A journey through life is like a journey along the track way of a retreating army; here a valuable ammunition wagon is abandoned because a careless smith left a flaw in the tire; there a brass cannon is deserted because a tug was improperly stitched; yonder a brave soldier lies dying in the thicket where he fell because excited men forgot the use of an ambulance. Life's chief destructions are in the city of man's soul.
Men differ, of course, in ways many—they differ in the number and range of their affections, in the scope of conscience, in taste and imagination, and in moral energy. But the original point of variance is physical. Some have a small body and a powerful mind, like a Corliss engine in a tiny boat, whose frail structure will soon be racked to pieces. Others are born with large bodies and very little mind, as if a toy engine were set to run a mud scow. This means that the poor engineer must pole up stream all his life. Others, by ignorance of parent, or accident through nurse, or through their own blunder or sin, destroy their bodily capital. Soon they are like boats cast high and dry upon the beach, doomed to sun-cracking and decay.
Few men, perhaps, ever learn how to so manage their brain and stomach as to be capable of high-pressure brain action for days at a time—until the cumulative mental forces break through all obstacles and conquer success. A great leader represents a kind of essence of common sense, but rugged common sense is sanity of nerve and brain. He who rules and leads must have mind and will, but he must have chest and stomach also.
Social wealth and happiness are through right living. Goodness is a commodity. Conscience in a cashier has a cash value. If arts and industries are flowers and fruits, moralities are the roots that nourish them. Disobedience is slavery. Obedience is liberty. Disobedience to law of fire or water or acid is death. Obedience to law of color gives the artist his skill; obedience to the law of eloquence gives the orator his force; obedience to the law of iron gives the inventor his tool; disobedience to the law of morals gives waste and want and wretchedness. "Have life more abundantly." Man is not fated to a scant allowance or a fixed amount, but he is allured forward by an unmeasured possibility. Personality may be enlarged and enriched. A great picture is a beautiful conception rushing into visible expression upon the canvas. Wake up taste in a man and he beautifies his home. Wake up conscience and he drives iniquities out of his heart. Wake up his ideas of freedom and he fashions new laws.
What is man's value to society? Let him who knoweth what reply is in us: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and lose his own soul?" Man beholds his fellows as one beholds a volume written in a foreign language; the outer binding is seen, the inner contents are unread. Within general lines phrenology and physiognomy are helpful, but it is easier to determine what kind of a man lives in the house by looking at the knob on his front door than to determine the brain and heart within by studying the bumps upon face and forehead. Nature's dictum is, "Grasp the handle of your own being." Each must fashion his own character. Nature gives trees, but not tools; forests, but not furniture. Thus nature furnishes man with the birth materials and environment; man must work up these materials into those qualities called industry, integrity, honor, truth and love.
Life's first teacher is the external world, with its laws. Man begins at zero. The child thrusts his finger into the fire and is burned; thenceforth he learns to restrain himself in the presence of fire, and makes the flames smite the vapor for driving train or ship. The child errs in handling the sharp tool, and cuts himself; thenceforth he lifts up the axe upon the tree. The child mistakes the weight of stone, or the height of stair, and, falling, hard knocks teach him the nature and use of gravity. Daily the thorns that pierce his feet drive him back into the smooth pathway of nature's laws. The sharp pains that follow each excess teach him the pleasures of sound and right living. Nor is there one infraction of law that is not followed by pain. As sharp guards are placed at the side of the bridge over the chasm to hold men back from the abyss, so nature's laws are planted on either side of the way of life to prick and scourge erring feet back into the divine way. Temptation is another teacher. Protection gives innocence, but practice gives virtue. Scientists say that the glowworm keeps its enemies at bay by the brightness of its own light. Man, by his love of truth and right, becomes his own castle and fortress. Cities no longer depend upon night-watchmen to guard against marauders and burglars. Men trusted to safes and iron bars upon the windows. Now bankers ask electric lights to guard their treasure vaults.
Life's teacher also includes newness and zest. First, man lives his life in fresh personal experiences. Then, by observation, he repeats his life in the career of his children. A third time he journeys around the circle, re-experiencing life in that of his grandchildren. Then, because the newness has passed away and events no longer stimulate his mind, death withdraws man from the scene and enters him in a new school. Vast is the educational value therefore attaching to the newness of life. Thus, each new day is a new continent to be explored. Each youth is a new creature, full of delightful and mysterious possibilities. Each brain comes clothed with its own secret, having its own orbit, attaining its own unique experience. Ours is a world in which each individual, each country, each age, each day, has a history peculiarly its own. This newness is a perpetual stimulant to curiosity and study. For some, once a picture or book has been seen, the pleasure ceases. Delight dies with familiarity. Such persons look back to the days of childhood as to the days of wonder and happiness. But the man of real vision ever beholds each rock, each herb and flower with the big eyes of children, and with a mind of perpetual wonder. For him the seed is a fountain gushing with new delights. By a strange paradox men are taught by monotony as well as by newness. Ours is a world where the words, "Blessed be drudgery," are full of meaning. Culture and character come neither through consuming excitements nor the whirl of pleasures. The granary is filled, not by the thunderous forces that appeal to the eye and ear, but by the secret, invisible agents; the silent energies, the mighty monarchs hidden in roots and in seeds. What rioting storms cannot do is done by the silent sap and sunshine. All the fundamental qualities called patience, perseverance, courage, fidelity, are the gains of drudgery. Character comes with commonplaces. Greatness is through tasks that have become insipid, and by duties that are irksome.
