For a truly sincere life one talent is needed — the ability to steer clear of the forces that would warp and conventionalize and harden the personality and its own free choices and bents. All the kingdoms of this world lie waiting to claim the allegiance of the youth who enters on the career of life, and sentinels and guards stand ready to fetter and enslave him the moment he steps unwarily over the wall out of the free open road of his own individuality. And unless he dodges them and keeps straight on his path, dusty and barren though it may be, he will find himself chained a prisoner for life, and little by little his own soul will rot out of him and vanish. The wise men of the past have often preached the duty of this open road, they have summoned youth to self-reliance, but they have not paid sufficient heed to the enemies that would impede his progress. They have been too intent on encouraging him to be independent and lead his own life, to point out to him the direction from which the subtle influences that might control him would come. As a result, young men have too often believed that they were hewing out a career for themselves when they were really simply offering themselves up to some institutional Moloch to be destroyed, or, at the best, passively allowing an alien destiny to work them out. Youth enters the big world of acting and thinking, a huge bundle of susceptibilities, keenly alive and plastic, and so eager to achieve and perform that it will accept almost the first opportunity that comes to it. Now each youth has his own unique personality and interweaving web of tendencies and inclinations, such as no other person has ever had before. It is essential that these trends and abilities be so stimulated by experience that they shall be developed to their highest capacity. And they can usually be depended upon, if freedom and opportunity are given, to grow of themselves upward towards the sun and air. If a youth does not develop, it is usually because his nature has been blocked and thwarted by the social pressures to which every one of us is subjected, and which only a few have the strength or the wisdom to resist. These pressures come often in the guise of good fortune, and the youth meets them halfway, goes with them gladly, and lets them crush him. He will do it all, too, with so easy a conscience, for is not this meeting the world and making it one's own? It is meeting the world, but it is too often only to have the world make the youth its own.
Our spiritual guides and leaders, then, have been too positive, too heartening, if such a thing be possible. They have either not seen the dangers that lurked in the path, or they have not cared to discourage and depress us by pointing them out. Many of our modern guides, in their panegyrics on success, even glorify as aids on the journey these very dangers themselves, and urge the youth to rely upon them, when he should have been warned not to gaze at all on the dazzling lure. The youth is urged to imitate men who are themselves victims of the very influences that he should dodge, and doctrines and habits are pressed upon him which he should ceaselessly question and never once make his own unless he is sure that they fit him. He will have need to be ever alert to the dangers, and, in early youth at least, would better think more of dodging them than of attaining the goal to which his elders tempt him. Their best service to him would be to warn him against themselves and their influence, rather than to encourage him to become like them.
The dangers that I speak of are the influences and inducements which come to youth from family, business, church, society, state, to compromise with himself and become in more or less degree conformed to their pattern and type. "Be like us!" they call cry, "it is easiest and safest thus! We guarantee you popularity and fortune at so small a price — only the price of your best self!" Thus they seduce him insidiously rather than openly attack him. They throw their silky chains over him and draw him in. Or they press gently but ceaselessly upon him, rubbing away his original roughness, polishing him down, moulding him relentlessly, and yet with how kindly and solicitous a touch, to their shape and manner. As he feels their caressing pressure against him in the darkness, small wonder is it that he mistakes it for the warm touch of friends and guides. They are friends and guides who always end, however, by being masters and tyrants. They force him to perpetuate old errors, to keep alive dying customs, to breathe new life into vicious prejudices, to take his stand against the saving new. They kill his soul, and then use the carcass as a barricade against the advancing hosts of light. They train him to protect and conserve their own outworn institutions when he should be the first, by reason of his clear insight and freedom from crusted prejudice, to attack them.
