The Courage Of Self-conquest
THE highest courage is impossible without self-conquest. And
self-conquest is never easy. A man may be a marvel of physical courage,
and be a coward in matters of self-government. Failure here threatens
dire disaster to his entire career.
Alexander the Great conquered most of the world he knew, but he
permitted his lower nature to conquer his better self, and he died a
disappointed, defeated man.
Before the days of Alexander there was a man named Nehemiah from whom
the world-conqueror might have learned a few secrets. He was a poor
exile in the service of a foreign ruler. That ruler sent him down to
Jerusalem, the capital city of his own home land, with instructions to
govern the people there. Now, in those days, it was a common thing for
governors of cities to plunder the people unfortunate enough to be in
their charge. Thus Nehemiah would have had ample precedent to fill his
own coffers by injustice, profiteering and worse: he had the power.
Possibly he was tempted to do something of the sort. But he had the
courage to shut up tight all baser passions, and then to sit firmly on
the lid. In the brief record of his service he referred to some of the
self-seeking governors, and told of their rascally deeds. Then he added
the significant words, "So did not I."
That was certainly courage--the courage of self-conquest.
As a young man Ulysses S. Grant was a brave soldier, but he nearly
wrecked his life because of weak yielding to his appetite. His real
career began only with self-conquest. When he found the courage to fight
himself--and not until then--he became ready for the marvelous life of
high courage that never faltered when he was misunderstood by associates
and maligned by enemies, that pressed steadily onward, in the face of
biting disease, until work was done, until honor was satisfied.
A little girl four years old came trembling to her mother and asked for
pencil and paper. Then, teeth set and eyes flashing, she pounced on the
paper and began to make all sorts of vicious marks. Asked what she was
doing, she said she was writing a letter to a sister who had offended
her by an act that had been misunderstood. "She is not a nice girl," the
little critic said, "and I'm telling her so. I don't like her any more,
and I'm saying that." As she wrote her hand trembled; she was carried
away by her unpleasant emotion. After a few moments, unable to go on
with her self-appointed task, she flung herself, sobbing, into her
mother's arms and for half an hour she could not control herself.
The sight was pitiful. But far more pitiful is the spectacle of one old
enough to know better who yields to vexation and hatred, thereby not
only making himself disagreeable, but robbing himself of power to
perform the duties of the hour. For there is nothing so exhausting as
uncontrolled emotion. There is so much for each one of us to do, and
every ounce of strength is needed by those who would play their part in
the world. Then what spendthrift folly it is to waste needed power on
emotion that is disquieting, disagreeable and disgraceful!
That lesson was never impressed more forcibly than by a French officer
of whom a visitor from America asked, "Did I understand that you had
lost three sons?" "Yes, sir, and two brothers," was the proud reply.
"How you must hate the Boche," remarked a bystander. "No, no," was the
instant reply, "not hate; just pity, sir; pity, but not hate. Hate, you
know, is an excessive emotion, sir; and no one can do effective work if
he spends his vitality in an excess of emotion. No," he concluded, "we
cannot hate; we cannot work if we burn up ourselves inside. Pity, sir;
pity. 'They know not what they do.' That's the idea. And they don't."
The same lesson of self-restraint was taught by Marshal Foch in his
words to the soldiers of France. He urged them to keep their eyes and
ears ready and their mouths "in the safety notch"; and he told them they
must obey orders first and kick afterwards if they had been wronged. He
said, "Bear in mind that the enemy is your enemy and the enemy of
humanity until he is killed or captured; then he is your dear brother
or fellow soldier beaten or ashamed, whom you should no further
humiliate." He told them that it was necessary to keep their heads clear
and cool, to be of good cheer, to suffer in silence, to dread defeat,
but not wounds, to fear dishonor, but not death, and to die game.
Because so many of the soldiers under him heeded this wise admonition,
they did not waste their precious strength on useless and harmful
emotions, but they were ever ready to go to their task, with the motto
of their division, "It shall be done."
