Chapter 6: Minding One’s Own Business

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 6: Minding One’s Own Business

Said Dwight L. Moody, "I have had more trouble with myself than with any other man I have ever met." Most people could say the same thing. In the old "Wonderland" which used to charm the children, many of us recall walking down a corridor through the farther end of which we saw people approaching us as we approached them, until suddenly we bumped into ourselves in a mirror.

And in the larger wonderland of mature experience, we have discovered that no man travels far without encountering himself. He may go into business with alluring prospects, but he soon discovers that his major problem is himself. He may inherit or achieve ample professional opportunity, but he soon discovers that his major problem is himself. He may marry amid the congratulations of his friends, but he soon sees that the maintenance of a fine home is primarily a problem with himself. When the Prodigal Son sat among the swine in the far country, the parable tells us that he "came to himself." That was not a single experience he kept coming to himself. He could find no road anywhere that did not lead back to himself. Whichever way he turned he ran into himself.

The resolute grappling of a man with his own life is one of the most searching tests of character, for most people are willing to grapple with anything else under heaven, from international problems to spiritualism, rather than to face squarely their individual responsibility for their own lives. A poet once had a dream, so runs the tale, in which he was ruined by a veiled figure. He dreamed that he made a fortune and the veiled figure snatched it from him, that he achieved fame and the veiled figure turned it to disgrace. He dreamed that the veiled figure frightened him in bed, spoiled the taste of his food at table, abashed him in company, and on the poet’s wedding day stopped the mouth of the priest, crying "I forbid the banns!" "Who are you?" cried the wretched poet, tearing away the veil -- and lo, the face of the stranger was his own!

The ruination of most people is themselves.

The clear recognition of this fact is one of the elements in Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist. No tragedies compare with his, and for this reason among others: he saw that life’s real tragedy lies within ourselves. Even the old Greek dramatists, with all their insight, caused their victims to fall on ruin because of a mysterious cosmic fate which ruled the destinies of gods and men. Shakespeare, however, shifts the battlefield to the souls of men:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Hamlet wrestles with his own hesitant, shocked and indecisive soul, Macbeth with his own ambition and remorse, Othello with his own insatiable jealousy. The greatest characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies are all having it out with their own souls.

The insight of the dramatist lighted here on a fundamental law of life. All that a lion eats becomes lion. All that a serpent eats becomes serpent. Through the whole of life runs the mysterious law of assimilation, by which not so much the outward nature of the thing devoured, but the inward nature of the one who eats it determines the consequence. Every man’s fate is himself.


So elemental is this fact that one might expect men, as the initial business of living, resolutely to take charge of their own lives, to deal decisively with the problem of their own character and careers, to make themselves responsible for themselves. Upon the contrary, one of the commonest sights is folk who make themselves responsible for everybody else except themselves. With the middle of the eighteenth century humanitarianism and philanthropy began to flourish as never before. In spite of war and its bitter fruits, there has been since then an immense expansion of the social conscience. "Am I my brother’s keeper?" is a question to which all right-minded folk feel under obligation to say "Yes." It is, however, a dangerous question to answer glibly in the affirmative. A vague, sentimental interest in everybody else is much easier to achieve than that elemental act of will by which a man decisively takes charge of his own life and makes something worth while out of it.

There are some possessions with which we are not likely to be too generous. With genuine sympathy, with real friendship, with wisely distributed money, we may be as generous as we please. But we can easily be too generous with our sense of responsibility. If anybody has a large amount of that valuable article, it is always safe advice that he should use by all odds the major portion of it on himself.

Some of the most unamiable people with whom we deal make their failure here. Henry Ward Beecher once said: "The reforms are well enough, but I can not swallow the reformers." Beecher would have many sympathizers today. A real reformer is a public blessing, but his counterfeit is a hectic uplifter so zealous about saving the world at large that he himself, acrimonious, dogmatic, censorious, and altogether unlovable, has lost whatever persuasive beauty he might have had. The tempter is extraordinarily ingenious and resourceful. When he cannot spoil a life one way, he manages to do it another. Some he ruins by their selfishness; they will think of no one save themselves. When, however, he finds folk who insist on thinking of other people, he changes his tactics. He makes them think about other people all the time, worry about other people, assume responsibility for other people, meddle with other people, until at last these victims of his wiles reach the estate which Jesus pictured -- a man with a beam in his own eye, trying with laborious unselfishness to get a mote out of his brother’s eye.

