The virtues hide their vanquished fires
Within that whiter flame—
Till conscience grows irrelevant
And duty but a name.
Frederick Lawrence Knowles.
In most books I have read on “nerves” and similar subjects, advice is given, encouragement is given, but the necessity for patience is not made clear. Patience is typical of all the other virtues. Many a man has followed the best of advice for a time, and has become discouraged because the promised results did not materialize. It is disappointing, surely, to have lived upon a diet for months only to find that you still have dyspepsia, or to have followed certain rules of morality with great precision and enthusiasm without obtaining the untroubled mind. We are accustomed to see results in the material world and naturally expect them everywhere. The trouble is we do not always recognize improvements when we see them, and we insist upon certain preconceived changes as a result of our endeavors. The physician is apt rashly to promise definite physical accomplishments in a given time. He is courting disappointment and distrust when he does so. We all want to get relief from our symptoms, and we are inclined to insist upon a particular kind of relief so strongly that we fail to appreciate the possibilities of another and a better relief which may be at hand. The going astray in this particular is sometimes very unfortunate. I have known a man to rush frantically from one doctor to another, trying to obtain relief for a particular pain or discomfort, unwilling to rest long enough to find out that the trouble would have disappeared naturally if he had taken the advice of the first physician, to live without impatience and within his limitations.
The human body is a very complex organism, and sometimes pain and distress are better not relieved, since they may be the expression of some deeper maladjustment which must first be straightened out. This is also true of the mind—in which the unhappy proddings of conscience had better not be cured by anodynes or by evasion unless we are prepared to go deeply enough to make them disappear spontaneously. We must sometimes insist upon patience, though it should exist as a matter of course—patience with ourselves and with others. The physician who demands and secures the greatest degree of patience from his clients is the most successful practitioner, for no life can go on successfully without patience. If patience can be spontaneous,—the natural result of a broadening outlook,—then it will be permanent and serviceable; the other kind, that exists by extreme effort, may do for a while, but it is a poor makeshift.
I always feel like apologizing when I ask a man or a woman to be tolerant or charitable or generous or, for that matter, to practice any of the ordinary virtues. Sound living should spring unbidden from the very joy of life; it should need no justification and certainly no urging. But unfortunately, as the world now stands, there are men and groups of men who do not see the light. There is a wide contagion of selfishness and short-sightedness among the well-to-do, and a necessary federation of protection and selfishness among the poor. The practical needs of life, artificial as they are among the rich, and terribly insistent as they are among the poor, blind us to larger considerations.
If all matters of welfare, public or private, could be treated unselfishly, how quickly we should be rid of some of the great evils that afflict the race. I am inclined to think that much of the goodness of people does come in that way, unconsciously, naturally, as the light flows from the sun. Yet I suppose that in our present order, and until, through the years, the better time arrives, we must very often ask ourselves and others to be good and to be charitable, just because it is right, or worse still because it is good policy.
A man grows better, more human, more intelligent, as he practices the virtues. He is safer, no doubt, and the world is better. It is even true that, by the constant practice of virtues, he may come finally to espouse goodness and become thoroughly good. That is the hopeful thing about it and the reason why we may consistently ask or demand the routine practice of the virtues. But let us hold up all the time in our teaching and in our lives the other course, the development of the inspiration that includes all virtues and that makes all our way easy and plain in a world where confusion reigns, because men are going at the problem of right living the wrong way around.
The practice of good living will never be easy in its details, but if it is sure in its inspiration there will be no question of the final triumph. We shall have to fight blindly sometimes and with all the strength and persistence of animals at bay. We shall fail sometimes, too, and that is not always the worst thing that can happen. It is the glory of life that we shall slowly triumph over ourselves and the world. It is the glory of life that out of sore trouble, in the midst of poverty and human injustice, may rise, spontaneous and serene, the spirit of self-sacrifice, the unconquerable spirit of service that does not question, that expresses the divine tenderness in terms of human love. Through the times of darkness and doubt which must inevitably come, there will be for those who cherish such a vision, and who come back to it again and again, no utter darkness, no trouble that wholly crushes, no loss that wholly destroys.
If we could not understand it before, it will slowly dawn upon us that the life of Christ exemplified all these things. Charity, kindliness, service, patience,—all these things which have seemed so hard will become in our lives, as in his, the substance and expression of our faith. The great human virtues will become easy and natural, the untroubled mind, or as much of it as is good to possess, will be ours, not because we have escaped trouble, but because we have disarmed it, have welcomed it even, so long as it has served to strengthen and ennoble our lives.