What a blessing it will be to the world that millions of young men were
trained in France to repress hurtful emotion, to exercise
self-restraint--which may be defined as the act or process of holding
back or hindering oneself from harmful thoughts or actions. And what a
wonderful thing it will be if the lesson is passed on to us, so that we
shall not be like the torrent that wastes its power by rushing and
brawling over the stones, all to no purpose, but like the harnessed
stream whose energy is made to turn the wheels of factory and mill. For
only guarded and guided strength is useful and safe.
"Every man that falls must understand beforehand that he is a dead man
and nothing can save him. It is useless for him to cry out, and it may,
by giving the alarm, cause the enterprise to fail."
This was the message to his men of the officer to whom Napoleon
committed the capture of Mt. Cenis.
The historian tells us that at one point in the ascent of a precipitous
track, three men fell. "Their bodies were heard bounding from crag to
crag, but not a cry was heard, not a moan. The body of one hero was
recovered later. There was a smile on his lips."
How that record of the silence succeeded by a smile grips the heart, for
it was not the false courage that plays to the grandstand, but the
deeper, truer courage that sinks self for the good of others, and does
this not merely because it is a part of the game, but with the gladness
that transfigures life.
Such courage does not wait for some great occasion for exhibiting
itself; it is revealed in the midst of the humdrum routine of daily
life--a routine that is especially trying to those who have been
looking forward to some great, perhaps dramatic service.
A young man of seventeen entered the navy, with his parents' consent, as
an apprentice. When he left home he had dreams of entering at once on a
life of thrilling adventure where there would be numberless
opportunities for the display of high courage. At the end of a month a
friend asked him how he liked life at the navy yard. "Fine!" was the
reply. "What are you doing?" was the next query. "They haven't given me
anything but window washing to do yet," he replied, with a smile that
was an index of character.
A newspaper writer has told of a college student nineteen years old who
enlisted in the navy. He was sent to one of our naval stations and told
to guard a pile of coal. As the summer passed he still guarded that coal
pile. He wrote home about it:
"You know, dad, when we were little shavers, you always rubbed it into
us that anything that was worth doing at all was worth doing as well as
it could be done. I've been standing over that coal pile nearly three
months now, and it looks just exactly as small as it did when I first
landed on the job."
"He was relieved from the coal pile at last and promoted," said the
writer who told of him. "At the same time the government gave him a last
chance to return to his college work. He thought it over carefully. He
realized that America was going to need trained men as never before, but
still, he decided, the best service that he individually could give was
the one that he had chosen. He had a few days of leave before going on
to his next assignment, and he hurried back to his home. He found that
his summer task was a matter of town history, and he had to face a good
deal of affectionate raillery about his coal pile. Of course he did not
mind that. But his answer revealed his spirit:
"'You may laugh, but that coal pile was all right. I'll admit it got on
my nerves for a bit, but I figured it out that while I was taking care
of that coal pile I was releasing some other fellow who knew things I
didn't know, and who could do things I couldn't do. I'm ready to stand
by a coal pile till the war ends, if that's where I can help the most.'"
"That is the spirit that will conquer because it is the spirit that
never can be conquered," was the comment made on the incident. "There is
no self in it--only consecration to duty; no seeking for large
things--only for an opportunity to serve whenever the call comes. That
is the spirit that is growing in America to-day--and only through such
spirit can we accomplish our great task in the life of the world."
The man who really desires to serve his fellows does not think of
declaring that he will not do humble tasks, but he demands that the work
he is asked to do shall be needed.
A young man who was seeking his life work made known his willingness to
be a shoe-black, if he could be convinced that this was the work God
wanted him to do. An immigrant in New York City read in the morning,
"Lord, my heart is not haughty nor mine eyes lofty." Then he went out to
sweep a store, and he swept it well. It is worthy of note that the young
man who was willing to be a shoe-black became one of the foremost men of
his generation, and that the immigrant became the pastor of a leading
city church. But a far more important fact is that the quality of the
service given counted more in their minds than the character of the
The service of the man who would be worth while in the world must
partake of the spirit of the successful figure on the baseball diamond
or the football gridiron: readiness to do everything, or anything--or
to do nothing, if he is so directed--in the interests of the team. It
must take a leaf from the book of General Pershing and his fellow
officers who, in a time of stress for the Allies, were willing and eager
to brigade their troops with the soldiers of France and England, thus
losing the identity of their forces in the interest of the great cause
for which they stood. It must learn the lesson taught by the life of Him
who emptied Himself for the sake of the world--and did it with a smile.