The youth's only salvation lies, then, in dodging these pressures. It is not his business to make his own way in life so much as it is to prevent someone else from making it for him. His business is to keep the way clear, and the sky open above his head. Then he will grow and be nurtured according to his needs and his inner nature. He must fight constantly to keep from his head those coverings that institutions and persons in the guise of making him warm and safe throw over his body. If young people would spend half the time in warding away the unfavorable influences that they now spend in conscientiously planning what they are going to be, they would achieve success and maintain their individuality. It seems, curiously enough, that one can live one's true life and guarantee one's individuality best in this indirect way — not by projecting one's self out upon the world aggressively, but by keeping the track clear along which one's true life may run. A sane, well-rounded, original life is attained not so much by taking thought for it as by the dodging of pressures that would limit and warp its natural growth. The youth must travel the straight road serenely, confident that "his own will come to him." All he must strive for is to recognize his own when it does come, and to absorb and assimilate it. His imagination must be large enough to envisage himself and his own needs. This wisdom, however, comes to too many of us only after we are hopelessly compromised, after we are encrusted over so deeply that, even if we try to break away, our struggles are at the expense of our growth. The first duty of self-conscious youth is to dodge the pressures, his second to survey the world eagerly to see what is "his own." If he goes boldly ahead at first to seek his own, without first making provision for silencing the voices that whisper continually at his side, "Conform!" — he will soon find himself on alien ground, and, if not a prisoner, a naturalized citizen before he has time to think.
Nor is this a mere invitation to whimsicality and eccentricity. These epithets, in our daily life, are somewhat loosely used for all sorts of behavior ranging from nonconformity to pure freakishness. If we really had more original, unspoiled people in the world, we should not use these terms so frequently. If we really had more people who were satisfying their healthy desires, and living the life that their whole inner conscience told them was best, we should not find eccentric or queer the self-sustaining men and women who live without regard to prejudice. And all real whimsicality is a result rather of the thwarting of individuality than of letting it run riot. It is when persons of strong personality are subjected to pressures heavier than they can bear that we get real outbursts of eccentricity. For something unnatural has occurred, a spontaneous flow and progress has been checked. Your eccentric man par excellence is your perfectly conventional man, who never offends in the slightest way by any original action or thought. For he has yielded to every variety of pressure that has been brought to bear upon him, and his original nature has been completely obscured. The pressures have been, however, uniform on every side, so that they have seemingly canceled each other. But this equilibrium simply conceals the forces that have crushed him. The conventional person is, therefore, not the most natural but the most unnatural of persons. His harmlessness is a proof of his tremendous eccentricity. He has been rubbed down smooth on all sides like a rock until he has dropped noiselessly into his place in society. But at what a cost does he obtain this peace! At the cost of depersonalizing himself, and sacrificing his very nature, which, as in every normal person, is precious and worthy of permanance and growth. This treason to one's self is perhaps the greatest mistake of youth, the one unpardonable sin. It is worse than sowing one's wild oats, for they are reaped and justice is done; or casting one's bread upon the waters, for that returneth after many days. But this sin is the throwing away in willfulness or carelessness the priceless jewel of selfhood, and with no return, either of recompense or punishment.
How early and insidious is the pressure upon us to conform to some type whose fitness we have not examined, but which we are forced to take strictly on authority! On the children in the family what a petty tyranny of ideas and manners is imposed! Under the guise of being brought up, how many habits of doubtful value we learned, how many moral opinions of doubtful significance we absorbed, how many strange biases that harass and perplex us in our later life we had fastened upon our minds, how many natural and beautiful tendencies we were forced to suppress! The tyranny of manners, of conventional politness, of puritanical taboos, or superstitious religion, were all imposed upon us for no reason that our elders could devise, but simply that they in turn had had them imposed upon them. Much of our early education was as automatic and unconscious as the handing down of the immemorial traditions in a primitive savage tribe. Now I am far from saying that this household tradition of manners and morals is not an excellent thing for us to acquire. Many of the habits are so useful that it is a wise provision that we should obtain them as naturally as the air we breathe. And it is a pressure that we could not, at that age, avoid, even if we would. But this childhood influence is a sample of true pressure, for it is both unconscious and irresistable. Were we to infringe any of the rules laid down for us, the whole displeasure of the family descended upon our heads; they seemed to vie with each other in expressing their disapproval of our conduct. So, simply to retain our self-respect, we were forced into their pattern of doing things, and for no other reason than that it was their pattern.
