Image from gutenberg.org
One of the most difficult things in science is to invent a lens that will not distort the object it reflects; the least deviation in the lines of the mirror will destroy the beauty of a star. How unreliable then must be the distorting lens of human prejudice. You do not know the forces that have given direction to the lives of others; if so, you might know why one is a member of this or that political party, why one lives north, another south, one on the land, another on the sea.
If yonder oak, that came from the finest acorn and promised to be the monarch of the forest, was dwarfed by simply a drop of dew; if yonder rolling river, bearing its commerce to sea, was turned seaward, instead of lakeward, by simply a pebble thrown in the fountain-head; why not have consideration for those whose circumstances and early training set in motion convictions differing from ours. God did not intend all the trees to be oaks, or that all the rivers should run in one direction, but He did intend all to make up at last His one great purpose.
We should not judge a person by one trait. There are persons for whom you may do fifty favors, yet make one mistake and they will never forgive you. Little things are suggestive of great things. We read that a ship-worm, working its way through a dry stick of wood, suggested to Brunell a plan by which the Thames river could be tunneled. The twitching of a frog’s flesh as it touched a certain kind of metal led Galvani to invent the electric battery. The swinging of a spider’s web across a garden walk led to the invention of the suspension bridge. The oscillation of a lamp in the temple of Pisa led Galileo to invent the measurement of time by a pendulum. A butterfly’s wing suggested the combination of colors. So little things are suggestive of great things in character.
What are these little traits in human character? They are matches struck in the dark. Do you know what that means, a match struck in the dark? If not, get up some night when it’s pitch dark in the room, run your face up against a half-open door, knock the pitcher off the table and spill the cold water on your bare feet, sit down on a chair that’s not there, and you’ll realize what it means to strike a match. If I were to go into a parlor of one of your finest homes at midnight with all the lights out, I would see nothing, but let me strike a match and beautifully decorated walls, fine paintings, and furniture will meet and greet my vision.
You cannot be very long in the company of anyone until a match will be struck. Of one you will say, “that’s good; I’m glad to find such a trait in that person,” but directly another match will flare up and you will find another trait as disappointing as the other was commendable, and you are at a loss to know what “manner of man” you are with.
It’s a wonder when so many characters are so difficult to solve that many young people rush headlong into matrimony without striking a match, except the match they strike at the marriage altar. A girl sees a young man today; he’s handsome, talks well, and she falls in love with him, dreams about him tonight, sighs about him tomorrow and thinks she’ll surely die if he doesn’t ask her to marry him. Yet she knows nothing about his parentage or his character. No wonder we have so many unhappy marriages, so many homes like the one where a stranger knocked at the front door and receiving no response went around to the rear where he found a very small husband and a very large wife in a fight, with the wife getting the better of the battle.
We don’t seem to realize that every public man is a teacher, every home is a school, and the education received outside the schoolroom is often more effective than the education inside. All the forces and elements of the organism of society are teachers and all life is learning. The birth of an infant into this world is its matriculation into a university, where it graduates in successive degrees. And do you know in this great school of human life that we never reach a grade that we are not influenced by what touches us? We are constantly being influenced by what touches us.
Many persons make themselves miserable by contrasting the little they have with the much that others have, when if they would compare their blessings with the miseries of others it would add to their contentment. There are more bright days than cloudy ones, a thousand song birds for every rain-crow, a whole acre of green grass for every grave, more persons outside the penitentiary than inside, more good men than bad, more good women than good men; slavery, dueling, lottery and polygamy are outlawed, the saloon is on the run, the wide world will soon be so sick of war that universal peace, with “good will among men,” will prevail, labor and capital will be peaceful partners and human brotherhood will rule in righteousness throughout the world.
We live in a materialistic age; that all human activities are born of selfishness; that manhood is dying out of the world. All over the land at midnight, men lean from the saddles of iron horses, peering down the railroad track, ready to die if need be for the safety of those entrusted to their care. Firemen will climb ladders tonight and their souls will go up in flames, like Jim Bludsoe’s, to save the lives of imperiled women and children.
The man or woman who lives in this age of the world and lives in idleness, should have lived in some other age. When ox-teams crept across the plains, and stage coaches went six miles an hour, idleness may have been in some kind of harmony with the age, but now, when horses pace a mile in two minutes, express trains make fifty miles an hour, and aeroplanes fly a mile in a minute; when telephone and telegraph send news faster than light flies, the idler is out-of-place. Carlisle said: “The race of life has become intense; the runners are tramping on each other’s heels; woe to the man who stops to tie his shoestrings!
Yonder on the ocean a vessel springs a leak and soon the water stands thirty inches deep in the hold. The captain says: “To the pumps!” and the sailors leap to their places. At the end of one hour the captain measures and says: “Thirty inches; you are holding it down.” Hour after hour the pumping goes on, with changing hands at the pumps, and hour after hour the captain says: “You are doing well; she can’t go down at thirty inches. Hold it there and we’ll make the harbor.” Twenty hours and the captain shouts: “Thirty inches; and land is in sight. Pump on, my boys, you’ll save the ship.” Suppose one of our croakers who says, “Prohibition won’t prohibit,” had been on board. He would have said: “Don’t you see you are doing no good; there’s just as much water as when you began.” What would have become of the ship?
If we could live life over surely we could ask no better age than the one in which we have lived. We no longer toil over a mountain, but glide through it on ribbons of steel; telegraphy dives the deep and brings us the news of the old world every morning before breakfast; we talk with tongues of lightning through telephones and send messages on ether waves over the sea; we ride horse-cycles that run, never walk and live without eating; we travel in carriages drawn by electric steeds that never tire; the signal service gives us a geography of the weather, so the farmer may know whether to prepare to plow, and the Sunday school whether to arrange or to postpone its picnic tomorrow; airships mount the heavens, steamships plough the ocean’s bosom, submarine torpedo boats undermine the deep with missiles of death, while photography turns one inside out, and doctors no longer guess at the location of a bullet. All these things have come to pass within our life-time. What may the young before us expect in the next fifty years?”
Adapted from ‘Wit, Humor, Reason, Rhetoric, Prose, Poetry and Story woven into Eight Popular Lectures’ by George W. Bain.
2003-2008 Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation