MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
"Tell me your friends," says an ancient proverb, "and I will tell you what you are." This is a text on which I have several times enlarged in my previous letters. It is a sentiment which you should constantly remember, for it will make your friendships safe and delightful, and will also preserve you from many of the misfortunes into which unwary youth are prone to fall.
But after you have made choice of your acquaintances, after you have discouraged the familiarities of wicked youth, and formed a little circle of proper companions, it is right that you should pay special attention to another point of duty. It is the regulation of your conduct towards those whom are your intimate friends. In this particular, boys are always unguarded; everyone is liable to err on one side or the other. I hope, therefore, that a few brief directions may not be thrown away upon you—but will be taken up with all diligence.
Be cautious and slow in choosing your friends. This is what you have already learned, and it is merely introductory to the rules and counsels which follow.
When you have acquired a good friend, be firm and constant in your attachment. It is very disgraceful to abandon a friend without cause. None are so ready to sin in this way as those rash youth who are too hasty in becoming intimate with every new acquaintance. The natural consequence is, that after a few days or weeks, they begin to perceive faults which they had not previously allowed themselves time to discern. They then become disgusted, grow cool in their affection, and are forced to look around them for some new associate.
Such was the manner of Julius. Whenever a new student arrived, Julius was the first to take him by the hand. And this was not a mere pretense, for he felt the friendship he professed. But he did not take time to study the character of his playmates, and therefore it was only two or three days before he found out some foible in the newcomer, and cast him off as speedily as he had at first embraced him. Then he attached himself to another, and another; and so he went on, until he had, at some time or other, been familiar with the whole school, and had abandoned them all in turn. Julius changed his friends almost as often as his clothes. Such a young man is incapable of true friendship; and his reigning fault is soon discovered by everyone. Julius is despised as a fickle and changeable fellow.
Beware of trusting too much to the professions of your companions. I would not have you surly, morose, or suspicious; but all is not gold which glitters. The human heart is deceitful, and those who really love you today may be altered tomorrow. When you have tried a friend, and found him faithful, you may safely confide to him even your private thoughts; but take care that you are not deceived. Especially avoid the practice of telling secrets, particularly the secrets of other people, to your young acquaintances.
It is a general rule, which it will be safe for you to observe, never to confide a secret to anyone, unless you want either advice or assistance. For, if you cannot keep your own counsel, how can you expect others to keep it for you? Whenever, therefore, you meet with a person who is frequently taking you aside, to whisper something into your ear, "in confidence," you may be sure he is an unsafe companion. Tell no secrets of your own to such a one; and listen to as few of his as possible.
Cherish a warm attachment to your friends when they are in any trouble. "A friend in need is a friend indeed." And Solomon says—"He that is a friend must show himself friendly." To forsake a companion in the time when he most needs your assistance is base—it is inhuman. The very heathen may teach us a good lesson on this subject. "The name of friendship," says Ovid, "touches the hearts of the very barbarians." Cicero wrote a whole book on the subject of friendship, and it is full of excellent sentiments. You have perhaps read the beautiful anecdote of Damon and Pythias. Damon was condemned to death by Dionysius the tyrant. He obtained leave, however, to go home and settle his affairs, promising to return to the place of execution at a certain hour. And his friend Pythias surrendered himself to the tyrant, and agreed that if Damon was not there at the time, he would himself suffer the punishment in his place. Dionysius naturally concluded that Pythias was a fool, and that Damon would be glad of such an opportunity to escape. But, behold! when the hour arrived, to the astonishment of all, Damon appeared punctually at the place, and declared that he was ready to die. The cruel king was touched by this ardent friendship; he forgave the offender, and begged that he might be numbered among their friends.
This reminds me also of a severe saying of the cynic Diogenes. When he was asked how Dionysius treated his friends, he replied, "Just as one treats earthen vessels; when they are full, he empties them; when they are empty, he throws them aside."
Be forbearing towards the faults of a friend. True, you must not love or copy his faults; indeed, it is an important part of friendship to reprove and correct them. But do not abandon an acquaintance for a few faults, or even for a great one, if he has been truly faithful, and if you are not endangered by his example.
Cultivate a mild and benevolent temper in all your fellowship. An irritable young man can scarcely be a good companion; and an angry temper is contagious. The wisest of kings teaches us this lesson—"Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man you shall not go; lest you learn his ways, and get a snare to your soul."
Never do a wrong thing for the sake of friendship. If you seriously observe this rule, it will keep you from a thousand mischiefs. When Pericles was asked by an intimate acquaintance to bear false witness for him, that great man answered, "I am your friend only to the altars," meaning, that he would go as far to help him as religion would allow.
Try to make salutary impressions on the minds of your friends. Many thousands have been converted by means of friendly admonition. If our acquaintances were sick, we would try to heal them; how much more should we try to save their souls! A single word of affectionate advice sometimes does more good than many sermons. And when a youth professes to serve God, he ought to be neither ashamed nor afraid to open his lips in behalf of his Master's cause.
I trust these few directions (which I might multiply a hundred-fold) will be carefully read by you, and faithfully put into practice.
Your affectionate brother,