Chapter 5: The Privilege of Living

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 5: The Privilege of Living

It was said of Sir Walter Scott that he enjoyed more in twenty-four hours than most men do in a week. Such happiness may not be the only recommendation necessary to establish a man’s character, but, other things being equal, it should count heavily in his favor. Goodness which is not radiant has something the matter with it. Goodness which, however impeccable, makes life seem cramped, pinched, restrained and unhappy, is not real goodness. Such good people are often exasperating nuisances. One who has to deal with them understands the little girl’s prayer: "O God, make all the bad people good -- and make all the good people nice!"

That happiness is a test of character can be seen from the fact that no relationship in human life ever comes to its best until it flowers out into the sense of privilege. Even the relationship of teacher and pupils in a school is not fulfilled so long as the instructor by duress and discipline is forcing stolid children to their work. Only where intellectual curiosity is set on fire, where boys and girls with awakened minds are eager for their tasks, has the relationship come to its own.

In home life also happiness clearly is a test. Often marriage sinks to burdensome obligation -- no more. Two people, true to a legal arrangement, but not delighting in a joyous fellowship, laboriously keep vows which once they swore to. There are other homes, however, where folk live together who would not be married to anybody else for all the world. If the government should annul all marriage vows, it would make no difference to them. They are a family because they love to be.

As for friendship, it is not enough to speak of that in terms of duty, obligation, responsibility. One must speak of that in terms of privilege. If friendship meant to anyone no more than duty to which he dragged himself with reluctant steps, we would pray to have him leave our circle. We wish none there save those in whom all sense of obligation is underlain and lifted as by a rising tide with the sense of privilege in being friends.

Happiness, therefore, is a real test of the fineness and success of our relationships. A man who has carried that inward victory so far that he is happy about life as a whole and has become what Browning called

A happy-tempered bringer of the best

Out of the worst,

is rendering the world one of the greatest services possible to man. "We need not care," said Stevenson about happy people, "whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great theorem of the Liveableness of Life."


This test of happiness is plainly applicable to duty. Men can be roughly divided into three classes: those who dislike duty and refuse to do it; those who dislike it and drag themselves to it with reluctant consent; those who do their duty and thoroughly enjoy it. Representatives of the last class are far too scarce. One of the saddest facts in human life is the general impression which has everywhere obtained that duty is grim, hard, forbidding, and that if one wishes to be happy he would better break away from it. "I know that this must be bad for me," said a young boy with a favorite dessert, "because it tastes so good."

Undoubtedly a large factor in making right living seem thus a dour affair has been our treatment of children in the home. The first impressions of childhood are almost ineradicable, and the first impression which many a home makes upon a child is that duty is an unpleasant necessity. He feels driven to it by fear of ill consequence if he disobey. Desirable results in quiet and good order can be at once obtained by a swift and vehement appeal to such fear. "If you do not stop that," we burst out to a little child, "I will -- ." And then follows the first threat that leaps into the irate parent’s mind. The consequence is immediate: A shivering life draws in upon itself, constrained, repressed. No wonder that duty has uncomfortable associations in multitudes of minds! It is a commentary on parents everywhere that, over two thousand years after Alexander the Great conquered India, Indian mothers are still telling their children that Iskander will get them if they do not obey.

Upon the other hand, to discover the petulant child’s real need and to give a true satisfaction where a false one was being sought, to unfold the disobedient child into positive goodwill that drives illwill out, to get joyful expression instead of sullen repression --anyone can tell that this is the superior method by noting the faculties in himself which this requires. All that it takes to appeal to fear is indignation and vehemence, and they are cheap. But so to understand the child as to unfold his life into positive and radiant character takes the finest qualities that we posses --insight, sympathy, intelligence, tact and patience. Some parents bring up their children on thunder and lightning, but thunder and lightning never yet made anything grow. Rain and dew and sunshine cause growth -- quiet, penetrating forces that develop life. And while thunder and lightning are occasionally useful to clear the air, it is amazing with how little of them a family can get along if only there is enough of the vitality that causes growth.

This does not mean that duty always is easy; it does not deny the self-sacrifice which right living involves. Everything worth while in the intellectual or moral life must be bought and paid for by giving up irreconcilable habits and indulgences. To be a good physician, a good lawyer, a good musician, or a good Christian means self-denial. But there are too many folk who never get beyond that emphasis. Their goodness is always a burden to them. They are halfway good, wishing to indulge in evil, but not daring to, clinging to right living with reluctant resolution, looking upon duty as an elephant might on his rider, sitting on his neck and pulling at his ears with an iron prong to make him go whither he would not.

