THE YOUNG MAN’S GUIDE

The infant seeks to grasp the burning lamp;—the parent endeavors to dissuade him from it. At length he grasps it, and suffers the consequences. Finally, however, if the parent manages him properly, he learns to follow his advice, and obey his indications, in order to avoid pain. Such, at least, is the natural result of rational management. It is only when the parent neglects or refuses to give advice, and for a long time manifests little or no sympathy with his child, that the habit of filial reliance and confidence is destroyed.
It was wisely said; ‘He who would pass the latter part of his life with honor and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old, and when he is old, remember that he has once been young.’ Still more does it disqualify us for giving advice?’
Not a few young men either have no fixed principles, no governing motive at all, or they are influenced by those which are low and unworthy. It is painful to say this, but it is too true. But what young man is there who is not influenced more or less, by all the motives which have been enumerated? Who is there that does not seek one’s own happiness? Who does not desire to please his parents and other relatives, his friends and his neighbors? Who does not wish to be distinguished for his attachment to country and to liberty?
Too many young men expect happiness from wealth. This is their great object of study and action, by night and by day. Not that they suppose there is an inherent value in the wealth itself, but only that it will secure the means of procuring the happiness they so ardently desire. But the farther they go, in the pursuit of wealth, for the sake of happiness, especially if successful in their plans and business, the more they forget their original purpose, and seek wealth for the sake of wealth. To get rich, is their principal motive to action. So it is in regard to the exclusive pursuit of sensual pleasure, or civil distinction. The farther we go, the more we lose our original character, and the more we become devoted to the objects of pursuit, and incapable of being roused by other motives.
Now we cannot all become ‘lords’ and ‘gentlemen,’ if we would. There must be a large part of us, after all, to make and mend clothes and houses, and carry on trade and commerce, and, in spite of all that we can do, the far greater part of us must actually work at something; otherwise we fall under the sentence; ‘He who will not work shall not eat.’ Yet, so strong is the propensity to be thought ‘gentlemen;’ so general is this desire amongst the youth of this proud money making universe, that thousands upon thousands of them are, at this moment, in a state which may end in starvation; not so much because they are too lazy to earn their bread, as because they are too proud!
And what are the consequences? A lazy youth becomes a burden to those parents, whom he ought to comfort, if not support. Always aspiring to something higher than he can reach, his life is a life of disappointment and shame. If marriage befalls him, it is a real affliction, involving others as well as him. His lot is a thousand times worse than that of the common laborer. Nineteen times out of twenty a premature death awaits him: and, alas! How numerous are the cases in which that death is most miserable, not to say ignominious!
One of the greatest obstacles in the road to excellence is indolence. An indolent person is scarcely human; he is half quadruped, and of the most stupid species too. He may have good intentions of discharging a duty, while that duty is at a distance; but let it approach, let him view the time of action as near, and down go his hands in languor. He wills, perhaps; but he unwills in the next breath.
What is to be done with such a man, especially if he is a young one? He is absolutely good for nothing. Business tires him; reading fatigues him; the public service interferes with his pleasures, or restrains his freedom. His life must be passed on a bed of down. If he is employed, moments are as hours to him—if he is amused, hours are as moments. In general, his whole time eludes him; he lets it glide unheeded, like water under a bridge. Ask him what he has done with his morning,—he cannot tell you; for he has lived without reflection, and almost without knowing whether he has lived at all.
The indolent man sleeps as long as it is possible for him to sleep, dresses slowly, amuses himself in conversation with the first person that calls upon him, and loiters about till dinner. Or if he engages in any employment, however important, he leaves it the moment an opportunity of talking occurs. At length dinner is served up; and after lounging at the table a long time, the evening will probably be spent as unprofitably as the morning: and this it may be, is no unfair specimen of his whole life. And is not such a wretch, for it is improper to call him a man—good for nothing? What is he good for? How can any rational being be willing to spend the precious gift of life in a manner so worthless, and so much beneath the dignity of human nature? When he is about stepping into the grave, how can he review the past with any degree of satisfaction? What is his history, whether recorded here or there,—in golden letters, or on the plainest slab—but, ‘he was born’ and ‘he died!’
There are many things which, viewed without any reference to prevailing habits, manners, and customs, appear utterly unworthy of attention; and yet, after all, much of our happiness will be found to depend upon them. We are to remember that we live—not alone, on the earth—but among a multitude, each of whom claims, and is entitled to one’s own estimate of things. Now it often happens that what we deem a little thing, another, who views the subject differently, will regard as a matter of importance. For who does not know that throughout the physical world, the mightiest results are brought about by the silent working of small causes? It is not the tornado, or the deluge, or even the occasional storm of rain that renews and animates nature, so much as the gentle breeze, the soft refreshing shower, and the still softer and gentler dews of heaven.
