“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
The most frequent and bitter tears shed during one’s school years arises not from poor grades and missed opportunities, but from disappointments in friendship. Even as adults many of us know the deep pain of a friendship that has gone awry. But why does friendship matter to us so much? And why especially does it concern us so deeply in our childhood and adolescence?
The 5th Century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle had a lot to say about friendship. He observed that although immediate family is the most important and necessary source of emotional need and nourishment, friendship was one of the highest forms of love, because it was not based on obligation or responsibility (as many familial relationships are), but on the mutual choice to love the goodness and virtue in another. Indeed, oftentimes we love and depend on a friend more than a family member (as the Bible verse above demonstrates).
That is not to diminish the role of a sibling. One can be apart from a sibling for many years…and they remain your sibling, and will typically be there for you when times are tough. Friendship, by contrast, requires maintenance through regular contact. That said, it is possible (though not necessary), to love and enjoy a true friend more deeply than a brother or sister. As the Scriptures say, ‘A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity’ (Proverbs 17:17).
Friendship is so important to the formation of our identity and sense of self-worth. We desire to be loved and valued by others for who we are. That is why friendships are so important to us as children and adolescents. To be chosen to be a friend is so very affirming.
We don’t need many friends to lead a happy life. “The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend,” said Aristotle…and he was right. Most of us go through life counting truly close friends on one hand. Hence, why losing a friend is so painful. Indeed a solid friendship is far more fulfilling than popularity. As Aristotle said again, “A friend to all is a friend to none.”
However, a jealous or possessive friend is not a good friend. “By myself”, says C. S. Lewis, “I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence, true friendship is the least jealous of all the loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth…They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love [friendship] ‘to divide is not to take away.’”
All friends will disappoint us at some time or other. And we will disappoint our friends. Friendship is not always perfect. Jesus knew this when he called his twelve disciples “friends” (John 15:15). Although he knew he would be betrayed by a friend (John 13:21), and be abandoned by the Twelve at his arrest (Matthew 26:31), he still chose to have friends…and die for them. Jesus was a model for true and perfect friendship, summed up in his own words at the Last Supper: “Greater love has no one than this,’ He said,’ that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
For Prayer and Reflection: Are you a good friend? Ask Jesus to create in you the same sacrificial love for others that he had for His friends.
For Further Reading: John 15:12-17