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SHIPS AND HAVENS
III. THE HAVEN OF WORK.
Surely we ought to know what it is that we really want to do in the world, what practical result we desire to accomplish with our lives. And this is a question which it will be very wise to ask and answer before we determine what particular means we shall use in order to perform our chosen work and to secure the desired result. A man ought to know what he proposes to make before he selects and prepares his tools. A captain should have a clear idea of what port he is to reach before he attempts to lay his course and determine his manner of sailing.
All these minor questions of ways and means must come afterwards. They cannot be settled at the outset. They depend on circumstances. They change with the seasons. There are many paths to the same end. One may be best to-day. Another may be best to-morrow. The wind and the tide make a difference. One way may be best for you, another way for me. The build of the ship must be taken into consideration. A flat-bottomed craft does best in the shallow water, along shore. A deep keel is for the open sea.
But before we make up our minds how to steer from day to day, we must know where we are going in the long run. Then we can shape our course to fit our purpose. We can learn how to meet emergencies as they arise. We can change our direction to avoid obstacles and dangers. We can take a roundabout way if need be. If we keep the thought of our desired haven clearly before us, all the other points can be more easily and wisely settled; and however devious and difficult the voyage may be, it will be a success when we get there.
I am quite sure that a great deal of the confusion and perplexity of youth, and a great deal of the restlessness and fickleness which older people often criticise so severely and so unjustly, come from the attempt to choose an occupation in life before the greater question of the real object of our life-work has been fairly faced and settled. "What are you going to do when you grow up?" This is the favorite conundrum which the kind aunts and uncles put to the boys when they come home from school; and of late they are beginning to put it to the girls also, since it has been reluctantly admitted that a girl may rightly have something to say about what she would like to do in the world. But how is it possible to make anything more than a blind guess at the answer, unless the boy or the girl has some idea of the practical end which is to be worked for. To choose a trade, a business, a profession, without knowing what kind of a result you want to get out of your labor, is to set sail in the dark. It is to have a course, but no haven; an employment, but no vocation.
There are really only four great practical ends for which men and women can work in this world, — Pleasure, Wealth, Fame, and Usefulness. We owe it to ourselves to consider them carefully, and to make up our minds which of them is to be our chief object in life.
Pleasure is one aim in life, and there are a great many people who are following it, consciously or unconsciously, as the main end of all their efforts. Now, pleasure is a word which has a double meaning. It may mean the satisfaction of all the normal desires of our manhood in their due proportion, and in this sense it is a high and noble end. There is a pleasure in the intelligent exercise of all our faculties, in the friendship of nature, in the perception of truth, in the generosity of love, in the achievements of heroism, in the deeds of beneficence, in the triumphs of self-sacrifice. "It is not to taste sweet things," says Carlyle, "but to do true and noble things, and vindicate himself under God's Heaven as a God-made man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest daydrudge kindles into a hero."
But pleasure as we commonly speak of it means something very different from this. It denotes the immediate gratification of our physical senses and appetites and inclinations. There is a free gift of pleasant sensation attached by the Creator to the fulfilment of our natural propensions. The taking of food, for example, not only nourishes the body, but also gratifies the palate; the quenching of thirst is agreeable to the senses as well as necessary to the maintenance of life. No sane and wholesome thinker has ventured to deny that it is lawful and wise to receive this gratuitous gift of pleasure, and rejoice in it, as it comes to us in this world whereto God has caused to grow "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food." But when we make the reception of the agreeable sensation the chief end and motive of our action, when we direct our will and our effort to the attainment of this end, then we enter upon a pleasure-seeking life. We make that which should be our servant to refresh and cheer us, our master to direct and rule and drive us.
The evil nature of this transformation is suggested in the very names which we give to human conduct in which the gratification of the senses has become the controlling purpose. The man who lives for the sake of the enjoyment that he gets out of eating and drinking is a glutton or a drunkard. The man who measures the success and happiness of his life by its physical sensations, whether they be coarse and brutal or delicate and refined, is a voluptuary.
