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"Be But Your Own True Friend"

William Law (1686–1761) is not one of my favourite spiritual writers, although he did have his fans (such as the Wesleys, George Whitefield, John Newton, and other evangelical worthies). I find him too “heroic,” an impossibly demanding combination of moralist and mystic.

Surprisingly, then, as I have been re-reading David L. Jeffrey’s superb anthology of 18C writers, A Burning and a Shining Light: English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley, I came across this line, at once stirring and comforting, in Law’s great tract, A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection:

“Be but your own true friend.”

As we are now well into the new year, my prayer for myself and for you is that we will treat ourselves properly, as our own true friend. So when I work out, I ask myself, “If I were my own coach, would I say, ‘Push harder! You can do it’ or would I say, ‘Hey, it’s okay: Ease up, good job, don’t hurt yourself’?”

When I make music, I pause and say, “If I were my own teacher or bandleader, what would I want from me now? Harder concentration? More creativity and less cliché? Better technique and tone? And how would I put it?”

When I reflect on how I behave with family, friends, or colleagues, I think, “Okay, if I were my own counselor, what would I point out in what’s just been happening? What issues would I leave aside for another time? What would I urge and what encouragement would I give?”

When I consider various professional opportunities, whether a speaking invitation or a writing project or whatever, I try to imagine what advice I’d give if I were my own mentor.

And when I’m tired, or cranky, or sad, or frustrated, I take the role of “life coach” and assess the situation, run it through some “diagnostics” I’ve learned, and try to give myself some sane advice.

Of course we need good, real friends, not just imaginary ones! Of course we need counsel from others more expert, more insightful, less biased, and less sinful than ourselves. Amen and hallelujah for such company!

Still, wherever you go, at least there you are. And if, as I think it’s Parker Palmer who puts it this way, “You are the gift you have to give to the world,” how are you stewarding that gift? With a whip? With high-fructose corn syrup? Or with wisdom and love?

I know, I know: With a few semantic moves, Law’s advice becomes a sappy, syrupy New Agey bromide: “Be your own best friend!!!” One needs to dot the “i” in “friend” with a tiny flower or heart and the outrage is complete.

Nonetheless, Law’s older English and his temperate use of “true” rings true to me. “Be a true friend to yourself.” What would you want from a truly good friend? Treat yourself that way.

If stern old William Law can say it to us, we certainly can say it to ourselves.


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