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SHIPS AND HAVENS
IV. THE HAVEN OF CHARACTER.
But deeper still the question goes when we look at it in another light. Our life is made up, not of actions alone, but of thoughts and feelings and habitual affections. These taken all together constitute what we call our present character. In their tendencies and impulses and dominant desires they constitute our future character, towards which we are moving as a ship to her haven.
What is it, then, for you and me, this intimate ideal, this distant self, this hidden form of personality which is our goal?
I am sure that we do not often enough put the problem clearly before us in this shape. We all dream of the future, especially when we are young.
But our dreams are too much like the modern stage, full of elaborate scenery and machinery, crowded with startling effects and brilliant costumes and magical transformations, but strangely vacant of all real character.
The stuff of which our day-dreams are made is for the most part of very cheap material. We seldom weave into them the threads of our inmost spiritual life. We build castles in Spain, and forecast adventures in Bohemia. But the castle is without a real master. The hero of the adventure is vague and misty. We do not clearly recognize his face, or know what is in his heart.
We picture ourselves as living here or there; we imagine ourselves as members of a certain circle of society, taking our places among the rich, the powerful, the "smart set." We fancy ourselves going through the various experiences of life, a fortunate marriage, a successful business career, a literary triumph, a political victory. Or perhaps, if our imagination is of a more sombre type, we foreshadow ourselves in circumstances of defeat and disappointment and adversity. But in all these reveries we do not really think deeply of our Selves. We do not stay to ask what manner of men and women we shall be, when we are living here or there, or doing thus or so.
Yet it is an important question. Very much more important, in fact, than the thousand and one trifling interrogatories about the future with which we amuse our idle hours.
And the strange thing is, that, though our ideal of future character is so often hidden from us, overlooked, forgotten, it is always there, and always potently, though unconsciously, shaping our course in life. "Every one," says Cervantes, "is the son of his own works." But his works do not come out of 'the air, by chance. They are wrought out in a secret, instinctive harmony with a conception of character which we inwardly acknowledge as possible and likely for us.
When we choose between two lines of conduct, between a mean action and a noble one, we choose also between two persons, both bearing our name, the one representing what is best in us, the other embodying what is worst. When we vacillate and alternate between them, we veer, as the man in Robert Louis Stevenson's story veered, between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
We say that we "make up our minds," to do a certain thing or not to do it, to resist a certain temptation or to yield to it. It is true. We "make up our minds" in a deeper sense than we remember. In every case the ultimate decision is between two future selves, one with whom the virtue is harmonious, another with whom the vice is consistent. To one of these two figures, dimly concealed behind the action, we move forward. What we forget is, that, when the forward step is taken, the shadow will be myself. Character is eternal destiny.
There is a profound remark in George Eliot's Middlemarch which throws light far down into the abyss of many a lost life. "We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement." But there is a brighter side to this same truth of life-philosophy. We are on a path which leads upward, by sure and steady steps, when we begin to look at our future selves with eyes of noble hope and clear purpose, and see our figures climbing, with patient, dauntless effort, towards the heights of true manhood and womanhood. Visions like these are Joseph's dreams. They are stars for guidance. They are sheaves of promise. The very memory of them, if we cherish it, is a power of pure restraint and generous inspiration.
Oh for a new generation of day-dreamers, young men and maidens who shall behold visions, idealists who shall see themselves as the heroes of coming conflicts, the heroines of yet unwritten epics of triumphant compassion and stainless love. From their hearts shall spring the renaissance of faith and hope. The ancient charm of true romance shall flow forth again to glorify the world in the brightness of their ardent eyes, —
"The light that never was on land or sea, The consecration and the poet's dream."
As they go out from the fair gardens of a visionary youth into the wide, confused, turbulent field of life, they will bring with them the marching music of a high resolve. They will strive to fulfil the fine prophecy of their own best desires. They will not ask whether life is worth living, — they will make it so. They will transform the sordid "struggle for existence" into a glorious effort to become that which they have admired and loved.
But such a new generation is possible only through the
regenerating power of the truth that "a man's life consisteth not in the
abundance of the things that he possesseth." We must learn to recognize the
real realities, and to hold them far above the perishing trappings of existence
which men call real.
"He only is advancing in life," says John Ruskin, "whoso heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth- they, and they only."
Now I think you can see what is meant by this question of the desired haven in character. What manner of men and women do we truly hope and wish to become?
The number of ideals seems infinite. But, after all, there are only two great types. St. Paul calls them "the carnal," and "the spiritual;" and I know of no better names.
The carnal type of character, weak or strong, clever or stupid, is always self-ruled, governed by its own appetites and passions, seeking its own ends, and, even when conformed to some outward law or code of honor, obedient only because it finds its own advantage or comfort therein. There is many a man who stands upright only because the pressure of the crowd makes it inconvenient for him to stoop. "The churl in spirit" may speak fair words because of those who hear; but in his heart tie says the thing that pleases him, which is vile.
The spiritual type of character is divinely ruled, submissive to a higher law, doing another will than its own, seeking the ends of virtue and holiness and unselfish love. It may have many inward struggles, many defeats, many bitter renunciations and regrets. It may appear far less peaceful, orderly, self-satisfied, than some of those who are secretly following the other ideal. Many a saint in the making seems to be marred by faults and conflicts from which the smug, careful, reputable sensualist is exempt. The difference between the two is not one of position. It is one of direction. The one however high he stands, is moving down. The other, however low he starts, is moving up.
We all know who it is that stands at the very summit of the spiritual pathway, — Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became a perfect man, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. We know, too, the steps in which he trod, — obedience, devotion, purity, truthfulness, kindness, resistance of temptation, self-sacrifice. And we know the result of following him, until we come, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect manhood, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.
Which type of character do we honestly desire and expect to reach? Let us not indulge in any delusions about it. Just as surely as our faces are hardening into a certain expression, ugly or pleasant, and our bodies are moving towards a certain condition of health, sound or diseased, so surely are our souls moving towards a certain type of character. Along which line are we looking and steering? Along the line that leads to an older, grayer, stiffer likeness of our present selves, with all our selfishness and pride and impurity and inconsistency and discontent confirmed and hardened? Or the line that ends in likeness to Christ?
Surely we are voyaging blindly unless we know what haven of character our souls are seeking. Surely we are making a mad and base and fatal choice, unless we direct our course to the highest and the noblest goal. To know Christ is life eternal. To become like Christ is success everlasting.
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