A pleasure-seeking life, in this sense, when we think
of it clearly and carefully, is one which has no real end or goal outside
of itself. Its aim is unreal and transitory, a passing thrill in nerves that
decay, an experience that leads nowhere, and leaves nothing behind it. Robert
Burns knew the truth of what he wrote : —
The man who chooses pleasure as the object of his life has no real haven, but is like a boat that beats up and down and drifts to and fro, merely to feel the motion of the waves and the impulse of the wind. When the voyage of life is done he has reached no port, he has accomplished nothing.
One of the wisest of the ancients, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, wrote a letter to his brother Gallio (the Roman governor before whom St. Paul was tried in Corinth), in which he speaks very frankly about the folly of a voluptuous life.
This is the voice of human prudence and philosophy. The voice of religion is even more clear and piercing. St. Paul says of the pleasure-seekers: "Whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, whose glory is their shame, who mind earthly things." And in another place, lest we should forget that this is as true of women as it is of men, he says: "She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth." That saying is profoundly true. It goes to the bottom of the subject. A pleasure-seeking life is a living death, because its object perishes even while it is attained, and at the end nothing is left of it but dust and corruption.
Think of the result of existence in the man or woman who has lived chiefly to gratify the physical appetites; think of its real emptiness, its real repulsiveness, when old age comes, and the senses are dulled, and the roses have faded, and the lamps at the banquet are smoking and expiring, and desire fails, and all that remains is the fierce, insatiable, ugly craving for delights which have fled forevermore; think of the bitter, burning vacancy of such an end, — and you must see that pleasure is not a good haven to seek in the voyage of life.
But what of wealth as a desired haven? When we attempt to consider this subject we have especial need to follow Dr. Samuel Johnson's blunt advice and "clear our minds of cant." There is a great deal of foolish railing against wealth, which takes for granted, now that it is an unsubstantial and illusory good, and now that it is not a good at all, but only an unmixed evil, and the root of all other evils. Many preachers and moralists talk about wealth in this way.; but they do not really think about it in this way. They know better. And when young people discover and observe the curious inconsistency between the teacher's words and his thoughts, as illuminated by his conduct, they are likely to experience a sense of disappointment, and a serious revulsion from doctrine which does not seem to be sincere.
Wealth is simply the visible result of human labor, or of the utilization of natural forces and products, in such a form that it can be exchanged. A gallon of water in a mountain lake is not wealth. But the same gallon of water conveyed through an aqueduct and delivered in the heart of a great city represents a certain amount of wealth, because it has a value in relation to the wants of men. A tree growing in an inaccessible forest is not wealth. But a stick of timber which can be delivered in a place where men are building houses is a bit of wealth.
Now, the symbol and measure of wealth is money. It is the common standard by which the value of different commodities is estimated, and the means by which they are exchanged. It is not a dream nor a delusion. It is something real and solid. It is deserving of our respect under certain conditions and within certain limitations. The man who professes an absolute contempt for money is either a little of a fool or a good deal of a fraud. It represents a product of labor and a form of power. It is worth working for. When a man has won it, there it is — a fact and a force. He can handle it, use it, dispose of it, as he chooses.
But stop a moment; let us think! Is that altogether true? It is partly true, no doubt; for every particle of wealth, or of its symbol, money, is an actual possession of which its owner can dispose. But it is not the whole truth; for the fact is that he must dispose of it, because that is the only way in which it becomes available as wealth. A piece of money in an old stocking is no more than a leaf upon a tree. It is only when the coin is taken out and used that it becomes of value. And the nature of the value depends upon the quality of the use.
Moreover, it is not true that a man can dispose of his money as he chooses. The purposes for which it can be used are strictly bounded. There are many things that he cannot buy with it; for example, health, long life, wisdom, a cheerful spirit, a clear conscience, peace of mind, a contented heart.
You never see the stock called Happiness quoted on the exchange. How high would it range, think you, — a hundred shares of Happiness Preferred, guaranteed 7 %, seller 30?
And there are some things that a man cannot do with his wealth. For instance, he cannot carry it with him when he dies. No system of transfer has been established between the two worlds and a large balance here does not mean a balance on the other side of the grave. The property of Dives did not fall in value when he died, and yet he became a pauper in the twinkling of an eye.
