What ancient Roman soldiers have to do with nurturing deep, enduring friendships

An artist paints a mural in California–where the author once took a spur of the moment of cross-country road trip.
An artist paints a mural in California–where the author once took a spur of the moment of cross-country road trip.
Image: Reuters/Kevork Djansezian
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Rome’s ancient ruins are stunningly beautiful. The marvels range from the quotidian construction of brick herringbone floors to the engineering feat of the Pantheon. Much of modern architecture and engineering has roots in the Greco-Roman era. The past continues to be relevant, and still informs the present. 

While exploring a residential community under the San Clemente church, we learned about the strong kinship among Roman soldiers who went to war. They spent many years—even decades—apart from their families. In the absence of their loved ones, they made strong bonds through camaraderie at the front. These stories of friendship-as-kinship reminded me of my early post-college years, when I was determined to make it without my family’s immediate support—and my life revolved around my peers.

We bonded over the challenges of showing up to work on time, paying the rent, learning to prioritize, and becoming the adults that we aspired to be. Our adventure was about putting into practice everything we had learned. It was an interesting, crazy time. We enjoyed the highs of going out until 1 AM. to hear a friend’s band, and trudged through the lows of having to show up to work at 6:30 AM that same day. We were overjoyed by our first real adult relationships, and utterly heartbroken when they were over. The newness of professional life, and the uncertain elements of those days made everything fresh, new, and exciting. I felt exhilaratingly alive.

I recently reconnected with several old friends. We laughed about our naïveté, incredulous that we should have been so clueless. One friend asked if I remembered the time when I drove cross-country with three strangers, after failing to make it onto a flight for which I bought a stand-by ticket. How could I forget? I was one of many, stranded at the airport without a way to California. Three guys had banded together to rent a car; they needed a fourth person in order to afford the rental. Although I was skeptical, I desperately needed a vacation. I was at the airport. My bags were packed. The opportunity was staring me into the face, and I did not want to pass it up. I called my friend from a payphone to notify her that I would not be arriving as scheduled, and promised that I would call from every gas station. She thought I was crazy, but was supportive nonetheless.

Reminiscing about these experiences made me appreciate that these friends will be with me forever. They loved me then for the raw version of me that I was. While reconnecting, my heart filled with joy, because the loose, carefree energy of the onset of adulthood returned. I realized that I am happiest when I am not trying to be the most polished version of myself—although I fully recognize the advantages of sleeping more than four hours before going to work, or buying proper tickets to fly to the West Coast.

As in Rome, my past informs my present. The younger, purer version of me was marked by a wildness that made life spark. I am tamer now, but I would benefit from allowing for things to be less serious. The key is to fortify your friendships and community. Be a little wild and carefree amongst your safest friends. High quality human relationships will infuse your life with satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, joy, and even good health.