The treadmill is a divine teacher. He who shovels sand year in and year out needs not our pity, for the proverb is"Every man has his own sand heap." The greatest mind, fulfilling its career, once the freshness has worn off, pursues a hackneyed task and finds the duties irksome. It is better so.
Solitude is a wise teacher. Going apart the youth grows great. History tells of a thousand men who have maintained virtue in adversity only to go down in hours of prosperity. That is, man is stimulated by the crisis; conflict provokes heroism, persecution lends strength. But, denied the exigency of a great trial, men who seemed grand fall all to pieces. Triumphant in adversity, men are vanquished by drudgery. Life's crowning victory belongs to those who have won no brilliant battle, suffered no crushing wrong; who have figured in no great drama, whose sphere was obscure, but who have loved great principles midst small duties, nourished sublime hopes amid vulgar cares, and illustrated eternal principles in trifles."
Responsibility is a teacher of righteousness. Man learns to swim by being tossed into life's maelstrom and left to make his way ashore. No youth can learn to sail his life-craft in a lake sequestered and sheltered from all storms, where other vessels never come. Skill comes through sailing one's craft amidst rocks and bars and opposing fleets, amidst storms and whirls and counter currents. English literature has a proverb about the incapacity of rich men's sons. The rich man himself became mighty because he began in poverty, had no hand to help him forward, and many hands to hold him back. After long wrestling with opposing force he compacted within himself the strength and foresight, the frugality and wisdom of a score of ordinary men. The school of hard knocks made him a man of might. But his son, cradled in a soft nest, sheltered from every harsh wind, loving ease more than industry, is in danger of coming up without insight into the secrets of his profession or industry.
The extremes and contrasts of life do much to shape character. Ours is a world that moves from light to dark, from heat to cold, from summer to winter. On the crest to-day, the hero is in the trough to-morrow. During man's few years, and brief, he experiences many reverses. He flits on between light and dark. It is hard for the leader to drop back into the ranks. It is not easy for him who hath led a movement to its success to see his laurels fall leaf by leaf. After long and dangerous service men grown old and gray are succeeded by the youth to whom society owes no debt. Thus man journeys from strength to invalidism, from prosperity to adversity, from joy to sorrow, or goes from misery to happiness, from defeat to victory. When men combine gold and goodness, greatness and godliness, genius and graces, human nature is at its best." On the other hand, adversity is a supplement, making up what prosperity lacks. Thus by his inner aspirations, man lives and builds. The inner eye reveals to the toiler a better tool or law or reform, and the realization of these visions gives social progress. The vision of conscience reveals new possibilities of character, and these give duty. The vision of the heart reveals new possibilities of friendship, and these give the home.
Man is a pilgrim journeying toward the new and beautiful city of the Ideal. Aspiration, not contentment, is the law of his life. To-day's triumph dictates new struggles to-morrow. The youth flushed with success may couch down in the tent of satisfaction for one night only; when the morning comes he must fold his tent and push on toward some new achievement. The world is not built for sluggards. The earth is like a road, a poor place for sleeping in, a good thing to travel over. The world is like a forge, unfit for residence, but good for putting temper in a warrior's sword. Life is built for waking up dull men, making lazy men unhappy, and the low-flying miserable. When other incitements fail, fear and remorse following behind scourge men forward; but ideals in front are the chief stimulants to growth. Each morning, waking, the soul sees the ideal man one ought to be rising in splendor to shame the man one is.
Life's great teachers are friendship, occupation, travel, books, marriage, and chiefly heart-hungers. These yearnings within are the springs of all man's progress without. Sometimes philosophers say that the history of civilization is the history of great men. Confessing this, let us go on and note that the history of all great men is the history of their ideal hours, realized in conduct and character.
Men begin life with the high purpose of living nobly, generously, openly. Full of the choicest aspirations, hungering for the highest things, the youth enters triumphantly upon the pathway of life. But journeying forward he meets conflict and strife, envy and jealousy, disappointment and defeat. He finds it hard to live up to the level of his best moods. Self-interest biases his judgment. Greed bribes reason. Pride leads him astray. Selfishness tempts him to violate his finer self. The struggle to maintain his ideals is like a struggle for life itself. Many, alas! After a short, sharp conflict, give up the warfare and break faith and fealty with the deeper convictions. They quench the light that shone afar off to beckon and cheer them on. Persuading themselves that the ideal life is impracticable, they strike an average between their highest moods and their low-flying hours. Then is the luster of life all dimmed, and the soul is like a noble mansion in the morning after some banquet or reception. In the evening, when making ready for the brilliant feast, the entire house is illuminated. Each curio is in its niche. The harp is in its place. The air is laden with the perfume of roses. But when the morning comes, how vast is the change! The windows are darkened and the halls deserted; the wax tapers have burned to the socket, or flicker out in smoke; the flowers, scorched by the heated air, have shriveled and fallen, and in the banquet-room only the "broken meats" remain. Gone is all the glory of the feast! Thus, when men lay aside their heroic ideals and bury their visions, the luster of life departs, and its beauty perishes.