicker to forgive, quicker to reconnect and quicker to move on – the sorts of things I regularly encourage from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.


They are often filled with grace in overlooking my shortcomings. I have been extremely fortunate through the years to have had so many great friends who have encouraged me, challenged me and pushed me to become a better person. (Still a work in progress).


I also firmly believe the friends we make during our college years will be lifelong treasures. I still remember my "first friend" at Texas Tech. I started in the spring, so most students already had a semester under their belt. I knew hardly anyone. My class schedule was crazy. I even thought about packing up and heading back home. That would-be trajectory (and parental surprise) was forever altered by fellow dorm residents who invested time in the new guy on the floor.


These friends are the people who see us becoming who we eventually will be despite our layers of insecurity and vulnerability. They are witness to our failures, flops and falls. Then they stick around to put the pieces back together – because they’ve been there, too.


The past few weeks have reminded me some of the best friends I’ve ever had crossed my path during my own version of "The Wonder Years," on Tech campus. Five of them were living on the fourth floor of Murdough Hall when I arrived in January of 1980. A few others were members of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity I joined a year or so later.


In the four decades that have whizzed by since, I’ve not done the best job of staying in touch beyond occasional emails, text messages and Christmas cards. I’m the only one who stuck around these parts, and I was the only one to select a major that is a) not lucrative and b) on the endangered species list. Several are engineers, and several are retired or on the doorstep of such a decision.


Ah, the paths we take (and don’t take).


All of these thoughts were buzzing around my head earlier this week when I sat down to lunch with one of these guys. He is retired and living in the Hill Country after a successful professional career. Here’s the clincher: The last time we saw each other was in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was working on a travel story for Red Raider fans planning to attend the All-American Bowl game against Duke in 1989. (Yes, I was in the newspaper business back then, when Duke’s head football coach was a hotshot named Steve Spurrier).


We spent more than a few hours (and dollars) in the Five Points South area, having a cold drink and thinking about the good old days at Texas Tech now that we were almost 30 years old. Where did that time go? As the philosopher Ferris Bueller said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."


Indeed. Here we were, though, three decades later once again sharing a cold drink and genuine conversation, the kind we enjoy with people we deeply trust. Someone told me long ago that we should consider ourselves fortunate if we’re able to count our true friends on the fingers of one hand. The men I’m talking about here are of that caliber. They are folks I could call in the middle of the night and ask for help, and they’d come running, no questions asked.


Over the course of a couple of hours we talked about how we’d been bumped and bruised by life – health challenges, relationship struggles, career disappointments. There were no tears, no blaming, just simple sharing of life journeys that haven’t always looked like we expected them to through the lens of youth. It was covenant conversation -- equal parts catharsis and magic.


Maybe this experience was magnified because of all that’s going on in these days of isolation and social distancing. Maybe it was the joy of seeing a friend I associate with a memorable time in my life. Maybe it was the break in the monotony of the day-to-day routine. We can all probably use a pleasant diversion or two these days.


I am reminded of the possibly apocryphal story about Franz Kafka, the gifted writer whom I quote above. It’s billed as a healing story with several iterations making the rounds on the internet.


The abridged version goes like this: It’s said Kafka once met a young girl in a park who was weeping because she had lost her doll. Kafka helped her search and later told her the doll had informed him it was traveling and would write of its adventures every day. He then would meet her at the park and share notes "written" by the doll about its incredible journeys. Then one day he told her the doll had returned and handed her one that looked very different from that one she’d lost. A note attached to the doll reads simply, "My travels have changed me."


And so it is with us. Our journey through life changes us, but we should always be grateful when our travels bring us back into the orbit of dear friends -- and we can remember the adventures of our past and look forward to those adventures yet to come.


Doug Hensley is associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Avalanche-Journal.