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The Individual

( Originally Published 1912 )

"What is that thee? Follow thou me. "—New Testament.

"Space is ample, east and west,
But two cannot go abreast." —Emerson.

These quotations, supplemented by common experience, ask us to reflect upon the fact that, for every human being, a separate path is appointed. If this is one of Nature's decrees, it follows that each mortal will find his greatest usefulness and greatest happiness in accepting it. No experience can be exactly duplicated; and he is wisest who, without complaint or fear, follows whither his own highest convictions lead him.

Many fortes combine to form a soul. Who can trace all those currents which, for a hundred ages, have been streaming hither and, converging, make us what we are at this moment? Who was our father? Who was his father? Who was his? What was he in the remote past? Was he Saxon, Celt, or Latin? Was he prophet, poet, philosopher, or plowman? Who was our mother? Who was her mother? Who was hers in the far off centuries? Did she most resemble Mary or Martha or Sappho or Cleopatra or Monica? Where was our childhood passed? Who were our playmates? What books did we read? Did our eyes every day fall upon mountains or a river or the sea or a city? We say we are twenty or forty or sixty years old. We are mistaken. We are as old as the race. Each one of us is a point in time and space,—the end of a line that has been erased. We see the flowing river. It is a concrete form; but we cannot trace it to its ultimate source nor enumerate all the springs and rills and rain-drops and snow-flakes that have made it. It is so with each person. Every stream of life has many unknown tributaries. By a combination of materials and forces, all the myriad stars that gem the sky were sphered and went rolling in their endless orbits. They may cross each others orbits and some-times follow parallel lines, but they cannot travel the same road. Seen at this distance, they seem to be near together; but, in reality, they are not. Separate and solitary, each one holds its own place in the vast plain, as if it were a lone sentinel on an outpost of God's mighty encampment. Even those once called double stars are now known to have oceans of space billowing between them. It is said that bodies never come in contact. Even in the densest forms of matter, as granite and steel, space exists between the smallest particles. However this may be, persons never come in contact. We give names to a few mountain ranges, as Allegheny or Rocky or Sierra Nevada or Alps or Appenines. But the grains of sand are intact and individual as well as the peak of Teneriffe or Mount Everest. Thus, in each generation, names are given to a few persons of prominence and all the rest are simply people or the masses. But there is no mass. There are only units and individuals. Every one of the million and a half of millions, now upon earth, is distinct from all the rest. There is some part of each personality which is a lonely St. Helena island around which are leagues of sea separating it from all others.

Royalty is guarded from intrusion by sentinels and men and women waiting in antechambers. Such precautions are unnecessary. All persons have natural guards to preserve them from intrusion. We are never admitted to the innermost rooms of life, where the real king or queen stays. We have all gone through the formalities of meeting eminent persons, but we cannot say that we have really met them. It is not probable that we ever meet all of any person. Have we not all been surprised, sometimes, after years of intimacy, by seeing a perfect stranger looking at us through the eyes of a friend? The lines of the little poem, however transcendental, are the statement of a common fact of experience.

"We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.

Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone
Of a temple once complete."

Every mortal, like the temple on Mount Moriah, has an outer and inner court to his life. The one is common; the other is solitary, inviolable and peculiar to the individual. Into the first the multitude may come; the second can be entered only by the High Priest of life. There are many things of common conversation. All may exchange opinions concerning weather, personal health, politics and fashions. A smaller company can converse about the latest books of fiction. A smaller group can make science and the externals of religion a topic of conversation. A stil smaller company can see the first meaning of things and the laws under which they act. But, if any member of the assembly wishes to think of the deeper life experiences or to reflect over the higher workings of thought and spiritual laws, he must be alone. The social and voluble contact of people is nearly all external and formal. The King of Spain blamed his ambassador for neglecting important business to engage in a state ceremony with the ambassador from the court of France. That is what we all do. We never get to the real object of the meeting. The time is nearly all consumed by ceremonies performed by the soul's delegates.

