The Path – May 1890



When Mr. Judge spoke on this subject some weeks ago, I was forcibly impressed by the truth of what he said as to the minor opportunities of life to the most of us.

There are few to whom come chances for grave decisions, for great sacrifices, for evident heroism; most of us have to learn that difficult lesson, not to despise the day of small things. What we need is, to learn to apply theosophy to the trifles of our daily life, to find nothing too small to be done in the best possible way; and as the Christian would say, "do all things to the glory of God", so we must do all things to the glory of that higher Self that represents to us the Deity. If old George Herbert felt it not beneath his clerical dignity to assert that

"Who sweeps a room as by God’s laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine",

certainly we need not be behind him in humility. And however humble our duties, however small our temptations, however narrow our sphere, there are at least three things which we can all ponder upon; things wherein we may perhaps find something to improve. Faithfulness in our work, helpfulness of others, and the preservation of a cheerful and gracious mood, are three things which concern everybody, women as well as men. There is a beautiful old story of a lady who said that she knew her servant had experienced religion, and when asked why, replied "Because she sweeps under the mats!" Now that is the sort of thing that George Herbert was thinking of when he spoke of "sweeping a room as by God’s laws;" it is not only doing a thing and doing it at the proper time, but doing it with the thoroughness of divine law itself, not superficially and slightingly, but with all the perfection that we are able to give it, for then alone can it be said to us, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." It is not too much to say that every task, no matter how trivial, wrought out conscientiously and with a sense of duty, with not a detail neglected or slurred over, reacts upon the character with a power that it is difficult to estimate. Aristotle defined virtue as a habit of doing the right thing; and every time that we not only do the right thing, but do it in the right way, we increase the strength of that habit, and make it so much the easier to do it again. The men who have succeeded (I do not mean in the eyes of the world, but in the attainment of some lofty ideal) have been men who did things thoroughly, who obeyed the Scripture injunction, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might," not half-heartedly, nor passably, but "with all thy might." Such conduct carries its reward with it, not only in the sense of satisfaction that follows when we have done our very best (and then alone), but also in the unconscious uplifting of our faculties to a higher plane. Let us never indulge ourselves with thinking "It does not matter how we do this, provided it is done"; it does matter, and most of all to ourselves; we are the ones upon whom the carelessness will fall most heavily, even though it seem to come upon others.

And most of all we need to feel that nothing done with the desire to help another is a trifle. It is impossible for us to estimate the far-reaching consequences of our lightest word, nor to tell how what seems to us a little thing, to another may be fraught with the gravest consequences. A child of twelve, whom I know, had her life saved by a little bunch of purple hyacinths. A long and severe illness had brought her to that point of apathy where she was slowly drifting out of life into death, when a friend brought her in these flowers. Their beauty and sweetness roused her fainting spirit and won her back to life, and she knew it herself, child as she was, for she said, "I think those hyacinths have cured me." No one was more astonished than the friend who did the little kindness; "such a trifle", she thought. There is no better rule, it seems to me, than Charles Reade’s favorite maxim, "Put yourself in his place," to teach us how to treat our neighbor. There are so many little courtesies that we omit, so many little acts of kindness that we leave undone, because we don’t put ourselves in his place. In the hurry of our daily life, we neglect many little graces that, if practised, would make the wheels move much more smoothly. The first thing that one notices after returning home from a residence in Italy, for instance, is the roughness of everybody, the want of courtesy in high and low. In Italy, if you enter a shop, you are greeted with a pleasant smile and a cheerful "good morning," you are waited upon with attention, but without servility, and saluted as you go out with another "good morning," and a hope that you will come again. Here, if you say "good morning" on entering, as perhaps you do from force of habit, the much be-frizzed and be-decorated shop-girls stare at you as if you had just escaped from a menagerie of curious animals, and hardly deign to give you what you ask for, they are so busy talking to each other of tonight’s ball or yesterday’s wedding. If you are travelling in Italy, the commonest man will beg your pardon, or ask your permission, if he has occasion to pass you in a railway carriage, and no one gets out without wishing "a pleasant journey" to those who remain. All these things are trifles, but then we know that trifles make up the sum of daily life. I noticed in an "Elevated Railway" car the other day, a young man rise to give a lady his seat, but instead of doing it as most gentlemen do, with a bow and a smile, and thus paying her a compliment in resigning his place, he rose with a sulky expression, turned his back on her, and strolled up the car. The lady looked uncomfortable; — she could not shout "thank you" to his back, and she was thus placed in a false position, and made unable to return a courtesy. Not far off was "a gentleman of the old school" (as we somewhat scornfully say), who gave up his seat over and over again, but always with such a gracious and beaming courtesy that every lady felt personally complimented by the deference paid her sex.

