Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend chronicles the lives of two young girls growing up in a poor neighborhood near Naples. The narrator, Elena, describes her relationship with Lila, her headstrong and mysterious best friend, who she both adores and envies. I read this novel with six of my closest friends from grad school, and when we discussed it during our reunion, every one of us had stories about friendships that reminded us of Elena and Lila.
I began searching the book, trying to put my finger on what was so familiar to me, to us, about this friendship. I concluded it had something to do with the way Elena needs Lila in the book.
What does it mean to need one another well? In our hyper-autonomous culture, need is a sensitive word, often associated with the loaded adjective needy. No one wants to be needy; we want to appear confident and able to take care of ourselves. However, the truth is that we are all needy, and we are made this way, and it is good. We are made to need God, and God often meets our needs by using deep, tangible human relationships.
Two years ago I moved by myself from New York City to Phoenix, Arizona. I moved from the place I had attended college to a place where more than half a dozen of my college friends lived; I even worked with and lived with a few of them. Some of my New York friends claimed I was moving to a “colony” of my college. At moments, I felt a twinge of shame. Why move somewhere so comfortable? Why not start over and live somewhere where I would be my own and have to meet new people? Wouldn’t that be braver, more independent?
However, the move has turned out to be been one of the best decisions I have made. In Arizona I started a very stressful and time-consuming new job, and as an unmarried woman I found great joy and comfort in being surrounded by people I already trusted, people who understood me on many levels. We have needed each other in many ways, whether that has meant simply borrowing some cooking oil or taking care of each other when we have been sick.
And yet there is also an unhealthy kind of need, the kind that Elena often feels for Lila in My Brilliant Friend. At one point in the book, Elena describes her friendship this way: “I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important.” Later she writes, “I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together—only together—we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”
I wondered what it was about these descriptions of need that struck me as unhealthy. I decided it wasn’t primarily the exclusiveness of it—we do have certain friends who are the only people who understand us in a particular way. The problem instead was that Elena was no longer happy when she was by herself, or when she was with other friends who were not Lila. Elena had crossed into the realm of worshiping her friend. To paraphrase the famous words of Augustine, she had disordered her loves. We often call this kind of need codependency.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where healthy human need ends and unhealthy codependency begins. It may sound simplistic, but in these moments of uncertainty, I need to rely on God’s grace. It’s better to have imperfect friendships than no friendships at all. Sometimes we will need well; sometimes we won’t. But if our closest friendships are centered on our relationship with Christ, we can be assured that we will grow, and learn, and sometimes even love well.
I have experienced the temptation to worship tangible human beings instead of an intangible God. Frankly, it feels easier. Human beings speak to us, look at us, give us physical affection, and we can speak and look and be affectionate in return. The tragedy comes when human beings let us down and we have nothing left to hold onto. Again, this is a fine line—I certainly believe in the need to grieve when an intimate friendship falls apart. As Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” I expect to have a broken heart every once in a while. But I also pray that when I do, I’ll be able to turn to the rest of my community, and, ultimately, to God, and receive comfort.
Betsy K. Brown is a writer and teacher. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and has written articles for publications including Christianity Today‘s web site, The Toast, and Curator Magazine. She lives in Arizona.