OK. I admit it. I’m a slow learner.

Not in all ways. I mean, it didn’t take me long to learn that saying “please” works better than saying “gimme,” or that a smile works better than a frown.

But when it comes to certain deeper issues, it required several decades for me to really catch on.

Take, for instance, the value of friendships.

Like most kids, I enjoyed a reasonable number of childhood friends. Growing up in a small town in northern Illinois, I had the good fortune of feeling comfortable in both city and country. My parents had grown up in Chicago and had lots of friends and relatives there, which meant our family often spent holidays in town with them.

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But the day-in, day-out experiences of boyhood were spent with my local pals, playing ball, camping out, swimming and fishing and ice skating, building huts, cutting lawns, having fights and later shaking hands, etc., etc.

Then we got into high school and focal points began to shift. Donny got serious with Marilee and pretty much lost interest in sports. Pete, in contrast, began to spend every available minute improving his skills in football and wrestling and track. Bobby fell in love with cars and started saving up to buy a Chevy 409.

We still stayed friends with one another, but our changing interests drew us slowly apart.

The big change happened when we graduated from high school and each began going different ways. Pete and Jim and I went off to college. Don started playing guitar in a rock band and got engaged to Marilee. Bobby bought the car of his dreams and commenced drag racing any and all comers for 10 bucks a pop after dark.

The earlier bonds that had linked us had clearly weakened, and future developments all but scattered us to the wind.

Some of us got married, and a few of us, like me, also got drafted. While in the service, I made several new friends and tried to keep in touch with the ones I’d gotten to know in college.

But over the years, jobs and addresses changed and people got married or divorced, and little by little we fell out of touch. Even some of my best college buddies began to grow distant, including Dave and Eddie, two guys I expected to be close to forever.

And over time, my two closest friends from the service, Mike and Tom, both living a couple of hours away and repeatedly making the trip up north to visit us in the woods, stopped coming after I failed to follow suit, pleading that I was too busy trying to build a house while holding down a full-time job and helping raise our two little kids.

Thus it was I managed to lose connection with some of the people I cared about most in the whole wide world. It happened by degrees; a changed address, a new phone number, a missed invitation or a canceled visit, the expected Christmas card that never arrived, the well-intentioned pledge to stay in touch that somehow got forgotten.

Thankfully, somewhere along the way I came to realize how foolish I’d been, and came to realize, too, how centrally important good friends are. If they happen to also be your spouse or child or brother or sister or parent or other relative, you’re doubly fortunate.

Friends, in my opinion, are what keep us from taking ourselves too seriously, and in large measure make life worth living. And though I’m a slow learner, I’ve somehow been lucky enough to make and retain a satisfying number of good friends.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have explained why when he wrote, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.