Sir George Mellish was one of the great jurists of England. As a member of a committee appointed to draw up resolutions of congratulation to the Queen, he discovered that his colleagues had begun one resolution with the words "Being conscious as we are of our own defects."

"No, no," said Judge Mellish, "that will never do. We must not lie to Her Majesty. Change it to ‘Being conscious as we are of one another’s defects!"’

Indeed, so difficult is it to learn this lesson of using our sense of responsibility upon ourselves, that one would like to know whether the readers of this article have not been saying "This hits off So-and-So exactly. He needs this. He always is meddling in other people’s business." So we shy the truth at somebody else. We feel very responsible about other people. One of the rarest of virtues in this world is the resolute grappling of a man with his own life.

On Sunday, August 5, 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary, "John Ware, of Cambridge, preached a good sermon." And then Longfellow added what many people cannot honestly say after a sermon: "I applied it to myself."

Decisive dealing with one’s own life is always a major problem in youth. Over twenty years ago a Hungarian boy, whose ancestors had toiled in poverty for centuries on a farm in the Carpathian Mountains, landed at the port of New York. He arrived poor in money, family, and friends, and, having heard that all wealth came from Pittsburgh, he went there. Too young to work in the mines, he went into a hotel kitchen and washed dishes. Trying to size up the reasons for America’s superior opportunities, he put his finger on education. Then he worked by day and studied by night. When he graduated from high school, appointed orator, he took as his subject, "The Great Opportunities Which America Gives to the Boys Who Come Here." He worked his way through one of our first-rate universities and graduated with honor; he worked his way through the Harvard Law School. Now he is associated with a leading law firm in New York City, and a year ago he was admitted to the bar. Many first-rate qualities of character helped to make possible such an achievement, but at the heart of all of them was this primary virtue: that young man decisively and efficiently took charge of himself.

How different is the life of many of our youth! Instead of putting responsibility on them, we surround them from the time they are born with every comfort that money can buy. To a mature mind knowing the humble breeding places of great ability, such well-to-do homes run by indulgent parents prophesy no superiority in the children who are reared there. But how shall the children know that? To live in a fine house, surrounded by a commodious environment, to be pampered and protected, to have money to spend, leisure to enjoy, to move in the best circles -- how subtly these so-called advantages weave their spell around growing children. Life looks easy. They learn to trust their fortunate circumstances, not themselves. In Scott’s phrase, they count on a fine set of china to heighten the flavor of indifferent tea. The result is often worse than wildness; the result is indecisiveness, irresponsibility, a meandering, irresolute, procrastinating life that never arrives. And in youth indecisive procrastination is fatal. The marvel of living when we are young is that life is a fairy land of possibilities. When a youth says that he has not yet decided whether he will be a civil engineer, or a landscape artist, or a lawyer, or a professional aviator, or a clergyman, we have to take him seriously. He may be any one of these. The doors are all open. He is young. But we who have reached maturity have all these years been growing familiar with the sound of closing doors. The range of our possible choices has been narrowing down. There are some things on earth we never can do now. It is too late. Happy the youth who takes charge of his life in time, makes worthwhile decisions about the loyalties, purposes and ambitions that shall control him, finds his work in the world and masters it!

Behind most of the shilly-shallying of young people is the idea that they can bluff life through without tackling the problem of themselves. It is a vain hope; life has been at the game for a long time and knows all the moves. To many a youth wealth appears omnipotent, so that to possess it seems a sufficient substitute for serious wrestling with oneself. The fact is, however, that great possessions only throw a man back upon himself. For there is an important difference between possession and ownership: possession is having things; ownership is the enjoyment and appreciative use of things. Said the poet to Dives, "The land is yours, but the landscape is mine." Possession concerns what a man has in his hands; ownership concerns what a man is in himself.

Possession is sending downtown, as one woman is said to have done, for three yards of good books in brown bindings to match the furniture; ownership is saying with Fenelon, "If the crowns of all the kingdoms in Europe were laid down at my feet in exchange for my love of reading, I would spurn them all." Possession is having a morocco-bound copy of Wordsworth that you never look at; ownership is having Wordsworth, it may be in paper covers, a source of inextinguishable delight. Possession is having a house; ownership is having a home. Possession is material; ownership is spiritual. A man may possess millions and own nothing. How much a man owns depends on the height and breadth and depth of his mind and soul.

