Chapter 12: The Power to See It Through

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 12: The Power to See It Through

Interesting statistics have been compiled by insurance actuaries with reference to the prospects of a hundred average young men twenty-five years of age starting out in business. The results are decidedly disconcerting. Forty years afterward, when those young men are sixty-five years old, they will on the average have fallen into the following classes: thirty-six dead, fifty-four financially dependent on family or charity, five barely able to make their own living, four well-to-do, one rich. If we discount the unfairness and ill fortune of external circumstance which doubtless are involved in this lame finish of many good beginnings, we still have left a large amount of inability to see life through which must be due to lack of character. A very serious test of human fiber is involved in the fact that there are so many good beginnings and poor endings.

The qualities which lead a man to launch out on an enterprise with promising enthusiasm may be accompanied by a lack of those qualities which will see him through to a successful finish. Good starters and good stayers are not necessarily the same people. Ardor, excitement, susceptibility to sudden feeling, the flare of good intentions -- such forces set men going, but they do not enable men to carry on when the going is hard. That requires another kind of moral energy which evidently is not so common as the first. Plenty of people are equipped with efficient self-starters. They get away easily. They are off with a fleet eagerness that wakens high expectations, but they peter out; they soon stick in the sand or stall on a high hill.

Nevertheless, even in our individual enterprises, much more in our whole life’s meaning, the ultimate test is our ability to finish. In one of our Federal prisons today is a man who for fifty years with unblemished reputation lived a life of probity and honor in his own community. Then, as a government servant, he went to France during the war and mishandled funds. Only that will be remembered about him. The half century of fine living is blotted out. He was not able to finish.

Even when the problem presents itself in less dramatic terms, it still is there. All biography is a commentary on the necessity of seeing life through. Oliver Wendell Holmes in the nineteenth century maintained an extraordinary relationship with Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. Holmes was born in the late summer of 1809; Johnson was born in the early autumn of 1709 and had written about him the most exhaustive biography ever penned. "Thus there was established," wrote Holmes in his old age, "a close bond of relationship between the great English scholar and writer and myself. Year by year, and almost month by month, my life has kept pace in this century with his life in the last century. I had only to open my Boswell at any time, and I knew just what Johnson at my age, twenty or fifty or seventy, was thinking and doing; what were his feelings about life; what changes the years had wrought in his body, his mind, his feelings, his companionships, his reputation. It was for me a kind of unison between two instruments, both playing that old familiar air, ‘Life,’-- one a bassoon, if you will, and the other an oaten pipe, if you care to find an image for it, but still keeping pace with each other, until the players both grew old and grey."

Then, one day, Holmes wrote, "A hundred years ago this day, December 13, 1784, died the admirable and ever to be remembered Dr. Samuel Johnson. . . . I feel lonely now that my great companion and friend of so many years has left me."

Whenever through the pages of a favorite biography one so lives vicariously in another’s experiences, he runs inevitably upon this elemental fact about life -- it has to be lived to its finish. Living is a good deal like splitting a rock -- the workman lifts his iron maul and brings it down repeatedly upon the seam until the deed is done. If, now, one ask which blow split the rock, it is clear that they all did. Yet without the last one the first and all between would have come to nothing. Many lives fail from inability to deliver the last blow.


This is evident to any one who watches the moral collapses of maturity. We continually stress the temptation, perils and failures of youth. Ours has been called "the children’s century," and some of the characteristic attitudes of our generation make the name appropriate. One of our writers is even reported to have said that it makes little difference what happens to a boy after he is twelve years old. We are keenly sensitive to the problems of childhood; we have thoroughly learned the proverb that just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined; we feel confident that if we can give a boy a good beginning we can insure him against a bad ending.

Important as is the truth involved in this emphasis, it is only a half-truth. Some men are like rivers which flow out through dangerous rapids in their early course into calm currents of maturity. But other men are like Niagara River -- beginning with a full, deep, powerful stream and breaking in its latter course into such tumultuous rapids and waterfalls as no river at its beginning can ever know. "Call no man happy till he is dead" is a cynical proverb, but it springs from an important insight into human experience. The collapses of maturity are quite as perilous as the callowness of youth.

For one thing, maturity often has to handle the problem of success. When we were young we had our way to make and we went to the task with all the resources of courage and determination which we could muster. We knew that it would not be an easy fight and we were resolved that, if we lost, defeat would not be due to any lack of hard, clean hitting on our part. The very struggle to succeed is often a strong protector of ambitious youth. But when in our maturity we have in some measure succeeded, have won recognition, standing, influence, it may be wealth, then comes one of the most crucial moral conflicts which a man can face. It is one thing to succeed; it is another to be fit to succeed.

Many a man has made a clean hit in youth, has gotten to first base, has run to second, has reached third; he is very well content with himself -- he is succeeding finely -- and then he is caught napping off third when there is no need of it, when all his friends are counting on him to get home.

It is a common fallacy to suppose that men are tempted where they are weak. Upon the contrary, it is about men’s powers that temptations grow turbulent like swirling waters around a rock. The possession of promising talent opens the way for its misuse. A young student of law to whom Blackstone is still a stranger is not tempted to sell his soul pleading an evil case. But when he has achieved mastery of the law, with the prestige and power that go with it, he surely will be tempted to misuse his acumen and resourcefulness.