This early pressure, however, was mild in comparison with what we experienced as we grew older. We found then that more and more of our actions came insensibly but in some way or other before this court of appeal. We could choose our friends, for instance, only with reservations. If we consorted with little boys who were not clean, or who came from the less reputable portions of the town, we were made to feel the vague family disapproval, perhaps not outspoken, but as an undercurrent to their attitude. And usually we did not need flagrantly to offend to be taught the need of judicious selection, for we were sensitive to the feeling that we knew those around us would entertain, and so avoided the objectionable people from a diffused feeling that they were not "nice." When we grew old enough to move in the youthful social world, we felt this circle of tyranny suddenly widen. It was our "set" now that dictated our choices. The family pressure had been rather subtle and uneasy; this was bold and direct. Here were the most arbitrary selections and disqualifications, girls and boys being banned for no imaginable reason except that they were slightly out of the ordinary, and our little world circumscribed by a rigid public opinion which punished nonconformity by expulsion. If we tried to dodge this pressure and assert our own privileges of making lovers and friends, we were soon delivered an ultimatum, and if we refused to obey, we were speedily cast out into utter darkness, where, strange to say, we lacked even the approbation of the banned. Sometimes we were not allowed to choose our partners to whom we paid our momentary devotions, sometimes we were not allowed to give them up. The price we paid for free participation in the parties and dances and love-affairs of this little social world of youth was an almost military obedience to the general feeling of propriety and suitability of our relationships with others, and to the general will of those in whose circle we went. There was apt to be a rather severe code of propriety, which bore especially upon the girls. Many frank and natural actions and expressions of opinion were thus inhibited, from no real feeling of self-respect, but from the vague, uncomfortable feeling that somebody would not approve. This price for society was one that we were all willing to pay, but it was a bad training. Our own natural likings and dislikings got blunted; we ceased to seek our own own kind of people and enjoy them and ourselves in our own way, but we "went with" the people that our companions thought we ought to "go with," and we played the games and behaved generally as they thought we ought to.
The family rather corroborated this pressure than attempted to fortify us in our own individuality. For their honor seemed to be involved in what we did, and if all our walk in life was well pleasing to those around us, they were well pleased with us. And all through life, as long at least as we were protected under the sheltering wing of the family, its members constituted a sort of supreme court over all our relations in life. In resisting the other pressures that were brought to bear on us, we rarely found that we had the family's undivided support. They loved, like all social groups, a smoothly running person, and as soon as they found us doing unconventional things or having unusual friends they were vaguely uneasy, as if they were harboring in their midst some unpredictable animal who would draw upon them the disapproving glances of the society around them. The family philosophy has a horror for the "queer." The table-board is too often a place where the eccentricities of the world get thoroughly aired. The dread of deviation from accepted standards is impressed upon us from our youth up. The threat which always brought us to terms was — "If you do this, you will be considered queer!" There was very little fight left in us after that.
But the family has other formidable weapons for bringing us to terms. It knows us through and through as none of our friends and enemies know us. It sees us in undress, when all our outward decorations of spirit and shams and pretenses are thrown off, and it is not deceived by the apologies and excuses that pass muster in the world at large and even to our own conscience. We can conceal nothing from it; it knows all our weakest spots and vulnerable feelings. It does not hesitate to take shameless advantage of that knowledge. Its most powerful weapon is ridicule. It can adopt no subtler method, for we in our turn know all its own vulnerabilities. And where the world at large is generally too polite to employ ridicule upon us, but works with gentler methods of approbation and coldness, our family associates feel no such compunction. Knowing us as they do, they are able to make that ridicule tell. We may have longings for freedom and individuality, but it is a terrible dilemma that faces us. Most men would rather be slaves than butts; they would rather be corralled with the herd than endure its taunts at their independence.
Besides the pressure on a youth or girl to think the way the family does, there is often the pressure brought upon them to sacrifice themselves for its benefit. I do not mean to deprecate that perfectly natural and proper desire to make some return for the care and kindness that have been lavished upon them. But the family insistence often goes much further than this. It demands not only that its young people shall recompense it for what it has done for them, but that they do it in the kind of work and vocation that shall seem proper to it. How often, when the youth or girl is on the point of choosing a congenial occupation or profession, does the family council step in and, with the utmost apparent good-will in the world, dictate differently! And too often the motives are really policy or ambition, or, at best, sheer prejudice. If the youth be not persuaded, then he must bear the brunt of lonely toil without the sympathy or support of those most dear to him. Far harder is the lot of the young woman. For there is still so much prejudice against a girl's performing useful work in society, apart from her God-given duty of getting married, that her initiative is crushed at the very beginning. The need of cultivating some particular talent or interest, even if she has not to earn her living, seems to be seldom felt. Yet women, with their narrower life, have a greater need of sane and vigorous spiritual habits than do men. It is imperative that a girl be prevented from growing up into a useless, fleshly, and trivial woman, of the type one sees so much of nowadays. Even if a girl does marry, a few intellectual interests and gifts and tastes will not be found to detract from her charm or usefulness. The world never needed so much as it does today women of large hearts and large minds, whose home and sphere are capable of embracing something beyond the four corner of their kitchen. And the world can get such women only by allowing them the initiative and opportunity to acquire varied interests and qualities while they are young.