Indulgence far short of gross drunkenness and gluttony is to be deprecated; and the more so, because it is too often looked upon as being no crime at all. Nay, there are many persons, who boast of a refined taste in matters connected with eating and drinking, who are so far from being ashamed of employing their thoughts on the subject, that it is their boast that they do it. ‘It is not the quantity or the quality of the meat, or drink, but the love of it, that is condemned:’ that is to say, the indulgence beyond the absolute demands of nature; the hankering after it; the neglect of some duty or other for the sake of the enjoyments of the table.
A young man is not far from ruin, when he can say, without blushing, I don’t care what others think of me. To be insensible to public opinion, or to the estimation in which we are held by others, by no means indicates a good and generous spirit.
But to have a due regard to public opinion is one thing, and to make that opinion the principal rule of action, quite another. There is no greater weakness than that of letting our happiness depend too much upon the opinion of others. Other people lie under such disadvantages for coming at our true characters, and are so often misled by prejudice for or against us, that if our own conscience condemns us, their approbation can give us little consolation. On the other hand, if we are sure we acted from honest motives, and with a reference to proper ends, it is of little consequence if the world should happen to find fault. Mankind, for the most part, is so much governed by fancy, that what will win their hearts to-day, will disgust them to-morrow.
A wise man, when he hears of reflections made upon him, will consider whether they are just. If they are, he will correct the faults in question, with as much cheerfulness as if they had been suggested by his dearest friend.
There are some persons who never appear to be happy, if left to themselves and their own reflections. All their enjoyment seems to come from without; none from within. They are ever for having something to do with the affairs of others. Not a single petty quarrel can take place, in the neighborhood, but they suffer their feelings to be enlisted, and allow themselves to “take sides” with one of the parties. Those who possess such a disposition are among the most miserable of their race.
So long as the phrase ‘he is a good man,’ means that the person spoken of is rich, we need not wonder that every one wishes to be thought richer than he is. When adulation is sure to follow wealth, and when contempt would be sure to follow many if they were not wealthy; when people are spoken of with deference, and even lauded to the skies because their riches are very great; when this is the case, we need not wonder if men are ashamed to be thought poor. But this is one of the greatest dangers which young people have to encounter in setting out in life. It has brought thousands and hundreds of thousands to pecuniary ruin.
The shame of being thought poor leads to everlasting efforts to disguise one’s poverty. The carriage—the domestics—the wine—the spirits—the decanters—the glass;—all the table apparatus, the horses, the dresses, the dinners, and the parties, must be kept up; not so much because he or she who keeps or gives them has any pleasure arising there from, as because not to keep and give them, would give rise to a suspicion of a want of means. And thus thousands upon thousands are yearly brought into a state of real poverty, merely by their great anxiety not to be thought poor. Look around carefully, and see if this is not so. There are thousands of families at this very moment, struggling to keep up appearances. They feel that it makes them miserable; but you can no more induce them to change their course, than you can put a stop to the miser’s laying up gold.
Our life is a life of constant anxiety, desire to overreach, and general gloom; enlivened now and then, by a gleam of hope or of success. Even that success is sure to lead to farther adventures; till at last, a thousand to one, that your fate is that of ‘the pitcher to the well.’
As young men, who crowd to the army in search of rank and renown, never look into the ditch that holds their slaughtered companions, but have their eye constantly fixed on the commander-in-chief; and as each of them belongs to the same profession, and is sure to be conscious that he has equal merit, every one dreams himself the suitable successor of him who is surrounded with aides-de-camp, and who moves battalions and columns by his nod;—so with the rising generation of ‘speculators.’ They see those whom they suppose nature and good laws made to black shoes, or sweep chimneys or streets, rolling in carriages, or sitting in palaces, surrounded by servants or slaves; and they can see no earthly reason why they should not all do the same. They forget the thousands, and tens of thousands, who in making the attempt, have reduced themselves to beggary.
‘Your eyes open, your thoughts close, will go safe through the world,’ is a maxim which some have laid down; but it savors rather too much of selfishness. ‘You may learn from others all you can, but you are to give them as little opportunity as possible for learning from you,’ seems to be the language, properly interpreted. Suppose every one took the advice, and endeavored to keep his thoughts close, for fear he should either be misunderstood, or thought wanting in wisdom; what would become of the pleasures of conversation? Yet these make up a very considerable item of the happiness of human life.
‘Keep your eyes open,’ however, is judicious advice. How many who have the eyes of their body open, keep the eyes of the soul perpetually shut up. ‘Seeing, they see not.’ Such persons, on arriving at the age of three or four score, may lay claim to superior wisdom on account of superior age, but their claims ought not to be admitted. A person who has the eyes both of his mind and body open, will derive more wisdom from one year’s experience, than those who neglect to observe for themselves, from ten. Thus at thirty, with ten years acquaintance with men, manners and things, a person may be wiser than another at three times thirty, with seven times ten years of what he calls experience. Sound practical wisdom, cannot, it is true, be rapidly acquired anywhere but in the school of experience, but the world abounds with men who are old enough to be wise, and yet are very ignorant. It is hence easy to see why some men who are accounted learned, are yet in common life very great fools.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Young Man’s Guide, by William A. Alcott)

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