Temptations deal with life as winds do with trees; the taller the tree the more the tempests wrestle with it. One wonders, therefore, if statistics were available, whether more failures would be registered in youth or in maturity. Many men, for example, cannot stand financial success. Getting money may develop their characters; having it ruins them. An old legend says that Moses used to play the shepherd’s pipe as he tended his flocks upon the plains of Midian and that when he went up to die on Nebo’s top he gave his old flute to the priests, who used, on high occasions, to play it before the Lord. In time, however, it seemed unworthy that this simple shepherd’s pipe should have touched the great Moses’ lips; so they covered it with gold. But the gilded instrument would play no more; it shone externally but it was mute.

Even intellectual success can prove ruinous. Some years ago a man wandered up and down the Bowery in New York selling shoestrings for the drinks. According to our typical modern emphasis we should imagine behind him some evil home where he was damned into the world. Upon the contrary, he came from a fine home, had every opportunity, graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key from one of our oldest and greatest universities, and flowered out with every promise into his professional career. He collapsed after a splendid start. His biography could be summed up in the words of Jesus’ parable: "This man began to build, and was not able to finish."


The collapses of maturity are due, not alone to the increase of power, but also to the impact of trouble. Out of a sheltered and fortunate youth many a man goes into a maturity where disappointment piles on disappointment, and trouble, like a battering ram, hits again and again the same spot in his walls, until the foundations shake. Maturity has to deal with facts much more tragic than youth knows. Youth thinks of William Penn serene in his success, as the statue on the City Hall in Philadelphia pictures him, but maturity knows that William Penn lived anything but a serene life. His wife died; his son became a leader among the profligates of the city; he was publicly accused of treason to the Government and was imprisoned more than once; his estates in England were ruined by unjust taxation; he was compelled to cede away all his holdings in America; and at last an apoplectic stroke ruined his mind. There is small wonder that starting power and staying power are two things and that many lives highly gifted with the first fail for lack of the second.’’

Here is the life story of a humble woman:

"I was living at Sandy Hook when I met Jacob Walker He kept the Sandy Hook lighthouse. He took me to that lighthouse as his bride. I enjoyed that, for it was on land, and I could keep a garden and raise vegetables and flowers.

"After a few years my husband was transferred to Robbins Reef. The day we came here I said: ‘I won’t stay. The sight of water whichever way I look makes me lonesome and blue.’ I refused to unpack my trunks and boxes at first. I unpacked them a little at a time. After a while they were all unpacked and I stayed on . . .

"My husband caught a heavy cold while tending the light. It turned into pneumonia. It was necessary to take him to the Smith Infirmary on Staten Island, where he could have better care than I could give him in the lighthouse.

"I could not leave the light to be with him. He understood. One night, while I sat up there tending the light, I saw a boat coming. Something told me what news it was bringing me. I expected the words that came up to me from the darkness.

" ‘We are sorry, Mrs. Walker, but your husband’s worse.’

"‘He is dead,’ I said.

"We buried him in the cemetery on the hill. Every morning when the sun comes up I stand at the port-hole and look in the direction of his grave. . . . Sometimes the hills are white with snow. Sometimes they are green. Sometimes brown. But there always seems to come a message from that grave. It is what I heard Jacob say more often than anything else in his life. Just three words: ‘Mind the light."’

Mrs. Walker, still keeping the light, was seventy years old when the reporter interviewed her, and her husband had been dead thirty-two years.

Something more than an eager getaway is needed for such living. Such living requires what the New Testament calls "patient continuance." Nobody ever escapes the necessity for that. Without it bitterness, hardness, cynicism, hopelessness befall men’s lives. For when the struggles of youthful adolescence are all over there is spiritual adolescence of maturity, We all have to deal with it if we are to see life through. It is the soul enlarging its grasp to include trouble in its scheme of life; it is the spirit, like a ship, moving out from the waters of youth’s inner bay and steadying down to the long pull of the open sea.


The shame of a good beginning spoiled by a bad ending is emphasized when we recall the many lives that have reversed the process. Consider two pictures. The first is a provision store in New Orleans in the year 1857. A lad fifteen years old is seeking employment there. He has been brought up in an English workhouse, has run away, has crossed the sea to make his fortune. His fortune begins in that provision store where he is hired because he is able in a legible hand to mark the coffee sacks. The second picture is Westminster Abbey crowded with a distinguished assembly from the ends of the earth. A funeral cortege moves down the nave. It pauses when the bier is opposite the tomb of David Livingstone. One almost thinks that the dead Livingstone himself may hear the singing of his favorite hymn,

O spread Thy covering wings around

Till all our wanderings cease.

They are honoring Henry M. Stanley with a funeral service in the Abbey. Those two scenes, so far apart, belong to a single life. His name was not Stanley. It was Rowlands or Rollants, no one knows which. Stanley was the man in New Orleans whose name the boy took for his own. Unpromising beginning to be crowned by such an ending!