Let us copy a page of experience. Have we not all friends to whom we would gladly communicate that which we think and feel concerning them? They have cheered and consoled and strengthened us; and we often resolve that, at the first opportunity, we will break through all restraint and make them understand our love. It is impossible. When we meet, they are carefully guarded from all intrusion; and, instead of telling them how we love them and how necessary they are to our happiness, we break forth with the old common-place utterance about health or weather or the last concert or play or magazine or novel. Heine says that he lay awake many a night thinking over the exalted things he would say to Goethe, if he should ever meet him. Finally the desired opportunity came. He was permitted to meet the great man. But, at the auspicious moment, all his high thoughts and eloquence deserted him and all he could do was to stammer out that "excellent plums grow on the road-side between Jena and Weimar." Thus are we all restrained from uttering the best that is in us. Like the priest, who saw the beautiful vision and received the noble message in the temple, we cannot tell our deepest experiences. We can only faintly suggest our meaning with signs and half intelligible words. Caught up to third heavens and then let down to earth, Paul said the things he had seen and heard were unutterable. Other souls have had similar experiences.

A legend coming from the early Christian times may illustrate the barriers around personality and the difference between the outer and inner life. It is called, "The Wall of Darkness." During the persecutions, under Domitian, a group of Christians was miraculously protected by a wall thrown around them on every side. Dark to those without, to those within the wall was all brilliant with light. Those on the outside could sometimes hear words of courage and hope and songs of praise, but the forms inside were concealed. It is thus with each life. Intimations of hope and courage and some sweet tones may break through the wall; but the real personality is hidden. There are some things in every heart that only itself and God can understand.

Duties are peculiar and individual. We may appear to assist one who has an arduous task to per-form. We may give him encouragement and sympathy. But the task itself must be done by him alone. Individual duties cannot be delegated. In the fable the god ordered the man to put his own shoulder to the wheel, if he would get his cart out of the mire. In the battle of life there are no substitutes. If Horatius had sent a proxy to the Tiber Bridge, a different history would have been written. There could have been no substitute for Arnold Winkelried at Sempach. He must gather the sheaf of spears into his own bosom. When Nelson nailed to the mast the injunction: "England expects every man to do his duty," he was only stating part of a universal law. Long before the battle of Trafalgar the command had been issued: Heaven expects every man to do his duty.

Responsibility is largely individual. Napoleon said he would not have lost Waterloo if Grouchy had not failed him. Historians think otherwise. But it is a common trait of life to have some real or hypothetical Grouchy upon whom to lay the blame of its Waterloos. It often occurs that external temptations only assist us in doing the thing we were already pre-pared to do. The Lorelei only allures to her fatal rock the youth who is already cruising in her neighborhood. Tannhauser was lured into the Venusberg, but his heart was full of passion before he reached the enchanted mountain. His habits made him an easy victim. The satans which tempt us are our own desires externalized and given form. The ghosts which haunt us are the shadows of our own fears. The angels which delight and cheer us are the shining reflection of our own hopes.

Counsel from the wise is often valuable. Friendly sympathy is sweet and sustaining. But, in the doubtful hour, one's own mind must decide; and, in the trying event, one must seek for courage in his own heart. With painful anxiety and alternating between hope and fear, in the story, Rebecca and the wounded knight watched and heard every movement and stroke of their friends storming the castle for their rescue. Thus, when beleagured by hostile circumstances, we may rejoice that our friends do not forsake us, but they cannot fight all our battles for us. The final vie_ tory must be gained by us alone.

It is useless to find fault with the plan of things. It is the business of every mortal to do the work given him and not complain if others seem to have easier tasks. Why does this one follow a path of riches, this one a path of power, this one a path of ease, and this one a path of poverty and struggle and martyrdom? The Genius presiding over the world does not con-descend to answer these questions. "Will there be a battle tomorrow?" asked a lieutenant of his commanding officer. "Can you keep a secret?" was the rejoiner. "Yes," answered the young man. "Then," said the leader, "if there should be a battle your regiment will have a chance?" Thus the great Captain of Life goes not reveal the plan of his campaign to every meddlesome subaltern. At the proper time, special orders are given and it is the soldier's business to execute those given to him alone.