There is no question but that those who live to win wealth in this world have a more real and substantial end in view than the mere pleasure-seekers. But the thing that we ought to understand and remember is precisely what that end is. It is the acquisition in our hands of a certain thing whose possession is very brief, and whose value depends entirely upon the use to which it is put. Now, if we make the mere gaining of that thing the desired haven of our life, we certainly spend our strength for naught, and our labor for that which satisfieth not. We narrow and contract our whole existence. We degrade it by making it terminate upon something which is only a sign, a symbol, behind which we see no worthy and enduring reality.
It is for this reason that the "blind vice" of avarice,
as Juvenal calls it, has been particularly despised by the wise of all lands
and ages. There is no other fault that So quickly makes the heart small and
Nor is there any other service that appears more unprofitable and ridiculous in the end, when the reward for which the money-maker has given his life is stripped away from him with a single touch, and he is left with his trouble for his pains.
But perhaps you imagine that no one is in danger of making that mistake, no one is so foolish as to seek wealth merely for its own sake. Do you think so? Then, what shall we say of that large class of men, so prominent and so influential in modern society, whose energies arc desperately consecrated to the winning of great fortunes?
So far as their life speaks for them, they have no real ambition beyond that. They are not the leaders in noble causes, the sustainers of beneficent enterprises. They have no refined and elevated tastes to gratify. They are not the promoters of art or science, the adorners of their city with splendid buildings, the supporters of humane and beautiful charities. They have no large plans, no high and generous purposes. They have no public spirit, only an intense private greed. All that we can say of them is that they are rich, and that they evidently want to be richer.
They sit like gigantic fowls brooding upon nests of golden eggs, which never hatch. Their one desire is not to bring anything out of the eggs, but to get more eggs into their nest. It is a form of lunacy — auromania.
But let us not suppose that these notorious examples are the only ones who are touched with this insanity. It is just the same in the man who is embittered by failure, as in the man who is elated by success; just the same in those who make it the chief end of life to raise their hundreds of dollars to thousands, as in those who express their ambition in terms of seven figures. Covetousness is idolatry of wealth. It may be paid to a little idol as well as to a big one. Avarice may be married to Poverty, and then its offspring is named Envy; or it may be married to Riches, and then its children are called Purse-pride and Meanness. Some people sell their lives for heaps of treasure, and some for a scant thirty pieces of silver, and some for nothing better than a promissory note of fortune, without endorsement.
There are multitudes of people in the world to-day who are steering and sailing for Ophir, simply because it is the land of gold. What will they do if they reach their desired haven? They do not know. They do not even ask the question. They will be rich. They will sit down on their gold.
Let us look our desires squarely in the face! To win riches, to have a certain balance in the bank, and a certain rating on the exchange, is a real object, a definite object; but it is a frightfully small object for the devotion of a human life, and a bitterly disappointing reward for the loss of an immortal soul. If wealth is our desired haven, we may be sure that it will not satisfy us when we reach it.
Well, then, what shall we say of fame as the chief end of life? Here, again, we must be careful to discriminate between the thing itself and other things which are often confused with it. Fame is simply what our fellowmen think and say of us. It may be worldwide; it may only reach to a single country or city; it may be confined to a narrow circle of society. Translated in one way, fame is glory; translated in another way, it is merely notoriety. It is a thing which exists, of course; for the thoughts of other people about us are just as actual as our thoughts about ourselves, or as the character and conduct with which those thoughts are concerned. But the three things do not always correspond.
You remember what Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes says, in
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, about the three Johns:
Now, the particular object of the life that makes fame its goal is this last John. Its success consists in the report of other people's thoughts and remarks about us. Bare, naked fame, however great it may be, can never bring us anything more than an instantaneous photograph of the way we look to other men.
Consider what it is worth. It may be good or bad, flattering or painfully truthful. People are celebrated sometimes for their vices, sometimes for their follies. Anything out of the ordinary line will attract notice. Notoriety may be purchased by a colossal extravagance or a monumental absurdity. A person has been made notorious simply by showing himself "more kinds of a fool" than any one else in the community.
