This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave the first talk of the Friday afternoon session in October 1972, and it was fantastic. What Is a Friend? is timely in so many ways, and is one of my favorite talks since starting the General Conference Odyssey last year.
One of the things I’m sure people noticed when reading it, is Elder Ashton’s push back against the conventional wisdom that “A friend is a person who is willing to take me the way I am.” In contrast to that view, Elder Ashton taught that “we are something less than a real friend if we leave a person the same way we find him.” He expounded:
There seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of some men today as to what it means to be a friend. Acts of a friend should result in self-improvement, better attitudes, self-reliance, comfort, consolation, self-respect, and better welfare. Certainly the word friend is misused if it is identified with a person who contributes to our delinquency, misery, and heartaches. When we make a man feel he is wanted, his whole attitude changes. Our friendship will be recognizable if our actions and attitudes result in improvement and independence.
This became the central theme of the talk; friendship requires that we be willing to
- take a person as they are and
- leave them improved.
We need both, but so often the world teaches only the first. It teaches that a friend is “a person who passively nods approval,” rather than one who will “suggest and render the best for us regardless of the immediate consequences.”
I also loved the idea of friendship as Elder Ashton applied it to the priesthood hierarchy. “President Less is our friend,” he wrote, and also said, “I love President Tanner and I love President Romney because they are my friends.” This contrasts to starkly with the conventional view of leadership in the world. One example of this is the dichotomy between enlisted and officers in most military forces. The distinction, which hearkens back to class differences, has a useful purpose in a human institution. In On Killing, he wrote about “the paradox of war” saying that “to be a good leader you must truly love (in a strangely detached fashion) your men, and then you must be willing to kill (or at least give the orders that will result in the deaths of) that which you love.”
The officer / enlisted distinction serves to create that “strange detachment” that allows officers—even those who love their men—to send them to their deaths according to the cold calculus of war. This pattern of leadership persists across much of our society, even when there is no such rational basis for it. Leaders are different. They are aloof. They are separate.
But not in the Church. In the Church, there are not officers and enlisted. We’re all enlisted. There are no such barriers between the clergy and the lay members, we’re all lay members. And so we’re all—or we should all be—friends.
And then, Elder Ashton extended this principle even farther, citing several passages from the scriptures that describe God as our friend and concluding, “We need God’s friendship. He pleads for ours.” This is a concept that is only possible with the correct view of friendship, that love motivates both acceptance of a person and an unmitigated desire to help that person become better.
Of course, in our relationship with each other, we have to be wary of motes and beams, but the fundamental motive to help each other rise higher is fundamental to friendship, and it is that principle that animates our friendship with God who—unlike us—always knows exactly what we need to continue our ascent to be more like Him.
And so it is that, as Joseph Smith said, “friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’.”