If a man in any realm is to achieve distinction he must outgrow that halfway stage. On warm spring days a schoolboy may miserably endeavor to break in his mind to the study of history. "The battle of Marathon," he reads, "was fought in 490 B.C." -- and then across his imagination floats the vision of the brook where trout begin to rise. Alas, the burden of learning history! "The battle of Platæa," he continues, "settled the question whether Greek influence or Persian should be supreme in Europe" -- and then a robin sings through the open window and issues invitations in the name of springtime that drive him almost to despair. Alas, the burden of studying history! Such a beginning for a student of history is not unnatural, but if ever that boy is to become a real historian -- as well may be the case -- little by little the consciousness of what is excluded by his study will grow dim. More and more the sense of privilege in knowing history will become warm. He will enter with delight into the thoughts and ambitions of generations gone and will rejoice to find in deeds long passed the spring of all that happens among us. If ever he is to be a real historian, the sense of privilege will be the sign of it.

If ever a man is to be a real anything, the sense of privilege will be the sign. A physician to whom doctoring is not a privilege is no real physician. A teacher to whom teaching is not a privilege is no real teacher. A friend to whom friendship is not a privilege is no real friend. When we think of real patriots we think of Nathan Hale, who wished that he had more lives to lose for his country. When we think of real heroes we think of David Livingstone, who so loved his hazardous explorations that he thought he had never made a sacrifice in his life. When we think of a real Christian we think of a man like Paul, who even in a prison could thank God for counting him worthy to be in the ministry.

This conquest of duty, by which we not only do it, but enjoy doing it, counting the gains far greater than the losses, is an illustration of what the psychologists call selective attention. Some folk dwell upon the positive gains in right living; others dwell upon the negative self-denials. What different pictures of a home exist in different people’s minds! One person would say: A home is God’s best gift, the place where love is purest and dearest and deepest, where life’s shocks are cushioned by unfailing friendliness, where we are best known and yet best loved and trusted, where we can be ourselves without fearing to be misunderstood, and where the years deepen the tested loyalty of those whom we love better than ourselves. Ask another what a home is, and a very different answer would be given: A home is a place where we have to consider the wishes of others, where we cannot always have our own way, where children fall sick and require sacrificial care, where puzzling problems rise which it is hard to settle, where we must be true to love to keep it, where every day brings some small self-denial and every year some great one. The fact is that both these pictures are true, but anyone who appreciates a real home would be utterly impatient with the second. To be sure, a good home means self-denial, but, then, it is worth it. The gains immeasurably outweigh the sacrifices. It is not a burden to have a good home. No matter what it costs, it is one of life’s highest privileges.

The only kind of goodness that does much good in the world is of this joyful sort. Many people have a depressing way of approaching duty. "Ought I?" they say. They drag themselves to it like Shakespeare’s

. . . whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

But there are others who come with another question, "May I?" They clear the air like a northwest wind, making it bracing and buoyant. Right living, as they see it, is an invitation extended, a privilege offered, a boon conferred. They are like Doctor Bushnell, concerning whom it was said that "even his dying was play to him." They alone commend goodness to the world, for most people choose goodness, if they choose it at all, for the same reason that Tolstoy became a Christian: "I saw around me people who, having this faith, derived from it an idea of life that gave them strength to live and strength to die in peace and in joy."


To be sure, this world is often a desperately difficult place to be happy in. During the Great War a group of American naval aviators were stationed on a barren island off the northwest coast of France where, amid lonely and desolate conditions, they carried on their hazardous scouting in the air. One day an officer, censoring the men’s letters, ran upon this message from one man to his wife: "Please don’t send me any more nagging letters. I can’t stand it. You are three thousand miles away and it don’t do no good. Do let me enjoy this war in peace." Life frequently presents grim situations where to enjoy war in peace is the only kind of happiness that we can expect.