A gifted writer has told the story of a workman in a Bessemer steel
furnace who was jealous of the foreman whom he thought had injured him.
The foreman was making a good record, and the workman did not want to
see him succeed. So he plotted his undoing--he loosened the bolts of the
cable that controlled an important part of the machinery, and so caused
an accident that not only interfered seriously with the day's turn, but
put a section of the plant out of commission for the time being. As a
result the superintendent was discharged. When he left he vowed
vengeance on the man whom he suspected of causing his discharge: "I'll
get you for this some day," he declared. Perhaps he would have been even
more emphatic if he had known the extent of his enemy's culpability.
Years passed. The workman who had loosened the bolts became
superintendent of the mill. He, too, tried to break a production record,
and was in a fair way to succeed until some mysterious difficulty
developed that interfered seriously with results. And just when the new
superintendent was losing sleep over his problem, the old superintendent
came to town.
"He's come for his revenge!" was the thought of the new superintendent.
But the superintendent did not wait for a visit from the man he feared;
he sought him at once. "He must know the extent of my meanness," he
decided. So he told his story. To his surprise the former foreman seemed
more interested in the account of the progress of the mill than in the
sorry tale of past misdeeds. Learning of the mysterious difficulty that
threatened failure in the attempt to break the production record, the
injured man showed real concern. "I can't imagine where the difficulty
is, but I'd like to take a look around for it," he said. Arm in arm,
then, the two men, once bitter enemies, moved toward the mill. The
search was successful, the difficulty was corrected, and the record was
Fine story, isn't it? What a pity it is only a story, that such things
don't ever happen in real life!
Don't they? How about Henry Nasmyth, the English inventor of the steam
piledriver, whose ideas were stolen by French machinists? His first
knowledge of the piracy was when he saw a crude imitation of his
piledriver in a factory in France. Instead of seeking damages and
threatening vengeance, he pointed out mistakes made in construction and
helped his imitators perfect the appliance they had stolen from him.
Yes, such things do happen in daily life. They are happening every day.
As we read of them or hear of them or meet people who are actors in such
a drama, we are conscious of admiration for the deed, a quickening of
the pulse, and the thankful thought that the world is not such a bad
place after all.
But are we to stop with quickened heartbeats and gratitude for the
greatness of heart shown by others? How about the bitterness we have
been treasuring against some one who has injured us--or some one we
think has injured us (it is astonishing how many of the slights and
indignities for which vengeance has been vowed are only imaginary, after
all!) How long do we intend to persist in treasuring the grudge that has
perhaps already caused sorrow that cannot be measured? Let's be
courageous enough to own ourselves in the wrong, when we are in the
wrong, and to forgive the evil that has been kept alive by our
persistent efforts to remember it. Let the quickened pulse-beat be ours
not merely because we are hearing about forgiveness, but because we
ourselves are rejoicing in friendship restored.
There are people whose minds are like a lumber-room, littered with all
sorts of odds and ends. In such a room it is impossible to count on
laying hands promptly on a desired article, and in such a mind confusion
takes the place of order. The mind had better be empty. An empty mind
presents a fine opening for the proper kind of filling, but a confused
mind is hopeless. How is it possible to make the memory a helpful
servant unless nothing is allowed to find lodgment there that is not
An old proverb says, "No one can keep the birds from flying about his
head, but one can keep them from nesting in his hair." That proverb
points the way to saving the mind from becoming a lodging place for
lumbering thoughts and ideas; everything that is certain to hinder
instead of help one to be worth-while to the world must be told that
there is "positively no admittance."