Nor does a youth evade the necessity of tackling himself when he tries to achieve an education. No amount of acquired information will in the end make much of a man out of him unless he resolutely wrestles with his own thinking. It is easy to be, as Pope put it, a

bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,

With loads of learned lumber in his head.

But to be a straight-thinking, reliable, intelligent man is difficult.

A young Polish girl in a New York school, asked in common with her class to write an essay on the difference between an educated and an intelligent man, summed up the matter: "An educated man gets his thinks from someone else, but an intelligent man works his own thinks."

Nor does the youth evade the tackling of himself when, under the impulse of friendliness, he tries to be useful. The choicest gift that any man can give his friends is himself at his best. Most people are willing to give almost anything rather than that. Even fathers and mothers will give their children things in lavish and sometimes smothering abundance, but themselves at their best in intimate companionship -- for the lack of that bestowal homes go to ruin. Every real endeavor after friendly usefulness throws a man back on himself, and more than once, with most of us, out of the charcoal pit of what we are the fumes have risen to spoil the grace and beauty of the thing that we have done.

Even if a youth in all these realms succeeded in evading the necessity of tackling himself, trouble would still be left, and trouble is an adept at forcing a man to grapple with himself. Samuel Pepys, for example, has left in his diary the most intimate record that any man ever put on paper about his own life. As we read it we watch with interest, amusement, sometimes pity, his vanities, ambitions, quarrels, conceits, and prejudices, his ingenious schemes for self-advancement, his toadying, and his pride. If ever a man might have bluffed life through with little serious tackling of himself, he was endowed for the purpose. But when he was thirty-seven years old life brought him up with a round turn. Blindness came upon him. "And so," he wrote as he closed his diary, "I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!" At last even Pepys had to wrestle with himself.

One way or another life forces us to this primary test of character. No good life ever yet was lived which did not face it and win through. The decisive issue may come as a struggle with temper or habit, as a battle with oneself over the vocation to which life shall be given, as a definite call to self-sacrifice, as a collision with disappointment and misery, as a conflict between religious faith and doubt -- in whatever way it rises, it divides men like Judgment Day. The man who has not successfully grappled with himself will never grapple successfully with anybody else.


At its deepest this inner problem of human life is simply the age-long religious problem in its intensest form -- the relationship of a man with his own soul. One does not mean by "soul" what a young woman recently defined it to be: "a sort of round haze a little larger than a baseball, somewhere in the body near the heart." A man’s soul is his whole invisible personality -- self-conscious being that thinks, purposes, and loves -- a man’s spiritual life in its heights and depths. Happy the youth who before it is too late discovers that no success elsewhere matters without success here! For youth is the time in which to face this inner problem of the spiritual life. In infancy our bodies first awake to enjoy the world into which we have been born; then our minds awake to curious questioning and restless desire for knowledge; then our souls awake to a conscious search for life’s spiritual meaning and purpose. Unless a youth has been too early perverted and wronged, he will not easily escape this third experience. A certain dare and flame of spiritual chivalry is one of the noblest birthrights of a normal youth.

Some of us can read with dry eyes now Emerson’s essay on "The Over-Soul," but when first in youth we read it we wept for very joy of having been born into a world where such high thoughts dwelt. Some of us calmly can observe a great cathedral now, but when in youth we first saw one we walked about in it for hours, in worlds unrealized, and thought that we heard the souls of all the dead who ever had worshipped there singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord!" Some of us can listen calmly now to the call of duty, but looking back to youth we know what the poet meant:

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,

When Duty whispers low, Thou must,

The youth replies, I can!

There is glory about youth, when the soul, which has waited like an enchanted princess for some prince to rouse her, awakes and looks with fresh and unspoiled eyes on life.

See, then, what we do with this priceless experience, this unutterable opportunity from the beginning to possess a rich and resourceful spiritual life! Some of us do cherish it. Although life is always hard upon it, and although it is impossible to keep it with its first naïve and childlike freshness, we do cherish it. In some of us it even grows deeper with the years, like Beethoven’s music. At eight Beethoven played in a concert; at eleven he was made deputy court organist. There must have been a flame about the youthful playing of that ardent soul. But not until he was thirty-eight did he write the fifth and sixth symphonies; not until he was forty-five did he write the seventh and eighth; and he wrote the ninth at fifty-two. He is a parable of a spiritual experience which bubbles up in youth like a sparkling fountain and then flows out, a broadening, deepening river, toward the sea.

