02 July 2010

Accompaniment and Changing Conceptions of Friendship

Whereever increasing number of people are joining the Baha'i Faith and/or becoming involved in Baha'i activities, vibrant informal communities have grown up around those involved. One of the most exciting aspects of this process of community building has been the way it changes people's conceptions of friendship.  So often, friendship revolves around frivolous and often self-destructive behavior. But friendship is most beautiful and enduring when it is based on pursuits appealing to our higher nature. And it's the spread of this second form of friendship that makes these informal communities a refuge from the superficiality and alienation that often surrounds them.

One of the main drivers for this change of culture is participation in study circles using the Ruhi curriculum and the lines of action connected to those courses for study. In an atmosphere both serious and uplifting tutors of study circles accompany participants in acts of service; such as the holding of devotional gatherings, offering home visits, or conducting classes for the spiritual education of children. They serve alongside them, consult about challenges, and offer encouragement. With the loving and careful assistance of their tutor, participants gain experience serving their community in ways they might have previously assumed to be beyond their capacity. The relationship between a tutor is not of a knowledgeable teacher instructing an ignorant student. Accompaniment of a participant is not a task the tutor dutifully performs. Rather, the relationship between tutor and participants is one of warm friendship. They share each other's joys, sorrows, anxieties and hopes. They grow towards each other while engaging in structured service to their community.

In short, the Ruhi Institute provides a systematic format for spreading an elevated form of friendship.

Back in the Spring I was reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Towards the end he has a very engaging section on friendship. As I was reading, it reminded me of what's happening nowadays in Baha'i communities.

Aristotle states that all things worthy of affection can be divided into three categories: the useful, the pleasant, and the good. The useful is worthy of affection inasmuch as it's a means to something else, something that is either pleasant, good, or both. The pleasant is desirable in itself. Its meaning is self-explanatory. Finally, the good, for Aristotle, is that at which something aims. To be good is to be fulfilling the purpose proper to one's nature. In line with this three-fold division he outlines three forms of friendship, privileging friendship based on the good over the other two. I think accompaniment, as described above, fits this third type of friendship.
So we see that when the useful is the basis of affection, men love because of the good they get out of it, and when pleasure is the basis, for the pleasure they get out of it. In other words, the friend is loved not because he is a friend, but because he is useful or pleasant. Thus these two kinds are friendship only incidentally, since the object of affection is not loved for being the kind of person he is, but for providing some good or pleasure....

The perfect form of friendship is that between two good men who are alike in excellence or virtue. For these friends wish alike for one another's good because they are good men, and they are good per se, (that is, their goodness is something intrinsic, not incidental) Those who wish for their friend's good for their friends' sake are friends in the truest sense, since their attitude is determined by what their friends are and not by incidental considerations.
The Nichomachean Ethics, Book Eight
He goes on to argue that because these friends wish for each other's good, they are useful and pleasant to each another as well. By prioritizing excellence and virtue, they receive these other things worthy of affection in a coherent manner. I hope you find this as useful a framework for thinking about Baha'i activities as I do.

As an afterthought, I think reflecting about the meaning of friendship has consequences for how we think about accompaniment in acts of service. Friendship is a mutual activity. When a tutor accompanies a participant in an act of service, the participant is not the only beneficiary. The process helps the tutor to grow spiritually as well. Plus, there's something deeply empowering about being able to help someone. So, one way a tutor can serve the participant is by being open to being served by her companion. The tutor may have a temptation to put forth a confident, flawless facade because she wants to be self-less and for the focus of their interations to be on the progress of the other person's capacities. But that limits the relationship. To walk with someone on a path of service is not something one person does to another. It's a mutual process of mutual service. Even though one person has more experience and more capacity in an area of service than the other, it's important that the more experienced one is forth-coming and open about her own life, her own joys and struggles. Both are involved in a process of growth. It's all a matter of being true friends.


  1. This is the most insightful piece on 'accompaniment' I have read. Infinite thanks

  2. Your article reminded me of something I heard in a talk by Paul Lample. He referenced a quotation from Abdul-Baha in the Diary of Juliette Thompson: "Man must always associate with those from whom he can get light, or be with those to whom he can give light. He must either receive or give instructions. Otherwise, being with people without these two intentions, he is spending his time for nothing, and, by so doing, he is neither gaining nor causing others to gain."

  3. Thanks a ton for quoting that. I also learned about that quote by listening to a talk by Paul Lample. But I had no idea where it came from and all I remembered was the meaning I got from it. Now, I can see the words as they were later recorded.

  4. wonderful thoughts Mr Cat. Thank you greatly. And thank you for the passage by the Master.