Literary OTGD #31: My Friends and I by J. L. Townsend

July 27, 2014 | no comments
By
Joseph L Townsend

Joseph L Townsend

Lesson 31 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual covers the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which consist mainly of short statements meant to help guide our behavior. But its pretty easy to make these statements seem contradictory. We all agree that “pride goeth before destruction,” but what if it is pride in our work or in doing our best? And what do we say to parents who have “trained up a child in the way he should go” when that child does depart from the way? It is precisely these contradictions that the following poem addresses.

The author, Joseph Townsend, was one of the most widely published poets of late 19th century Mormonism. Today Townsend is best known as the author of 10 of the hymns in our hymnal today, including “Choose the Right,” “The Iron Rod,” “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words To Each Other,” and “Hope of Israel.” Born in Pennsylvania in 1872, Townsend came to Salt Lake City, Utah to improve is health and discovered Mormonism there as well. He served an LDS mission to the Southern States, owned and ran a drugstore in Payson, Utah for 15 years and then taught at Brigham Young Academy (the high-school predecessor of BYU) for a couple of years before teaching at Salt Lake City High School. And he wrote poetry which was frequently published in LDS publications like The Contributor.

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My Friends and I

by Joseph L. Townsend

I meet with my friends,
I talk with my friends,
And list to the counsel they give;
And plain ’tis to me
That they’ll never agree
Just how I should prosper and live.
One friend says, “Be manly and hold up your head;”
“Not so,” says another, “be humble instead;”
One says, “By all means you must build self-esteem;”
Another, “Don’t do it, too proud you will seem.”
To meet each half way, I strive to do neither,
While each in his doctrine thinks me a believer.

 

A friend, whose hours fly in the autumn of life,
Who loves to debate, and who glories in strife,
Declares that ’tis noble to stand like a man,
And vanquish by word or by deed when you can.
Another declares that the lowly and meek
Are patterns of manliness that I should seek.
I please both my friends, while between them I move,
And leave the extremes as their hobbies to prove.

 

One friend loves to give, and another to take;
One talks of benevolence much for my sake;
The other, acquisitive, labors for gain.
And tells me to hoard, for to-morrow ’twill rain.
I keep what I wish, and I give what I please.
Nor burn to bestow, nor most miserly freeze.

 

To justify self, all my friends thus construe
The bent of their minds as the right thing to do;
The lazy, the active, the student, the fool,
Would each have me live by his self-imposed rule.
So opposite attributes govern the mind,
Predominant traits rule all others combined.
The saint and the sinner, the moralist, too,
The atheist, strong in his narrower view,
The drunkard, the glutton, the bully, the coward.
Is each in his way by his passions o’erpowered;
While thinking that manliness perfect is shown
When answ’ring the standard he builds as his own.

 

Belong they to age, or to earlier youth.
Let not our conceptions be standards of truth;
We learn in our pride but to unlearn in sorrow;
The wise of to-day are the fools of to-morrow.
The thoughts that we hold, though they noble may seem,
Must soon pass away like an afternoon dream;
And they who aspire to be noble and true,
Aloft must be looking, with Heaven in view;
Divine is the life that we wish to attain,
Or else were our morals and hopes all in vain;
Divine then must be, from divinity’s source,
The precepts and doctrines that mark out our course;
Divine must the pattern of manliness be
To which in conforming from self we are free.

 

And I have one Fr1end, who, in wisdom and love,
Is noblest of all in the Heavens above,
Who counsels and doctrines abundant doth give,
To tell me just how I should prosper and live;
And ever to suit all contingencies given,
Are bright admonitions to guide me to Heaven.

The Contributor, v1 n7,
April 1880, p. 167.

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This poem resonates strongly for me. Its not always friends that give such advice, but the published sources I value—newspapers and magazines, blogs and email, radio and television, etc.—and even the wisdom literature in the scriptures: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. They all give, at least to my ear, plausible advice, that sounds correct and reasonable when they present it. Then I later hear or read or see other advice that seems completely contradictory to the first. And I’ve even come to the conclusion in the past that both pieces of contradictory advice are, paradoxically, true. Eugene England frequently quoted Joseph Smith on this concept: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

Townsend explains these discrepancies this way:

To justify self, all my friends thus construe
The bent of their minds as the right thing to do;
The lazy, the active, the student, the fool,
Would each have me live by his self-imposed rule.

Indeed, often the advice that one gives is colored by viewpoint and experiences. We also assume that what works for us will work for everyone — or, conversely, what worked for someone else will work for us.

Townsend says that we will find that advice we get from friends doesn’t always work:

Let not our conceptions be standards of truth;
We learn in our pride but then unlearn in sorrow;
The wise of to-day are the fools of to-morrow.
The thoughts that we hold, though they noble may seem,
Must soon pass away like an afternoon dream;

He then suggests the source of advice we can depend on:

And they who aspire to be noble and true,
Aloft must be looking, with Heaven in view;

That is, of course, the ultimate answer to questions like this. The answer is to rely on the influence of heaven and to look to that which will return us there.

I’m not saying that the wisdom literature is without value. Instead, I think we need inspiration to learn how to wisely apply these important concepts in our lives. We need to know how to interpret this wisdom for us today. Perhaps then, the real wisdom is not in the content of the saying itself, but in knowing how to use it.

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