The True Friend

Original story in Chinese by Prof. Lee Chack-fan; retold by Raymond Lam

There is an old fable, a story about the meaning of stories… a reflection on the virtue of the virtues themselves. This is a folk memory about the most important virtue of them all, without which other strengths become perverted and distorted into weaknesses.

There were two friends, Intelligence and Honesty. There was nothing they could not do when they were together. For many, many years, they were bosom comrades-in-arms. But everything changed between them when they went boating.

The sails had already been broken amidst a furious typhoon. Their private vessel was a rag doll, thrown about turbulent, heaving waves amidst a roaring thunderstorm. “It won’t be long before it sinks!” screamed Intelligence, holding on for dear life as the boat looked to flip over.

“There’s only one tube! Where’s the other one?” shouted Honesty above the sea spray and the clapping thunder. He turned around, expecting an answer, but all he saw were the hard, unrepentant eyes of Intelligence as his friend’s hands shoved him roughly over the edge of the sinking boat. He had no time to feel shock, hurt, or anger as he was tossed and chucked beneath the sea, slammed and dizzied and nearly drowned until he lost consciousness.

His body was washed ashore, trembling and coughing up seaweed, onto an island of sand and trees. Honesty did not dare to venture inland, as he wanted to go home as soon as humanly possible. It was midday, and underneath a burning sun, that Honesty stumbled about in a daze, waiting for a ship to rescue him.

He was parched and famished. The sun was already rising high in the sky, and it wouldn’t be long before he was dehydrated.

To his encouragement, it took only a couple of hours. Joyful music could be heard as a boat zoomed towards him, with extremely upbeat music on board. On the left hull was emblazoned her name: “Happiness.”

Honesty screamed for Happiness to rescue him. But to his shocked despair, the captain steering the wheel shouted at him: “Sorry, Honesty! Once I’ve got you on board, then I can’t be happy. Look at how those who are honest with society and they are never happy. No. No, I can’t lose what I have already.” That was all that Happiness said, before steering away.

Yet Honesty didn’t let himself sink into abject helplessness. After a while, another boat came, and he squinted at the hull: “Status.”

“Help!” screamed Honesty, arms raised. “Get me off this island!”

Status had barely caught sight of him before turning away. “No, you can’t join me,” called its captain. “I worked so hard to get this ship, if I’m honest with those who have imparted me this ship, I’m done for!”

Honesty’s heart sank. He sat down on the sand. There was little he could do but to continue waiting. Hours later, a sudden horn blared, jolting him out of his unhappy, increasingly desperate thoughts. It was a large tanker. A flag was billowing on deck, with the proud word, “Competition.” Honesty scrambled up and jumped up and down, waving furiously.

“Please, help! Don’t leave me like the others! Your ship is huge. Surely you have enough room?”

The captain peered down at the tiny dot that was Honesty and spoke over a megaphone: “You’re just causing me trouble, Honesty! Competition in this world is already so fierce and I need all the weapons I can get. If I have you on board, I’ll never be able to mask my intentions or lie. I’ll be a sitting duck for my enemies. I’m sorry.” The great ship let out another loud toot and began to slowly turn away, and Honesty was forced to watch it do so—slowly, slowly. He sunk to his knees, sighing and trying not to cry.

No one would even give him a second look or chance.

He was on the verge of deciding to try foraging for food and fresh water—perhaps he’d need to prepare for a few weeks, or even a few months, of self-sustaining subsistence. But then came a very pleasant voice, quiet yet audible. “Young man, come on board!” To his pleasant surprise was an old, hooded woman on a small and primitive canoe made of wood. But none of that mattered. He waded off the shore and heaved himself up on board. “This little dinghy is called Time. She doesn’t look like much, but it’s been sailing these oceans for many, many years. More than you can ever count,” said the strong but gentle crone.

Honesty sat down across from his rescuer, relishing the feeling of finally being able to return home. “Why did you save me when so many didn’t?” he sighed gratefully.

“Well, only time can prove how important you are. Today is an eternal return, a forever-lesson. Look!” said Time, pointing a gnarled finger at the reddening afternoon horizon. Squinting, Honesty looked into the distance and saw several sinking wreckages, including the boat he had been riding with Intelligence.

“See, my boy? Without you, Intelligence will harm oneself, Happiness will disappear quickly, Status becomes illusory and delusional, and Competitiveness will only destroy you.”

Time looked at Honesty, her cloudy eyes dancing with the fire of supernovae. “You are the true friend that everyone wants on board their ship. With you around, we can sail across seas of stars, our spirit unimpeded by even the most devastating storm.”


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