Chapter 1: First Things First

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 1: First Things First

A recent ride upon a Fifth Avenue bus threatened to waste time. The talk of two women, however, whose conversation was too plainly audible to be escaped, made it well worth while. They were bosom friends, and in an hour’s tête-à-tête they gave a comprehensive résumé of their characters.

They loved to play bridge, and they played it, apparently, a good deal of the time. They were gambling at it. To be sure, one of them had had some trouble with her husband, who, having been brought up a Presbyterian, had scruples about gambling. "But," she had said to him, "you see that we must give up the game if we do not gamble." So he had come over just recently. They were all gambling now and were happy. They loved the theater, especially musical comedies. They loved to dance and evidently, when they were not playing bridge, dancing was their chief diversion. They loved their automobile trips, and as for dress, how shall a mere man report their conversation about that? One listened to see if any other interest in life would be revealed, but this was all. Their talk had struck bottom.

These women live in one of the most needy and critical generations in history, when a shaken civilization is striving desperately to get on its feet again, when there are great enterprises to serve, great books to read, great thoughts to think; and yet their lives, like a child’s doll, are stuffed with sawdust. They represent in an extreme form one of the commonest failures in character -- the crowding out of things that really matter by things that do not matter much. They are absorbingly busy with trivialities. They have missed the primary duty and privilege of life putting first things first.

The basic facts about us which make such promiscuous preoccupation ruinous is that our life’s time and our life’s energy are limited. We are like street cars: we can hold our quota and no more; when all seats are taken, the standing room absorbed, and the "Car Full" sign put up in front, whoever hails us next, though he be the most prominent citizen in the community, must be passed by.

It never was so easy to fail in this particular way as it is today. There may have been times when life was sluggish and folk could drift listlessly through apathetic years. The Bible tells the story of Methuselah’s living over nine centuries, but, so far as the record shows, he never did anything or thought anything to make such longevity worth while. If ever life could be dragged out through such dull continuance, that time has gone. Today the currents of life are swift and stimulating, the demands of life absorbing. There are more things to do than we ever shall get done; there are more books to read than we ever can look at; there are more avenues to enjoyment than we ever shall find time to travel. Life appeals to us from innumerable directions, crying, "Attend to me here!" In consequence, we are continually tempted to dabble. We litter up our lives with indiscriminate preoccupation. We let first come be first served, forgetting that the finest things do not crowd. We let the loudest voices fill our ears, forgetting that asses bray, but gentlemen speak low. Multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives -- split, scattered, uncoordinated. They are like pictures into which a would-be artist has put, in messy disarray, everything that he has chanced to see; like music into which has been hurled, helter-skelter, every vagrant melody that strayed into the composer’s mind.

Preoccupation is the most common form of failure.


Consider, for example, the effect of preoccupation on our reading. Some time ago an airship collapsed above Chicago and dumped itself ruinously down upon a public building. People woke up at that, to see that new inventions like airplanes require special regulation. Now, the printing press is a comparatively new invention. Five hundred years ago there was no such thing. And while it is important that aircraft should not be allowed to empty themselves into our households, it is just as important to consider what the printing press is emptying into our heads.

An entirely new set of problems has arisen since the printing press arrived and reading became one of the dominant influences of human life. When one considers how reading seeps in through all the cracks and crannies of our days, what power there is in books to determine our views of life, and how cheaply these possibilities lie at every man’s hand, it is plain that the quality of a man’s reading is one of his foremost responsibilities.

It is plain, too, that while a few people deliberately read perversive books, most of us miss the best books, not because we choose the bad but because we litter up our minds with casual trash. We stop to pass the time of day with any printed vagabond who plucks at our sleeve. We have forgotten Ruskin’s exclamation: "Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that?"

It is no longer necessary that anybody should plead with us to read. We read enough. "What do you read, my lord?" says Polonius, and Hamlet answers, "Words, words, words." That is a fair description of a great deal of reading in a world which someone has described as "a blur of printed paper."