There are few women, as there are few men, who do not have an opportunity every day of imitating the ideal of James Russell Lowell, of whom he wrote —

"She doeth little kindnesses
That most leave undone or despise;
For naught that sets one heart at ease,
Or giveth happiness and peace,
Is low esteemed in her eyes."

The trouble with American life is its hurry; we are so afraid that these minor courtesies will consume a little of the time that is so precious to us all; — but that is a mistake, if we could only bring ourselves to think so. Everything that saves friction expedites motion, and the engineer that had no time to oil his machine would soon find that he had to take time to have it mended.

And when we have exhausted the possibilities of putting ourselves in the place of another, and thereby seeing what we should do for him, when we have lubricated the wheels of life to the best of our ability, there still remains the power to cultivate in ourselves that serene and unperturbed cheerfulness of mood that "makes a sunshine in a shady place." Such a mood spreads itself like oil upon the troubled waters, and insensibly the ruffled waves sink to rest. If we keep our minds fixed upon the eternal verities, of what consequence to us are the little irritations and vexations of our daily lives? They are mere straws upon the stream, to be swept past us in a moment, not worthy to ruffle its placid surface, not capable of breaking its serenity if it move with any strength and volume upon its destined way. Remember the saying of the Eastern sage, which was of equal power to admonish in prosperity and counsel in adversity: — "All these things pass away!" When I was a little girl of seven, my old English nurse used to say to me, when I hurt myself and bemoaned the pain to her, "Never mind, it will be all well before you’re twice married": and I remember that a certain sense of the vastness of time struck my childish imagination so forcibly that I cheered up at once. And what a little child can do, we ought to be able to do too; to realize the smallness of our daily vexations compared with the great sweep of the years, and learn to smile serenely at our passing troubles. Cheerfulness is something we can all practice, even when we find no other chance to help others, and when all our duties have been well and faithfully done. A teacher once told me of a pupil of hers who wrote a composition on "Perseverance," which recounted the experiences of a little girl who "persevered and persevered, until she came to the end of that virtue," and it would be well if we could treat cheerfulness in the same way.

And now, to give this paper a little value, I should like to add some words of John Morley’s, spoken at Manchester Town Hall. In speaking of the average individual, he says that the chances for the gifted few are highest where the average interest, curiosity, capacity, are highest. "The moral of this for you and for me," he adds, "is plain. We cannot, like Beethoven or Handel, lift the soul by the magic of divine melody into the seventh heaven of ineffable vision and hope incommensurable; we cannot, like Newton, weigh the far-off stars in a balance, and measure the heavings of the eternal flood; we cannot, like Voltaire, scorch up what is cruel and false by a word as a flame; nor, like Milton or Burke, awaken men’s hearts with the note of an organ-trumpet; we cannot, like the great saints of the churches and the great sages of the schools, add to those acquisitions of spiritual beauty and intellectual mastery which have, one by one, and little by little, raised man from being no higher than the brute to be only a little lower than the angels. But what we can do — the humblest of us in this hall — is by diligently using our own minds and diligently seeking to extend our own opportunities to others, to help to swell that common tide, on the force and the set of whose currents depends the prosperous voyaging of humanity. When our names are blotted out, and our place knows us no more, the energy of each social service will remain, and so too, let us not forget, will each social dis-service remain, like the unending stream of one of nature’s forces."

The Path