Such stories are the romance of human life. Many a man is like a well-pitched ball which has started with such apparent lack of promise that the spectators already have prepared themselves to cry "Wild ball," when suddenly it straightens itself out and crosses the center of the plate.

In the realm of character this power of recovery is one of the central messages of religion. A book like Harold Begbie’s "Twice-Born Men" is an inspiriting record of folk whose lamentable start was redeemed by a great conclusion. Fornicators, adulterers, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revelers, extortioners -- such is the New Testament’s description of the raw material out of which many of the first Christians were made. And from that day to this, making Augustine Bishop of Hippo out of Augustine the slave of lust, or Jerry McAuley the man out of Jerry McAuley the drunkard, has been one of the Gospel’s specialties.

To a man who has had a fine start and now faces the possibility of a miserable ending, there is a stimulating challenge in these folk who reverse the process, who started by being pitchblende and ended by being radium.


The power to see life through to a great conclusion is obviously a matter of patience, and patience is of all virtues one of the most difficult to achieve. Nothing in this world, however, is likely to get on without it, for the world itself is built on patient lines. A magician will thrill his audience ‘by planting in a pot of earth a seed which, under the waving of his wand, will produce in a moment a fruit-laden tree. But God never makes trees like that. From the solar nebulæ to the oak that shades our lawn is a long story, so long that our imaginations weary in trying to measure it.

Man, however, likes the magician’s way better; he is naturally impatient; as a popular song puts it, he wants what he wants when he wants it; and in consequence he fails to carry on to a fine finish.

A traveler tells us that sunrise in the Tyrolese Alps takes four hours of gradually expanding glory before the sun is fully up, but the traveler also says that a cinema concern has taken a moving picture of the sunrise which is now run off in ninety seconds for the delectation of the crowds. We like things done that way; we wish to condense and hasten the whole process of the universe; we would cry, "Step lively," to the Eternal.

By this attitude we often unfit ourselves to live. Just now, for example, many folk are so impatient over the failure of the ideal hopes which we associated with the fighting and winning of the war that on every side they are collapsing into cynicism. They were sure that the millennium would be none too good to expect as the gain of such terrific sacrifice. All sorts of human unities and brotherhoods were to come in the wake of victory; everybody was to get together with everybody else; we were to have pan-Christianity, pan-Americanism, pan-nationalism -- and what we have is pandemonium.

As a matter of fact we had no right to expect that war could cook and serve us such delicious dishes. War always has done exactly the opposite. Dr. Washington Gladden, in his "Recollections," speaking of the days which followed the Civil War, said,

"No nation can engage in a protracted war without suffering a serious loss of national probity and honor. The worst losses are outside of the army and after the war . . . the total effect of war upon the nation is disastrous; inevitably it lowers the moral tone; it scatters the seeds of moral pestilence; it results in just such disorders and corruptions as those which disfigure the pages of our national history in the decade following the close of the Civil War."

It is not only bad ethics, therefore; it is stupid to fall into cynicism because the Great War did not save the world. The Great War almost ruined the world, and there is no way out except as men get their second wind and tackle the problem of war itself and, behind that, the evils which cause war The only folk who are fit to live and work in this world are folk who have that kind of undiscourageable patience.

When one hears Parsifal he sees Klingsor’s palace, the citadel of evil, collapse in a twinkling into ruin. That sudden shattering of evil’s stronghold is a triumph of stage machinery, but, like so many other things upon the stage, it does not happen in real life. In real life great gains are made slowly.

In real life Nero sits on the throne and Paul languishes in prison, and many years must pass before people begin calling their dogs Nero and their sons Paul, but that time comes. As God lives, that time will always come.

For the kind of patience which can carry a man through to a great finish in his personal life and in his social devotions is founded on religious faith. That this universe is fundamentally a moral order, that there are reason and purpose in it, that what ought to be done can be done, that, as Carlyle cried, "No lie can live forever" -- these are religious convictions which undergirdle men to carry on when carrying on is hard.

As for personal experience, to what triumphant endings has religious faith brought multitudes who have understood its power! If ever any one had a difficult conclusion to face, it was Jesus. Yet if he had given up in Gethsemane, unable to finish, all his teaching would have been forgotten, his works of mercy would have dropped into oblivion, and the life divine would have been wasted. His victory lay in his power to say on Calvary, "It is finished." If ever a man might have been tempted to give up, it was Paul. Yet if in Nero’s prison he had collapsed, unable to finish, all his fine start on the Damascus Road would have gone for nothing and his long and arduous labor would have lost its fruit. The significance of his life hung on his ability at last to say, "I have finished the course, I have kept the faith."

Indeed, through the power of vital religion, not simply the naturally strong and well-equipped, but the unpromising and feeble win through to a fine conclusion. Bunyan was right when, bringing his victorious company of pilgrims to the gates of the Celestial City, he numbered among them, not simply Great-heart, Valiant-for-truth, Honest, and Stand-fast, but also Mr. Feeble-mind, Mr. Ready-to-halt, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter, Much-afraid. They, too, had been given the power to see it through.