But how many put first books first? How many would think of saying with Mrs. Browning: "No man can be called friendless when he has God and the companionship of good books"?

To be sure, there are minor kinds of reading of which we all must do more or less. We read for efficiency in daily work. Modern business in every realm, from domestic science to international commerce, has been broken up into an indefinite number of specialties, and books convey to us the results of other men’s labors. Any man, to be an adept must read the specialists. But if a man uses books only so, as Pharaoh might use his slaves to build the pyramid of his success and renown, he does not know what real reading means.

Moreover, we read to keep up with the times -- an endless stream of papers, magazines, and books, reflecting every changing situation in this fluid world, until we are fairly dizzy with the flood of them. And we read the books that are talked about just because they are talked about. Of all social compulsions what is more urgent than the oft-repeated question: "Have you read -- ?" That club flogs us to our reading. "What!" says our friend, "you have not read so and so?" Whereupon we fly to the nearest bookstore and against the necessity of conversation at the next dinner we buy a best-seller.

Yet, so continuously reading, we read everything except the books that we should read first of all. The great books habitually are crowded out. The little books that are menially useful to us, our slaves, running errands for us to further our convenience or success, or to dress us in the tinsel of a ready conversation -- we read those. But the books that are not slaves, but masters, at whose feet the wise sit to be taught and illumined and inspired -- they are crowded out. We should hardly think of saying, as Charles Lamb did, that we should like to say grace over our books; or with Charles Kingsley, "Except a living man, there is nothing more wonderful than a book."

Nevertheless, the great books are waiting for us all. If the world’s poets and seers, prophets and apostles were alive, we could hardly meet them one by one, much less talk with them. But in a book they will come to each of us as though there were no one else in all the world for them to call upon. Though we are so poor that we must have them in paper covers, they will be all there. Though we are so dull that we cannot understand at first, they will repeat the message to us again and again. Though we are so foolish as to forget, they will be there on the morrow to tell it to us once more with tireless patience. Great books are the perfect democrats. The shame of many of us is that, with such books waiting to be read, we stop to barter gossip with every corner loafer on our way. Any vagrant straggler down the literary street can waste our attention and our time. And because time and attention are limited, having read this, we cannot read that.


Reading is but one illustration of the way in which habitually the best in life is lost to us by being crowded out. Dean Briggs, of Harvard, describes a company of American young people whom he saw in Rome. They were on their first visit to the Eternal City. Morning after morning they arose with the opportunity of a lifetime awaiting them. The Forum, the Coliseum, Saint Peter’s, the whole city, fabulously rich in historical association, was at their disposal. And every day they settled down in the hotel for a long morning at bridge. Cries Dean Briggs: "What business had such people in Rome? What business had they anywhere?"

So far as our amusements are concerned, this loss of the best, through the preposterous cramming of our lives with wastage, is the more common because the old Puritanical attitude against popular recreations has gone to pieces. Fortunately we can only with difficulty imagine ourselves back in the time when drama had to be presented, if it was to be presented at all, under the guise of a free extra, interspersed between the musical numbers of a concert. In Portland, Maine, on July 4, 1820, the following advertisement appeared in the public press:

"The public are respectfully informed that there will be a Concert of vocal and instrumental music this evening. Between the parts of the Concert there will be performed (gratis) a celebrated Play in three acts called The Point of Honor. To conclude with Shakespeare’s admired farce in three acts (gratis) called Katherine and Petruchio."

That day happily has gone. Concerning popular recreations which were once under a rigid interdict, most of us have come to the conclusion voiced by the late President Hyde, of Bowdoin, that they are altogether too good to be monopolized by the devil. Plenty of folk, however, having decided concerning popular amusements that they are right, forget that there is still a further question to be faced: how much time and attention do they deserve?

