Years ago, I was discussing A Member of this Household with the parent of a child who was similar in personality and drive. Our children shared the same essential values but competed with one another to excel in a particular field of study. (Look, I’m trying not to write about my children on this Internet, so hopefully this is adequately vague that my own family members won’t be sure who I am talking about…)
THE POINT BEING: the other mom and I were contemplating whether this rivalry was working to the good of our children or making it difficult for them to develop a friendship. I was pleasantly surprised to hear her characterize their interaction as “sharpening” one another, a reference to Proverbs 27: 17 – “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
I was also surprised that a cursory Googling didn’t turn up much on this subject with regards to female friendship. I did learn quite a bit about metallurgy and the meaning of this metaphor from a post at The Catholic Gentleman:
There is another property of iron that bears mentioning, and that is the ability to abrade itself. As one takes two like pieces of iron (without getting too technical and for the sake of argument assume these pieces of metal are alike in all manner) and rub them together, one does not preferentially abrade the other. They both begin to wear upon the other and remove the surface impurities, defects and high spots until they become smooth.
Does it not seem then that, through this smoothness and removal of all defects, the iron shines brilliantly in the light of the sun? So, too, does our engagement with those who love Christ, especially priests, begin to abrade away our defects through constant challenging, admonishment, and confession. These acts leave us weary and worn – but worn to a brilliant sheen – so that we can reflect the dazzling light of the Son to others.
The author, Ben Ewing, comes at the proverb with a different focus and probably says far more of spiritual import than I am going to do.
I don’t know enough about human nature to apply this to everyone, but there is certainly a particular type of child (who grows into a particular type of adult) who relishes this mutual sharpening. Having a friend or circle of friends who can provoke you to examine your thinking for clarity and defend your beliefs for the purpose of cherishing them more dearly strikes me as a rare and precious gift.
I tend to think that it is harder for women to form these friendships, possibly because a drive to debate and question is often interpreted as more hostile/personal when it comes from a woman. (Oh, gosh, I hope you’re not mad at me for saying that.) I recently observed a conversation between two women who were unafraid to challenge one another’s premises and it was refreshing that neither backed down with a self-deprecating remark or other “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings” just to reach a resolution. To be clear, that was possible because the desire on both sides was not to win for the sake of winning; it was about arriving at the truth of the matter.
In general, I think all of society everywhere all the time (and let it begin with me!) needs far more reminders to be humble and to listen than to speak! your! truth! But there’s also value in helping young people to find environments in which they may be sharpened. A teenager who is charging ahead and questioning the faith will often benefit more from frank and challenging conversation than from attempts to redirect towards more irenic pursuits.
Related – Amy Welborn’s post a couple of weeks ago about “The Feminine Genius of the Cowgirl in Red.“
“The Real Catholic Woman” can be a mother of ten or none. She can be really interested in fashion or absolutely, totally indifferent to it. She can be hoping for a spouse or she can be fully content without one. “The Real Catholic Woman” can find “beauty” a helpful personal and spiritual concept – or not. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be ambitious and entrepreneurial or she can live more quietly, oriented to serving those around her in simple, ordinary ways. “The Real Catholic Woman” can find deep connection and nourishment from being with other women – or she can find that from hanging out with the guys, or professional colleagues or in her garden or heck, with her cats. I guess. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be deeply into Church-y things – or she can hit Mass once a week, say her prayers and do her best in life.
Also related: lionesses, a specimen of feminine genius characterized by tremendous sharpness