IF I WERE TWENTY-ONE I WOULD MAKE SOME PERMANENT, AMICABLE ARRANGEMENT WITH MY CONSCIENCE
God, Duty, Death, and Moral Responsibility are huge facts which no life can escape. They are the external sphinxes by the road of every man’s existence. He must frame some sort of an answer to them.
It may please the reader to know how I have answered them. It is very simple.
I am familiar, to some extent, with most of the religions, cults, and creeds of mankind. There are certain points common to every decent religion, for in every kind of church you are taught to be honest, pure-minded, unselfish, reverent, brave, loyal, and the like.
These elements of religion may be called the Great Common Divisor of all faiths.
This G. C. D. is my religion. It is what more than fifty years of thought and experience has winnowed out for me. It is my religion. And I think I glimpse what Emerson meant when he wrote that “all good men are of one religion.”
And the matter can be reduced to yet plainer terms. There is but “one thing needful,” and there’s no use being “careful and troubled about many things.” That one thing is to do right.
To do Right and not Wrong will save any man’s soul, and if he believes any doctrine that implies doing wrong he is lost.
So, let a man of twenty-one resolve, and keep his purpose, that, no matter what comes, no matter how mixed his theology may be, no matter what may be the rewards of wrong-doing, or the perils and losses of right-doing, he will do right; then, if there is any moral law in the universe, that man must sometime, somewhere, arrive at his inward triumph, his spiritual victory and peace.
And the corollary of this is that if I have done wrong the best and only way to cure it is to quit doing wrong and begin to do right. If any man will stick to this, make it his anchor in times of storm, his pole-star in nights of uncertainty, he will cast out of his life that which is life’s greatest enemy—Fear. He need not fear man nor woman, nor governments nor mischief-makers, nor the devil nor God. He will be able to say with the accent of sincerity that word of William Ernest Henley, to me the greatest spiritual declaration in any language: [Editor's note: this is Invictus]
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from Pole to Pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Beneath the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Let me repeat that I have not been telling what I did with the implication that the youth of twenty-one would do well to follow me. I did not do all these things. Far from it! I wish I had. I only say that if I were twenty-one, as I now see life, I would do as I have here suggested. But perhaps I would not. I might go about barking my shins and burning my fingers, making idiotic experiments in the endeavour to prove that I was an exception to all the rules, and knew a little more than all the ancients. So let not the young man be discouraged if he has committed follies; for there seems to emerge a peculiar and vivid wisdom from error, from making an ass of one’s self, and all that, more useful to one’s own life than any wisdom he can get from sages or copybooks.
In what I have written I have not tried to indicate the art of “getting on,” or of acquiring riches or position. These usually are what is meant by success. But success is of two kinds, outward and inward, or apparent and real. Outward success may depend somewhat upon what is in you, but it depends more upon luck. It is a gambling game. And it is hardly worth a strong man’s while. Inward and real success, on the contrary, is not an affair of chance at all, but is as certain as any natural law. Any human being that will observe the laws of life as carefully as successful business men observe the laws of business will come to that inward poise and triumph which is life’s happiest crown, as certainly as the stars move in their courses.
I would, therefore, if I were twenty-one, study the art of life. It is good to know arithmetic and geography and bookkeeping and all practical matters, but it is better to know how to live, how to spend your day so that at the end of it you shall be content, how to spend your life so that you feel it has been worth while.
If I were Twenty-One I would determine, even if I could never be anything else in the world, that I would be a thoroughbred←21→ THE END
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