A crucial thing.
When I was a little girl, I read Anne of Green Gables countless times. The most powerful part of the book, in my mind, was the friendship between Anne and Diana. I wanted, more than anything else, to have a “bosom friend”—a kindred spirit I could share everything with. I had this friend growing up: her name was Sarah, and she was like my twin sister. We painted together, wrote Lord of the Rings fan fiction, created secret clubs a la Little Women, and wrote countless letters back and forth. We discussed literature, poetry, art, theology, and philosophy (even in our pre-teen years). Our friendship grew us as individuals, made us stronger and developed our unique talents.
But upon entering my teens, I read less about friendship—and more about boys. The movies, songs, and magazines of my age seemed fixated on the sentimental and romantic. Girls were expected to talk about boys, read about boys, watch movies about boys, and sing about boys. Our friendships were supposedly fixated on crushes and unrequited love. The very name “chick flick” implies that girls’ movies are romantic movies.
All through high school and college, this pattern of boy fixation became increasingly prominent in female friendships and interaction. Two or three friends emerged from the fray—girls who challenged and convicted me to study harder, think better, and enjoy greater things. I was lucky enough to call these girls roommates in college. They were the ones who pondered the meaning of life and Platonic forms during afternoon study breaks. Their encouragement and constancy reminded me that friendship is an inherent good, profitable for its own sake.
True friends develop our personal character, offer us accountability, and supply us with constant kinship in the wild and changeful billows of human life. Even while marriage is an excellent and admirable good, it cannot replace the comfort and accountability of phileo, brotherly love. Such companionship, though contemporarily denigrated in favor of romance, contains a tie that has lasted the test of time and is commemorated in countless works of literature—from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Don Quixote or Harry Potter. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Four Loves, “To the ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Now graduated and married, starting a new job and life in Washington, D.C., I feel the strong temptation of frenzied distraction and urban individualism. The city often entices me to close off, to focus inward, to fixate purely on my marriage and work. It’s difficult to form and foster friendships with a full-time job, and even more difficult to find a “bosom friend,” who won’t only talk about marriage and men, work and exercise. Modern friendship often becomes a venue for gossip and chatter. Pursuing something deeper is difficult, but truer to the heart of phileo. Better to discuss politics or volunteer at a shelter, visit art museums or take cooking classes, join a book club or write thoughtful snail mail. There are windmills and giants to fight, in our world and in our souls. We need a fellow fighter, a sous chef, a Plato to our Aristotle.
My old childhood friend lives about 2,500 miles away. My college roommates are in South Korea, serving as teachers in a foreign land. But they are still close to my heart. Their example continues to inspire and convict me. The lessons they taught me remain—and no matter the distance, our friendship remains strong.
Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.