For life is a queer mixture. Good fortune and ill befall us with bewildering variety. Most folk in the long run get their share of both. Happiness, therefore, does not depend primarily on the preponderance of fortunate over unfortunate circumstance, although no one would belittle that. Primarily happiness depends on a man’s insight, on his capacity to find in any situation elements that make it worth while. It is fascinating to watch the inevitableness with which what a man is inside determines what he will find outside. The Bible, for example, has meant peace, comfort, illumination, moral power to multitudes, but because Whistler’ the artist, was a bitter controversialist, writing and publishing scathing attacks on enemies and former friends, he came to the Bible with a jaundiced eye and found in it what he brought. "That splendid mine of invective" such was his description of the Book! It is this capacity to find in life what you bring to it that causes a great deal of the world’s unhappiness.

If any one insists on discovering something to be unhappy over, there is nothing to prevent his finding it. Unfortunate elements exist in any man’s life. The race’s literature has loved to dwell upon these vulnerable spots which are to be found in the most highly gifted and fortunate of men. Achilles is dipped in the River Styx by his mother Thetis to make him invulnerable, but the heel by which she holds him is not wet. Siegfried bathes in the dragon’s blood, but a lime leaf falls upon his back and leaves one unprotected spot. Balder’s mother, in the Icelandic sagas, makes all Nature except the mistletoe swear not to harm her son, and by the mistletoe he falls. Every life has its weak spots, its lamentable elements, and if we insist on emphasizing them we can make miserable business out of living. Tyndall said that a bucket or two of water, whipped into a cloud, can obscure an Alpine peak. In practical experience, the heights of life are often hidden by just such a process.

Upon the other hand, there are few lives where a positive and appreciative attitude will not discover plenty of things to be happy over. A young British soldier during the war landed at Southampton with both his legs cut off close to the hips. Even the surgeon who greeted him winced. "That is hard luck," he said. "Oh, I don’t know," said the soldier, "I thank my God that I have my health and strength yet!" The plain fact is that some of the happiest people we have ever known have been in difficult circumstances, handicapped within and hard bestead without; but for all that, by the magic of selective attention, they lived radiant and victorious lives.

The kind of insight which discovers happiness in difficult situations, commonplace people, and customary tasks is one of the surest tests of character, for it always involves generosity, appreciativeness, love. The one man who cannot know abiding happiness is the self-absorbed man. Dr. Charles R. Brown tells us of a trip up the Rhine from Cologne to Mainz. An American family boarded the boat and asked for some ice cream. Informed that there was none, they became very unhappy. They had been used to ice cream on the Hudson day boats, and they saw no reason why they should not have it on the Rhine day boats. All day they grumbled. The trip took them past Lorelei, and Drachenfels, Ehrenbreitstein, and the mouth of the Moselle, but they missed most of the beauty -- they wanted some ice cream. They were like Pompilia’s father in Browning’s poem, who

Shut his fool’s eyes fast on the visible good

And wealth for certain; opened them owl-wide

On fortune’s sole piece of forgetfulness.

For them it was not a happy day, for only the appreciative are happy and only the unselfish can be appreciative. Many people, at the end of a longer journey than the Rhine trip, have missed the joy of it because they were obsessed with something which they wanted for themselves.

It is a great day in any man’s life when he discerns that no situation is without its redeeming elements, no task without its interesting opportunities, no people without their picturesque aspects; that nothing in life is really commonplace; that commonplaceness in others is only lack of insight in ourselves. In William C. Gannett’s words:

The poem hangs on the berry-bush,

When comes the poet’s eye;

The street begins to masquerade,

When Shakespeare passes by.


The Declaration of Independence joins in a single phrase "liberty" and "the pursuit of happiness," and, so doing, marries two ideas which belong together. Real happiness is indissolubly associated with freedom. Angelo Patri tells us that a little Sicilian lad landed a few years ago at the port of New York when the city was aflame with flags. It was the proudest day of that boy’s life, because he thought the flags were flying to welcome him, who from far Sicily was coming to the land of promised freedom. Later he found himself in a public school in the Italian quarter of the city, having difficulty with the English tongue. But one day he brought to his teacher a piece of pottery which he had made, with a scene from his homeland molded on it. The teacher was a real educator. She wanted to bring out to free expression what was in her pupils. She rose like the sun in encouragement upon that boy’s work. The boy began with a pottery class in the school; now, a young man of large promise studying the Beaux Arts, he is looking forward to a promised period of residence in Rome. He says now that he knows the flags were not flying for him the day he came; he knows now that it was Lincoln’s Birthday. But he thinks that in a sense they were flying for him, because America was giving to him the kind of welcome that Lincoln would have liked to have him get.