Among the things one must not afford permission to pass the bars is the
thought that some associate may have said or done something that seemed
like a slight or an injury. No man can afford to injure another, but any
man can better afford to be injured than to allow his thoughts to dwell
on the injury, to brood over it, until he is in a degree unfitted for
his work. Far better is it to be like a father who said to his son when
the latter, years after the commission of the deed, was speaking of his
sorrow that he had grieved his father so: "Son, you must be dreaming; I
don't recall the incident."
Then one must know when to forget evil things heard of another.
Sometimes it is necessary to remember such facts, but so often the
insinuations made concerning other people are not worth consideration,
because they are not true. Even where there is ground for them, they are
not proper subjects for thought and remembrance.
It is best to forget past achievements, unless they are made
stepping-stones to greater achievements, spurs to work that could never
be done without them. Yet how often the temptation comes to gloat in
thought over these things, and over the good things said of one because
of them, while opportunities for greater things are passed by. Thus a
school-boy thought with delight of a word of commendation from his
teacher when he ought to have been giving attention to the recitation of
the pupil next to him; the result was a reprimand that stung. A soldier
in the trenches has no time to gaze in admiration at the medal he has
won by valor when at any moment there may sound the call to deeds of
still greater valor. No more should a civilian imperil future success by
failure to forget "the things which are behind."
The individual who refuses to forget a kindness he has done to someone
else is another cumberer of the ground. A safe rule is, never forget a
kindness received from another, but forget at once a kindness done to
another. It is not difficult to sympathize with the youth who, after
being reminded for the twentieth time by his brother of a trip to New
Orleans for which the brother had paid out of his savings, said, "Yes,
and I wish I had never taken a cent of the money!"
A thing to be forgotten always is the off-color story with which some
people persist in polluting the atmosphere. Unfortunately there are
always to be found folks like the young man of whom Donald Hankey said
"He talks about things that I won't even think." When such talk is
heard, don't think of it. If you do, you are apt to think of it again
and again, until, perhaps, you will be telling it to some one else. And
no one wants to be remembered as was the business man, proposed for the
presidency of a great concern, of whom one said, "No, don't let's have
him; he has earned a reputation for telling questionable stories."
If a good memory is to be a good servant, it must be trained to remember
only the things that are helpful. And that takes courage!
GETTING RID OF EVIL
One of the trying disappointments of daily life comes with the discovery
that something on which we have been depending is no longer worthy of
confidence, because a foreign substance, some adulterant, has been mixed
with it, without our knowledge. This seemed to be the case perhaps more
than ever before during the recent days of war when a severe strain was
put on the products of nearly every kind.
In many parts of the country those who were compelled to replenish their
coal supply during the worst weather of a severe winter complained
because the anthracite then secured gave out little heat; it contained
such a large proportion of culm or other waste product which, in
ordinary times, is carefully removed before shipment, that it could not
do its work properly.
Disappointed in their anthracite, some turned to bituminous coal, only
to find that at least fifty per cent, of a shipment received during the
days of stress was made up of rock and clay.
Experience with the coal should have prepared one of the purchasers for
his disappointment in a restaurant where he had been accustomed to be
served with a splendid oyster stew. But he was surprised and displeased
when he found that at least one-third of the milk which should have gone
into the stew had been displaced by water.
At home that evening the same man was told more of the activity of
dealers who permit impurities to interfere with the comfort of those who
like pure products; the grocer had that day sent a package of soup beans
which contained at least ten per cent. of gravel.
It is easy to appreciate the disappointment and embarrassment that come
from the failure of the coal dealer, the restaurant keeper or the grocer
to supply us with pure food and fuel. Then isn't it strange that we are
apt to pay so little attention to the adulterants in character that are
the cause of so much of the world's sorrow? That is to say, it seems odd
that we pay so little attention to the things in our own lives that
interfere; we are not apt to find it a difficult matter to rail at
others because they permit evil to mix with good in their lives. Our
vision is so much better when we are looking at motes in others than
when we are looking straight past the beams in our own make-up.