Many men would be famous for their vanity alone, if it were not so common that it no longer serves as a mark of distinction. We often fancy that we are occupying a large place in the attention of the world, when really we do not even fill a pin-hole.
To be governed in our course of life by a timorous consideration of what the world will think of us, is to be even lighter and more fickle than a weathercock. It is to be blown about by winds so small and slight that they could not even lift a straw outside of our own versatile imagination. For what is "the world," for whose admiration, or envy, or mere notice, we are willing to give so much? "Mount up," says a wise man, "in a monomania of vanity, the number of those who bestow some passing thought upon you, as high as you dare; and what is this world' but a very few miserable items of human existence, which, when they disappear, none will miss, any more than they will miss thyself?"
There is one point in which fame differs very essentially from wealth and pleasure. If it comes to us without being well-earned it cannot possibly be enjoyed. A pleasure may arrive by chance, and still it will be pleasant. A sum of money may be won by a gambler, and still it is real money; he can spend it as he pleases. But fame without a corresponding merit is simply an unmitigated burden. I cannot imagine a more miserable position than that of the poor scribbler who allowed his acquaintances to congratulate him as the writer of George Eliot's early stories. To have the name of great wisdom, and at the same time to be a very foolish person, is to walk through the world in a suit of armor so much too big and too heavy for you that it makes every step a painful effort. To have a fine reputation and a mean character is to live a lie and die a sham. And this is the danger to which every one who seeks directly and primarily for fame is exposed.
One thing is certain in regard to fame: for most of us it will be very brief in itself; for all of us it will be transient in our enjoyment of it.
When death has dropped the curtain we shall hear no more applause. And though we fondly dream that it will continue after we have left the stage, we do not realize how quickly it will die away in silence, while the audience turns to look at the new actor and the next scene. Our position in society will be filled as soon as it is vacated, and our name remembered only for a moment, — except, please God, by a few who have learned to love us, not because of fame, but because we have helped them and done them some good.
This thought brings us, you see, within clear sight of the fourth practical aim in life, — the one end that is really worth working for, — usefulness. To desire and strive to be of some service to the world, to aim at doing something which shall really increase the happiness and welfare and virtue of mankind, — this is a choice which is possible for all of us; and surely it is a good haven to sail for.
The more we think of it, the more attractive and desirable it becomes. To do some work that is needed, and to do it thoroughly well; to make our toil count for something in adding to the sum total of what is actually profitable for humanity; to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before, or, better still, to make one wholesome idea take root in a mind that was bare and fallow; to make our example count for something on the side of honesty, and cheerfulness, and courage, and good faith, and love, — this is an aim for life which is very wide, as wide as the world, and yet very definite, as clear as light. It is not in the least vague. It is only free; it has the power to embody itself in a thousand forms without changing its character. Those who seek it know what it means, however it may be expressed. It is real and genuine and satisfying. There is nothing beyond it, because there can be no higher practical result of effort. It is the translation, through many languages, of the true, divine purpose of all the work and labor that is done beneath the sun, into one final, universal word. It is the active consciousness of personal harmony with the will of God who worketh hitherto.
To have this for the chief aim in life ennobles and dignifies all that it touches. Wealth that comes as the reward of usefulness can be accepted with honor; and, consecrated to further usefulness, it becomes royal. Fame that comes from noble service, the gratitude of men, be they few or many, to one who has done them good, is true glory; and the influence that it brings is as near to godlike power as anything that man can attain. But whether these temporal rewards are bestowed upon us or not, the real desire of the soul is satisfied just in being useful. The pleasantest word that a man can hear at the close of the day, whispered in secret to his soul, is "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
Christ tells us this: "He that loseth his life shall find it."
"Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
Life is divine when duty is a joy.
Do we accept these sailing orders? Is it really the desired haven of all our activity to do some good in the world; to carry our share of the great world's burden which must be borne, to bring our lading of treasure, be it small or great, safely into the port of usefulness? I wonder how many of us have faced the question and settled it. It goes very deep.
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