That boy is happy because he is being set free, is having liberated within him his latent possibilities and powers. Happiness is a test, not only of one’s power to find in duty a privilege and not a burden, to discern redeeming elements in untoward situations; it is a test also of the degree to which we are achieving an inward release of our own personalities. No cramped and smothered life is happy. People are happy as they become inwardly free.

All movements for human welfare can be interpreted in terms of this desired release of life from pinching handicaps into fulfillment and abundance. To lift the economic burdens which depress life and spoil opportunity, to liberate folk from the slavery of their diseases, to set men free by education from the Town of Stupidity, which, as Bunyan rightly says, is only four degrees north of the City of Destruction itself -- all these endeavors to give persons a chance to be their best selves are crusades for human emancipation and happiness. Nobody doubts the place of education or of economic betterment in this list of life’s liberators, but there is one force which ought to be in this list which many people do not think of putting there -- religion.

It never will be altogether well with us until we see that religion at its best is a great emancipator of personality, and until we get more religion at its best to function toward that end.

Strangely enough, many folk, so far from thinking of religion as a radiant, joyful, liberating force, class it in an opposite category. A typical conversation over a dinner table reached the conclusion that churches and ministers are necessary and should be supported for the common good, because so many people need restraints put upon their exuberant wickedness, and churches and ministers furnish these restraints. These convivial analysts of the religious life interpreted it, not in terms of liberation, but in terms of suppression. Our schools and shops and factories are filled with youth who, if the suggestion came that they should be Christians, would never think of it as promising the unfolding of life into a new liberty, the expansion of life into its true fulfillment; it would mean to them a call to delimit and suppress themselves, to restrain and cramp life. They would feel as some of us used to feel when, gladly playing out-of-doors, we were summoned in to prayers because the minister had come to call. How we dragged ourselves with unwilling feet into the old-fashioned parlor where we had to be careful not to knock the knickknacks from the whatnot or brush the tidies from the upholstered furniture!

Nevertheless, the men who best have known what Christian living is have always talked of it in terms of liberty. In view of this conflict between the misunderstanding of the mob and the testimony of the experts, we may justly make one claim: Christianity has a right to be judged in terms of its own noblest exhibitions and not in terms of its perversions and caricatures. It has here the same right which any essential aspect of man’s life, like music, has.

Music to some people is one of the noblest and most liberating gifts of God to men; it takes spirits grown heavy amid things material and gives them wings to fly; it is Handel and Wagner and Chopin and Mozart and Grieg.

But to others music is ragtime ground from hand organs, and music-hall ballads, and the ribald songs of vaudeville; it is the catch-penny tunes of tired mechanical pianos, the calliope at the circus and the mouth organ of the newsboy at his stand. No intelligent man, however, accepts the latter description as adequate, for music has a right to be understood in terms of its noblest utterance. So, too, has religion. Much popular Christianity is not liberating and joyful; it is repressive, constraining, imprisoning to mind and spirit. But it is that because it is not really Christian.

One suspects that Jesus would understand better than we do some of our young people who run wild and fall on ruin like the prodigal.

Many of them are brought up to think that goodness means repression. All through their maturing youth they keep coming upon new powers, new passions, new ambitions, and they are told that these must be repressed. At first they docilely accept that negative idea. They try to be good by saying "no" to their surging life.

Then, some day, they grow so utterly weary of this tame, negative, repressive goodness that they can tolerate it no longer, and they start out to be free in wild self-indulgence, only to find it the road, not to freedom, but to slavery, with habits that bind them and diseases that curse them and blasted reputations that ruin them. Would not Jesus say to them some such thing as this: "You have made a bad mistake. Goodness is not mainly repression. It is finding your real self and then having it set free. It is positively living for those things which alone are worth living for. It is expression, the effulgence of life into its full power and its abundant fruitage. I came that ye might have life, and that ye might have it abundantly."

That is real Christianity, as it is the spirit of Jesus.

Some Christians carry their religion on their backs. It is a packet of beliefs and practices which they must bear. At times it grows heavy and they would willingly lay it down, but that would mean a break with old traditions, so they shoulder it again. But real Christians do not carry their religion, their religion carries them. It is not weight; it is wings. It lifts them up, it sees them over hard places, it makes the universe seem friendly, life purposeful, hope real, sacrifice worth while. It sets them free from fear, futility, discouragement, and sin -- the great enslavers of men’s souls. You can know a real Christian, when you see him, by his buoyancy.