"Mr. Jones," said an effusive youth, "is the most wonderful man I ever knew. He remembered every card that I held at bridge last week!" To which a girl with a level head answered: "Has it ever occurred to you that Mr. Jones is forty-five years old, and that he doesn’t know anything else?" The trouble with Mr. Jones is one of our commonest maladies. If one wishes to describe the disease in prose, one may say that in a world where the span of life is short, the energy of life limited, the needs of men appalling, the finest privileges of life enriching, Mr. Jones is making an ineffable fool of himself with trivial preoccupation. If one wishes the same truth stated in poetry, probably Emerson has succeeded best:

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,

Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,

And marching single in an endless file,

Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.

To each they offer gifts after his will,

Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.

I, in my pleachèd garden, watched the pomp,

Forgot my morning wishes, hastily

Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day

Turned and departed silent. I, too late,

Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.


The seriousness of this problem involved in putting first things first is not, however, adequately represented by folk like Mr. Jones or the young people in Rome or the chatterers on the Fifth Avenue bus. A young lad in Brooklyn was almost given up in despair by his mother because he seemed addicted to trash, enjoying nothing so much as cheap cigarettes to smoke and cheap tales to read. Then a librarian got hold of him. "What do you like to read?" he asked.

"Detective stories."

"Have you ever read Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s ‘The Story of a Bad Boy’? It is one of the best detective stories ever written," said the librarian.

So the boy took the book home and, retaining it a week longer than he usually kept books, returned it, saying: "That is the best book I ever read. Got any more?"

The librarian was also a field lecturer in geology, and along with feeding the boy better and better books, he persuaded him to go on a field trip with his class. At the foot of the Palisades he began telling about the leisureliness of God laying the foundation of the earth, when he saw the boy, legs apart, arms akimbo, eyes protruding with amazed interest.

Going home the lad sidled up to him. "I never heard anything like that in all my life. Are there any books about it?"

So he began reading geology and, to make a long story short, that lad, once absorbed in trash, is now professor of geology in a great university.

The tragedy of preoccupation, however, is often caused, not by flippant triviality, but by life’s ordinary and necessary business. The cause of alarm about Niagara Falls has been simply that business has been drawing off a little stream here and another little stream there until through many small dispersions the cataract which the Indians called "Thundering Water" may in the end leave only bare and ugly rock.

Business is doing that to people as well as to Niagara. The problem may be intensified in modern times, but it is not new. The Greeks had a proverb, "Zeus frowns upon the overbusy." The Master himself told a story about men who, being absorbed in a farm, in a newly purchased team of oxen or in a freshly established home, missed the greatest opportunity of their lives.

The consequences of this sort of preoccupation are often pathetic. An American once stormed through one of the great European galleries of art. He sniffed at this picture an instant; he sniffed an instant at that; and then he stormed out. But before he went he turned on the venerable attendant at the door and said: "Not a thing here worth seeing -- not a thing!"

To which the attendant replied, "If you please, sir, these pictures are no longer on trial -- the spectators are."

That dull-eyed visitor doubtless was a very busy man. He had started with normal capacities to appreciate the finest gifts of life, but, preoccupied with many tasks, he had lost through atrophy the power to love the highest when he saw it.

One result of this absorbing material business, which so crowds out attention to the things of the spirit, is the appalling vulgarity of our personal and public life. We forget that, while we may not be able to create those forms of beauty which will last forever, we have another ability which is almost as wonderful : we can love them when they are created; we can rejoice in them and grow rich because of them. So Browning makes his Cleon say:

I have not chanted verse like Homer, no --

Nor swept string like Terpander, no -- nor carved

And painted men like Phidias and his friend;

I am not great as they are, point by point.

But I have entered into sympathy

With these four, running these into one soul,

Who, separate, ignored each other’s art.

Say, is it nothing that I know them all,

We do not deliberately decide to lose all this beauty from our lives -- the best books, the best music, the best art; we are simply busy. There are so many other things which press upon us with urgent clamor to be done that we let the best things go. In the end, for all the money that we make, we are like the Mohammedan beggars on the steps of St. Sophia in Constantinople, standing with their backs to the great mosque, careless of its history, its symbolism, its beauty, crying "Baksheesh ! Baksheesh !"