There is daily need for each one of us to ask God for grace to go on a
hunt for the evil that adulterates his own life, making it a
disappointment to others and a cause of sorrow to God. Those who are
bold enough to scrutinize themselves without flinching will be apt to
find not merely things that are unquestionably evil, but they will be
dismayed to see that even much of the good in which they have been
taking comfort is adulterated with evil--as, for instance, the deed of
helpfulness performed for a friend with the unconscious thought, "Some
day he may be able to do something for me," or the gift made to a needy
cause, accompanied by the assurance that the treasurer of the fund is
one whom we particularly wish to impress with our liberality so that
possibly a future benefit will come from him to us.
The adulterants of evil mixed with the good in our lives must be
removed. And there is just one way to get rid of them--to submit
ourselves to the sifting of Him who not only knows the good from the
evil, the wheat from the chaff, but will also show the way to retain the
wheat and throw out the chaff.
Of course one does not have to yield himself to Christ's sifting. But of
one thing we can be sure; there will be a sifting. If Christ is not
invited to do the work, the Devil will take up the task. But his purpose
in sifting is always to retain the evil, and drive out all the good.
God asks for "pure religion and undefiled." There is no place in his
calculations for adulterants. Be courageous, and get rid of them!
LOOKING BEYOND MONEY
Money is a good thing, when it is properly secured and properly used.
But there are better things than money. Honor is better, and loving
service, and thoughtful consideration of others.
This was the lesson taught by the life of a man who was a shareholder in
a mining company that was about to go out of business. The shareholders
would sustain very heavy losses, so a friend who knew the secrets of the
company determined to warn this man, whom everybody liked. The hint was
given that it would be to his advantage to sell quickly. "Why?" asked
Mr. N. "Well, you know, the value of the mines is greatly depreciated."
"When I bought the shares I took the risk." "Yes, but now you should
take the opportunity of selling while you can, so as not to lose
anything." "And supposing I don't sell, what then?" "Then you will
probably lose all you have." "And if I do sell, somebody else will lose
instead of me?" "Yes, I suppose so." "Do you suppose Jesus Christ would
sell out?" "That is hardly a fair question. I suppose he would not." "I
am a Christian," said Mr. N., "and I wish to follow my Master, therefore
I shall not sell." He did not, and soon after lost everything, and had
to begin life again.
This shareholder would have appreciated Professor A. H. Buchanan, who
was for forty years professor of mathematics in Cumberland University,
Tennessee. After his death it was told of him that at one time he was
offered an appointment in government service to which a $3,000 salary
attached. His income as professor in a church college was $600 a year.
But he saw more chance to make his life count for Christian things in
the professor's place than in public service, so he declined the $3000
and stayed by the $600. One who spoke of these facts in the professor's
life said, in comment:
"If he had taken the $3,000, everybody would have regarded him as an
ordinary sort of man. Now everybody who has heard of Professor
Buchanan's exceptional devotion appreciates that he was a very
extraordinary man. A very cheap person indeed is capable of accepting a
At about the time of the death of this professor of mathematics a daily
paper mentioned a civil engineer who was transforming the appearance of
a western city, and said of him: "Two or three times he has had chances
to get three or four times his present salary. Each time he has said:
'No, my work is here; I haven't finished it. The money doesn't count, so
I shall stick here and finish my work.'"
After the death of a famous minister in St. Louis a story was told of
him that he had not allowed to be known widely during his lifetime. This
was the romantic tale, as related by a writer in The New York Sun:
"When a young man, he found to his amazement among his father's papers a
deed to five thousand eight hundred and eighty-three acres of land,
located in what is known as West Virginia. This deed was a great
surprise to all who saw or heard of it. Putting this deed in his
pocket, young Palmore, the only heir to the property, made a trip to
West Virginia, to look over his vast estate, which was far in the
"Starting from the city of Charleston, West Virginia, he drove in a
buggy into the region where his plantation was located. He traced the
boundaries of his property and found that hundreds of families had
settled on it without any right to it, but were living as if secure in
the possession of their separate little patches of territory. He found
that beneath the surface of this land there was almost limitless wealth,
but the multitudes who had built themselves humble homes on the surface
did not know of it, and had been living thus in undisturbed possession
for a number of years. He quietly walked about at night and looked
through the windows at the parents and children living on his estate.