Some of us so deal with our souls, but some of us do the very opposite. Busy, ambitious, overengaged, amid the pressure of our preoccupation we lose our souls. That phrase used to be applied chiefly to the next world. However that may be, it certainly applies to this one. Men lose their souls -- smother them, neglect them, maltreat them crowd them out. As Richard Burton sings,

If I had the time to find a place

And sit me down full face to face

With my better self, that cannot show

In my daily life that rushes so:

It might be then I would see my soul

Was stumbling still toward the shining goal;

I might be nerved by the thought sublime --

If I had the time!

Multitudes of people so lose their souls.

Such folk are headed in toward inevitable self-reproach. For the soul is like a lighthouse. There are times when to some people it does not seem indispensable. The coastline is familiar, the skies are fair, the breeze is light and the waters calm. But times do come even to such folk when the gales rise, the night closes in, the waters are riotous, and the lighthouse, which but a few hours before seemed to be negligible, becomes their only hope.

So, too, no man will altogether escape the more serious aspects of life. Troubles come, when we need our souls. Temptations like bandits out of ambush leap on us to steal our honor from us, or work grows monotonous and wearisome and a secret loathing and distaste for life haunt us, and we need our souls. And death comes at last -- that "dark mother always gliding near with soft feet"--and when she touches us we want our souls.


Indeed, even in the most ordinary days there is for men of insight no escaping this innermost problem of life. Each of us is continually building from within out, constructing from the materials which the soul gathers out of the world the real world in which each lives. There are over five million people in the City of New York -- but in which City of New York? There are almost as many New Yorks as there are people there. There is a New York of business, bounded on the north by stocks and on the south by bonds. There is a New York of music, where are some people who know that man cannot live by bread alone. There is a New York of fashion that goes back and forth like a shuttle between the milliner on the one side and the caterer on the other. There is a New York of education, where the spirit is not altogether dead that made Pestalozzi live "as a beggar among beggars -- that beggars might live like men." There is a New York of sport that looks upon the Polo Grounds as the very hub of the universe. And there is the New York of religion, where are some people who are sure that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Even such a rough division of New York is superficial in comparison with the facts of our individual lives. Each lives in his own New York. He made it. His soul gathered out the materials of which it is built, and there he lives. Alike the glory and tragedy of life are to be found here: each of us lives in the world of his own soul. When Oliver Goldsmith was so poor that he could not make both ends meet, he had to live in a room below the level of the street. One day a contemptible boor laughed at him for it. "You lodge in a basement," said the boor. And Goldsmith came back like lightning: "Your soul must lodge in a basement."

That is certainly the correct address of a good many souls, and all true seers have, like Whittier, found in that fact the central tragedy of life:

Oh, doom beyond the saddest guess,

As the long years of God unroll

To make thy dreary selfishness

The prison of a soul!

One suspects, therefore, that religion has a long while yet to run before its work is over. For in its innermost and intensest meaning religion has concerned itself with the release, emancipation, salvation, growth of the soul. Behind its disguises of theory and ritual, all great religion has one common center: it sees human life as the adventure of the soul. Its insistent question always is: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" To religious insight the most important truth about man is that he has been entrusted with himself, capable on the one hand of dismal failure, or on the other of high adventure into the life that is life indeed. A dog can make a failure of himself, but not much of a failure. A man, however, as any one who keeps his eyes open can see, can fail until, like Milton’s Satan, he cries, "Myself am hell," or he can succeed until the spiritual world shines through him like the sun through eastern windows.

All great religion sets men at life’s central task of grappling with themselves. It has supplied the motive and driving power, the insight and hope, so that men have been able to grapple with themselves successfully. At its height it has led men to the place where they not so much wrestle with themselves as are wrestled with by the Life from whom their spirits came, to be conquered by whom is victory and to serve whom is freedom. And it will be an evil day for the world if ever materialistic philosophy or practical paganism quenches this essential challenge of religion.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,

As the swift seasons roll!

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

Till thou at length art free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!