Diamonds are rare and so are pearls. It is this that makes them valuable. It is doubtful if they are not less rare and it is certain they are much less valuable than original, individual, self-depending souls. There are not many who dare be strictly themselves, making their own moral convictions the sole motive of all their conduct. Conscience is often adjustable; and there are some who, at Paris or Rome, will do what they would not dare do in their own city. From raiment to religion there are those who copy the prevailing style without regard to its personal fitness. Many pretend to believe in Christ. He is very popular,—seen at a distance. Yet if he were to come into one of our modern cities, his native grace and truth and spot-less character would avail him nothing until he was taken up by good society. As of old, the question would be asked; "Have any of the Scribes and Pharisees believed in him?" As of old, too, if we mistake him not, with sad and, yet, austere look he would penetrate all our customs and social and ecclesiastical conventionalities and, reaching whatever of soul we may still possess beneath these hard casings, would startle us with the rebuke: "What is that to thee? Follow thou me!"

A man has opinions. Where did he get them? From the majority? From his party? From the third person plural? They may be correct; but this has nothing to do with his holding them. He would maintain them for the same reason he does now though they were incorrect and he shared them with Judas or Beelzebub. A man's opinion is of no importance, it is no part of himself, until he has been alone with it and, having steeped it into his intellectual and moral nature, it has been transmuted into a conviction. Having done this, it no longer concerns him whether or not he is with the majority. Party and sect may abjure him; enemies may revile and slander him; friends may grow cold and finally forsake him and he may be left alone. Nevertheless, secure in the integrity of his intention, calmly he goes on his lonely way, not doubting that finally it will be well. Among a multitude of counselors one must finally select his own course. There is only one confessional in which absolution can be received and that is within the temple of one's own heart. Hells, present or future, have no power of harming a soul that has absolved itself. Heavens can not add to the felicity of that soul which is ever true to its own highest purpose.

The central truth of Stoicism was self-mastery, renunciation, the power of the individual to reform himself. To this Christianity added a certain spiritual inspiration, a passion for moral ideals. But both had direct reference to the individual. Is it too late in the world to preach this doctrine? Must the individual henceforth be lost in the crowd? Must he be absorbed by his party or his sect or his nation? Is Protestantism dead? Shall one approve of an immoral act because his party or his nation, instead of another party or nation, has committed it? Must one accept the policy of Machiavelli in politics and Rockefeller in business because it is profitable and the majority say it is necessary in order to succeed? Is there no longer any place in this huge world for those who, not only see the ideal, but believe in it and unhesitatingly live for it and who, instead of accepting the low doctrine that the end justifies the means, are determined to make the means so high that they will justify the end? Are Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, are Chrysostom and Savonarola, are Paul and Jesus wholly out of date in our twentieth century civilization? Sometimes it seems so.

But let us hope this condition is only apparent. Beneath all the bad customs that hold sway in business and society and politics and religion there must still be many persons of moral insight who are not slaves to those customs. There must be those who will not follow the multitude to do evil. There must be many who, in their hearts, protest when their party interprets the Declaration of Independence in terms of world conquest and race subjugation; many who pro-test when their church interprets the Sermon on the Mount in terms of Standard Oil. There must be those who still see clearly that man is something more than merely a commercial and political creature, whose sole aim is the accumulation of wealth and power. There are still some who regard him as a being of morals, whose purposes are, sometimes, as lofty as the galaxy and far-reaching as eternity. Some day these voices, now silent, will again be heard in our land.

Organization and associated work possess some advantages; but they cannot take the place of individual effort. We cannot create justice by means of political parties; nor piety by churches; nor literary culture by clubs. Justice, piety and culture are personal and individual. Talleyrand said that words are to conceal ideas. Organizations sometimes do the same thing for convictions. Political parties and business corporations frequently adopt means to accomplish ends which those composing them, as individuals, would not adopt. Personal responsibility is shifted from the private heart to the party or corporation. Legislation may somewhat restrict the public exercise of unjust powers in business or politics, but it cannot produce any radical and permanent reform . A philosopher once said he could lift the world if he only had a place to rest his fulcrum. Our public reforms suffer from the same fatal embarrassment. They have no place to rest their fulcrum. The great schemes for justice and culture are too much in the air. They do not come in contact with the individual heart. The attempt is to make machinery do what can only be done by the soul. If society ever becomes temperate and chaste and just and honest it will not become so by acts of legislation, but when each individual lives from within. Goodness cannot be imposed from the outside. Neither can culture. They must be developed from within. Churches, clubs, and other forms of associated life have their uses, but they are of secondary importance. They are mere aids and not substitutes.