Great lawyers were ready to inaugurate legal proceedings that would have
made him a millionaire, and such legal proceedings would doubtless have
been instituted if the heir in person had not visited the scene of his
great estate. As he dreamed in the nighttime about dispossessing such a
multitude of people of their humble homes, he began to feel that,
instead of such a fortune being a blessing, an estate received at such
an expense would be a burden.
"After earnest prayer and sleepless hours in the midst of his vast
acres, he was seized with the conviction that each member of this
multitude of families living on his property needed it more than did the
heir, and there and then he made up his mind that he would leave them in
quiet possession of his estate."
The reporter who related the story said that the man had been called a
fool, and commented, "He was God's fool."
Then he said that the incident he had related would have been
unbelievable if it had not been so well attested. But why unbelievable?
Is it because of the common idea that "every man has his price," that it
is unthinkable that a sane man would let a fortune that he could claim
honestly slip through his fingers?
Perhaps it is true that every man has his price. However, if this snarl
of the pessimist is to have universal application, the price must be
understood to be--in many instances--not selfish gratification, but the
opportunity for courageous service. There are men and women who can be
won by such an opportunity who cannot be reached by any argument of mere
private advantage. Such people silence the complaints of the croaker and
command the confidence of those who are struggling to help their
Louis Agassiz, the naturalist, was such a man. "I have no time to make
money," was his remark when urged by a friend to turn aside from the
important work of the moment to an easy, lucrative task. His reason was
thus explained at another time: "I have made it the rule of my life to
abandon any intellectual pursuit the moment it becomes commercially
valuable." It was his idea that there were many who would then be
willing to carry on work he had begun.
A contrast is presented by the famous inventor who, early in life, made
it a rule never to give himself to any activity in which there was no
prospect of financial gain. His first question was not, "Does the public
need this invention?" but "Is there money in it?" Having answered to his
satisfaction, he was ready to go ahead.
The world could not well have spared either of these men, for both
rendered valuable service. But, judging from the stories of their
careers, there was more joy in the life of the naturalist, who,
satisfied to earn a living, thought most of serving his fellows, than in
the life of the inventor before whose eyes the dollar continually loomed
large. The counting-house measure of life is not the most satisfying nor
is it the most useful.
That was the notion of Jacob Riis, of whom a minister who was devoting
his life to the interest of young working men near his church once asked
if such effort was merely thrown away, if he was pocketing himself.
"Pocketing yourself, are you?" Riis replied. "Stick to your pocket. It
is a pretty good pocket to be in. Out of such a pocket, worked in the
way you are working it, will come healing for the ills of the day that
now possess us. I would rather be in such a pocket, working for the
Lord, than in a $1,000,000 church, working for the applause of a
Those who are familiar with inside history at Washington say that the
day after Garfield's election as President, a dispatch was sent to
Milton Wells, a Wisconsin preacher, whose vote in the convention had
kept Garfield's name on the list of candidates to the very last, asking
him if he would become governor of Arizona Territory. Mr. Wells
answered: "I have a better office that I cannot leave. I am preaching
here for $600 per year."
There was once a man named Paul who might have enjoyed position and
power, if he had wished, but he chose instead a life of courageous
service of which he was able once to write, without boasting:
"In labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly; in stripes above
measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes
save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I
suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in
journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils
from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city,
in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false
brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and
thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness."
How could Paul bear all these things? They were enough to break down a
dozen strong men. Probably he sometimes felt that he could not bear the
burden any longer, but always there came to him the assurance of Christ,
"My grace is sufficient for thee." Then he could bear anything; yet not
he, but Christ, who lived in him. Thus his glory was not in his own
strength but in his weakness, which made place in his life for the
strength of Christ.
Until men and women learn how to gain strength in their weakness as Paul
did, their lives will be unsatisfying, their days will be full of
complaint. Their burdens, which seemed like mountains before learning to
trust Christ, will be borne as easily as if they were feathers.
God does not promise to make us all dollar millionaires if we look at
Him for strength in our weakness, but He does promise to make us all
millionaires of faith and hope and courage. Paul was; we can be, too.
Next: The Courage That Faces Obstacles