The climax of this test’s application concerns a deeper matter than the lost esthetic values in which excessive busyness results. It concerns some of our lost moral and religious values. The problem of the family, for example, would be in a fair way toward solution if fathers and mothers would once more put first things first in their relationships with their children.

One of the troubles with this much berated younger generation is not primarily with this younger generation at all, but with the older generation. The younger generation does not so much need critics as it needs examples. "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Boy Scouts will take me up" -- such is the rendering given to an ancient Psalm by an observant watcher of our family life. For fathers and mothers, preoccupied with many tasks, have farmed their children out to any agency, from school and scout troop to a summer camp, where they can be rid of their responsibility. They use these helps, not as helps, but as substitutes for the family life.

A father, whose son had been dropped from several schools and colleges and who confessed that he knew nothing whatever about the boy, recently took him to another college and demanded that, as a quid pro quo for money given, that institution should assume the problem of his son. "I am a very busy man," he said, "and I have no time to attend to him."

The trouble with that father is not lack of time. He has time to do those things which he considers essential. His difficulty is that he thinks some things are more important than caring about his son, that some entrustments are more sacred than that.

Once, in the gray of a winter dawn, an early riser watched a stooped and aged woman groping about a building in process of construction, picking up bits of lath and sawed-off ends of lumber. It was a pathetic sight to see a woman reduced to the off-scourings of the wood for fire to warm her household. But even more pathetic is it to see the finest relationships of human life, our friends, our families, and at last our God, seeking around the main business of our days for the scraps and left-overs of our attention. We give the logwood of our life to secondary matters; to the highest we give the chips.

More than anything else one suspects that this is at the root of irreligion. It is not skepticism, but preoccupation, which generally makes the innermost relationships of a man’s soul with God of no account. The highest is in us all. At times it flames up and we know that we are not dust but spirit, and that in fellowship with the Spiritual Life, from whom we came, is our power and our peace. But many a man who has known the meaning and the might of this relationship has largely lost it, not because theoretically he has disbelieved, but because practically he has crowded it out.

"Sometime," the man says, "I will attend to these deepest and finest relationships."

Meanwhile he picks up his life as a football runner does the ball and speeds across the field. He does not notice the ground across which he runs; his eyes are set upon the goal. He has no present; he has only a future. The most enriching relationships of life, from family love and friendship to religious faith, offer their best to him, but he runs by. "Sometime," he says.

That time never comes; it never will come. What he needs most to learn is that the days are not a football field to be run over, but gardens to be tilled, and that, if tilled well, they can grow now the things of which heaven is made. "Carpe diem," said the Latins --"Seize the day." Some people who for many years have been doing the opposite, crowding out the best by preoccupation and postponement, might well begin a new year with the single resolution to put first things first.

For the ultimate trouble with preoccupation is that it takes no account of the flight of time. Someone has figured human life as covering the span of a single day’s waking hours from six in the morning until ten at night. Then if a man is twenty years old, it is ten o’clock in the morning with him; if he is thirty, it is high noon; if he is forty, it is two in the afternoon; if he is sixty, it is six in the evening. So the day passes and the enriching experiences which fellowship with the Highest offers us are lost, not because we deliberately discard them, but because our time and attention are preëngaged.

The famous Bargello portrait of Dante was lost for years. Men knew there was such a portrait, but they did not know where it was. Then an artist, resolved on finding it, started his search with the room where tradition had located it. The room was a storehouse for wastage; straw and lumber littered the floor and whitewash covered the walls. But when the rubbish had been carted out and the whitewash was being removed, old lines long obscured began to appear and colors long hidden became visible, until at last the grave, lofty, noble face of the great poet was recovered for the world. Nobody had destroyed the Bargello portrait, but somebody had littered it up. Straw and lumber and whitewash had seemed to somebody more important than the face.