Let us learn a lesson from nature. There, variety is endless. The leaves, the snow flakes are all made from different patterns. It is not strange, then, that the great God has not made two souls exactly alike. Because of this variety every one has the right to be, in part, a non-conformist. Let each one seek and retain that which, by nature, belongs to him. If one does not care for books and art let him say so. There are other good things in the world. If one cannot think in all things as his church prescribes, why should he keep up the pretense of so thinking? He may pain his associates by being true to himself; but there are times when loyalty to a conviction is more sacred than friendship. No one should permit himself to become a mere appendage of an organization. Can it be other than a sign of some inherent weakness when we apologize for our party or church, sacrifice a personal conviction to gain popularity, or make a con-cession to some present falsehood with the vain hope that a far distant good may possibly be gained? Les-sing said: "I will do everything for the truth except lie for it." So we may do much for the organization; but, when we think it is doing wrong, let us not pre-tend it is doing right,.

By correspondence and by personal interviews information comes that there are those in the churches whose doctrinal views have changed faster than those of the churches themselves. The case is full of difficulty; and often one does not know what advice to give. But it would seem that, when one is sure that the divergence from his church is caused by a settled conviction instead of a passing opinion, perfect frankness is desirable. Some such statement as this might be made:


I would I could see things as you see them; but I regret to say I cannot. I may not have as much light as you; but I must follow the light I have. I do not question your right to think as you do; but neither can I permit you and the church to question my right to think as I do. Urge your doctrines with all your power,—they may be true; but to me they are no longer true. Believing them no longer, I dare not pretend to believe them. Let each of us go his own way, without interference and without loss of mutual respect, striving to make life as useful and happy as possible. Who knows? Perhaps, after all, we are only two storm tossed barks, each, for a time, on a different tack but having the same port in view; and some day, battered and scarred by the voyage, we shall furl sail and drop anchor in the same quiet harbor.

Your friend and well wisher,

Individualism, the claim of the soul against the majority or the organization has some inconveniences. Complete isolation may weaken sympathy and thus deprive a life of some usefulness. Carried to its extreme, it may end in selfishness and intolerance and vanity and cynicism. The individual may often be wrong in his views. But in these days of colossal combinations the danger lies upon the other side. The individual seems likely to disappear. The business man is no more master of himself. He must sink him-self in a gigantic corporation. The laboring man is the slave of his Union. He is no more a man. He is a part of a machine. In politics the tendency is toward centralization of power. Thus, everywhere, the danger is not so much in the tendency of the individual toward freedom of action as toward his absorption in organizations. There is much less to be feared from individuals following too closely their own moral ideals than from the lowering of life to conform with the temporary and merely expedient policies that attract the multitudes.

With characteristic quaintness and characteristic insight George Herbert wrote.

"By all means use sometimes to be alone;
Salute thyself: see what thy soul doth wear:
Dare to look in thy chest, for 'tis thine own,
And tumble up and down what thou findest there."

This intimates that the soul should not deck itself in borrowed raiment, however gorgeous and fashionable it may be, but should create its robes out of material found within itself. Better to be clad in its own coarse buckram or modest russet than be arrayed in borrowed or stolen cloth of gold. It is safe to say that unquestioning acquiescence, taking color from surroundings, easy drifting in the prevailing current never produced a strong and noble character nor ever yet brought benefits to mankind. No; from Christ onward the strong are they who have dared to be themselves; who have been nourished by their own spiritual convictions; and who have turned from the beaten highway to follow whither their own star might lead. It is in the central solitude of such souls that have been forged those spiritual forces which have transformed, are transforming and shall forever continue to transform the world.

Called to follow a separate path let each one cheerfully obey. Let each one think his own thoughts, cherish his own ideals, trust his own inspiration never doubting that doing his own duty, here, he shall find his own heaven hereafter.

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