I can remember my mother’s boisterous laugh when I was a little boy. I can remember my older brothers teasing me at the ripe age of five about a girl I liked who lived next door. I remember us wrestling with our dad in his bed on Saturday mornings. I remember the sycamores that lined our street, their unforgettable peeling bark. I can still see the kitchen counter in our house on Hubbard avenue in Salt Lake City, high above my head. The counter, like all things in my world at that time, was a sharp-edged given, fixed and immutable, seemingly from time immemorial. A loving stable home, like the one I was fortunate enough to enjoy growing up, is the cradle of faith in a world that is reliable and reliably good. It would take a good two decades before I could look back and see things—from kitchen countertops to clothes and cars and traditions, the whole atmosphere of my life— as contingent and dynamically changing through time.
Part of what helps to shatter the veneer of immutability of family life is the dizzying and disorienting contact with the outside world. And friendships in that world are like islands of stability that allow hope and trust to continue. They are our first elective relationships, the result of natural gravitations; they are our first free expression in a world that we now understand is not sharp-edged and fixed but is one that we make. And unlike family relationships, we make that new world, that new stability, out of what chance makes available to us. It is a way of making this world feel serendipitous when it so often feels terrifyingly unpredictable and chaotic. Forged through willed affiliation, rather than by the accident of birth, friendship magically takes up accident or coincidence and transforms it into a feeling of inevitability. It is perhaps for this reason that friends and lovers so enjoy recalling the chance accidents that brought them together and weave those accidents into stories of providential destiny. Friendship is the great reminder that life and joy can indeed be of our own choosing despite evidence to the contrary.
My first friendship was with a boy who lived around the corner and across the street. He had a brother who matched up with my brother in age. We could enter their home and eat their food and even sleep in their beds. And there was the proverbial girl next door, Kate, whose dark hair and red lips left me speechless. I learned that friends were available during all disposable hours of the day, which, when a childhood is spent correctly, are many. I remember walking to church and attending with other families. I remember seeing them ahead of us or behind or across from us on the streets, also walking in their Sunday best.
Joseph Smith loved family life. It is clear he was especially attached to his father, for example, and that his brother Alvin’s death deeply affected him, a loss he suffered directly and vicariously through his parents’ pain. But it is also clear that through experimentation and through revelation, like an improvisational jazz artist touched by inspiration, he found ways to extend the meaning of family into the eternities but also to expand the meaning of family bonds to encompass the whole of the human race. He said: “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers…. it unites the human family with its happy influence.”
Joseph Smith’s teaching is the realization of what Paul once called the “spirit of adoption” by which we come to understand ourselves as spiritual offspring of heavenly parents and therefore as brothers and sisters. Brother and Sister. My favorite Mormon words. Let us not use these titles with levity. At Christmas we gather with family, but we also gather with friends. And Joseph would say that even so we are gathered as family. Intimacy and mutual appreciation are profound gifts. But Joseph—and Jesus—meant something even more ambitious: the bonds that we have made and are making out of chance encounters—the random roommate or classmate, the girl or the family next door, the ward members we come to love—are not an end in itself but the learning ground for something more universal. Friendship must go beyond natural gravitation and mutual affection; our work does not end with family or even with a broader family of friends but ends in extending familiarity—extending the very meaning and substance of family ties—to the stranger, to the outcast, to those most different who are no less our brothers and sisters than anyone else.
When we give gifts at Christmas, we recognize the serendipity of friendship as a kind of grace. We give thanks for what would otherwise have felt like an unending sequence of random events that make up our lives. These gifts and all these rituals surrounding Christmas are small ways of anchoring experience, like the way stitches anchor a quilt. And they are also expressions of gratitude for the grace of the newborn Savior. Gifts and singing and food and communion are our way of remembering a child whose accident of birth found him in a stable, vulnerable and reliant on a mother and a surrogate father, a boy who eventually died without spouse or children but who gave his life to teach us, his friends, the principle of our eternal siblinghood. What would help, he suggested, would be to practice seeing his countenance in the face of every single human, especially in the faces of the very least among us, the least expected, the ones we wouldn’t have chosen. He asks us to make a family together.
My life has been an unending series of serendipitous encounters with people who, in large or small measure, have changed my life for the better, who have offered compensation and supplementation for the particulars of my own family story. The more friends I have, the more fascinating humanity becomes and the more life feels like anything but chance. Although I was never blessed with a sister, I have bragging rights on hundreds of remarkable sisters whose brilliance, kindness, and goodness shine brightly. Though I lost one brother, I have many more brothers than I can count of tremendous capacity whom I love and who love me as well as in any fraternal bond. From early childhood, through high school and college, and all throughout my adult life, I have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in friends. Life is unimaginable or at least utterly impoverished without them. With Lou Gehrig, I often feel to exclaim: “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”