The family often forges sentimental bonds to keep it living together long after the motive and desire have departed. There is no group so uncongenial as an uncongenial family. The constant rubbing together accentuates all the divergencies and misunderstandings. Yet sometimes a family whose members are hopelessly mismated will cling together through sheer inertia or through a conscientious feeling of duty. And duty to too many of us is simply a stimulus to that curious love for futile suffering that forms some of the darker qualities of the puritan soul. Family duty may not only warp and mutilate many a life that would bloom healthily outside in another environment, but it may actually mean the pauperization of the weaker members. The claims of members of the family upon each other are often overwhelming, and still more often quite fictitious in their justice. Yet that old feeling of the indissolubility of the family will often allow the weak, who might, if forced to shift for themselves, become strong, to suck the lifeblood from the stronger members. Cooperation, when it is free and spontaneous and on a basis of congeniality, is the foundation of all social life and progress, but forced cohesion can do little good. The average family is about as well mated as any similar group would be, picked out at random from society. And this means, where the superstition of indissolubility is still effective, that the members share not only all the benefits, but also all each others' shortcomings and irritations. Family life thus not only presses upon its youth to conform to its customs and habits and to the opinions of the little social world in which it lives, but also drags its youth down with its claims, and warps it by its tension of uncongeniality, checks its spontaneity by its lack of appreciation, and injures its soul by friction and misunderstanding.
This family pressure upon youth is serious, and potent for much good and evil in his later life. It is necessary that he understand how to analyze it without passion or prejudice, and find out just how he can dodge the unfavorable pressure without injury to the love that is borne him or the love that he bears to the others. But let him not believe that his love is best shown by submission. It is best shown by a resolute determination and assertion of his own individuality. Only he must know, without the cavil of a doubt, what that individuality is; he must have a real imaginative anticipation of its potentialities. Only with this intuition will he know where to dodge and how to dodge.
It is true that the modern generation seems to be changing all this. Family cohesion and authority no longer mean what they did even twenty years ago. The youth of today are willful, selfish, heartless, in their rebellion. They are changing the system blindly and blunderingly. They feel the pressure, and without stopping to ask questions or analyze the situation, they burst the doors and flee away. Their seeming initiative is more animal spirits than anything else. They have exploded the myth that their elders have any superhuman wisdom of experience to share with them, or any incontrovertible philosophy of life with which to guide their wandering footsteps. But it must be admitted that most have failed so far to find a wisdom and a philosophy to take its place. They have too often thrown away the benefits of family influence on account of mere trivialities of misunderstanding. They have not waited for the real warpings of initiative, the real pressure of prejudice, but have kicked up their heels at the first breath of authority. They have not so much dodged the pressure as fled it altogether. Instead of being intent on brushing away the annoying obstacles that interfered with the free growth of their own worthier selves, they have mistaken the means for the end, and have merely brushed off the interferences, without first having any consciousness of that worthier self. Now of course there is no solution. It is only as they substitute for the authority of their own, crystallized out of their own ideals and purposes, that they will gain or help others to gain. For lack of a vision the people perish. For lack of a vision of their own personalities, and the fresh, free, aggressive, forward, fearless, radical life that we all ought to lead, and could lead if we only had the imagination for it, the youth of today will cast off the narrowing fetters of authority only to wander without any light at all. This is not to say that this aimless wandering is not better than the prison-house, but it is to say that the emancipation of the spirit is insufficient without a new means of spiritual livelihood to take its place. The youth of today cannot rest on their liberation; they must see their freedom as simply the setting free of forces within themselves for a cleaner, sincerer life, and for radical work in society. The road is cut out before them by pioneers; they have but to let themselves grow out in that direction.
I have painted the family pressures in this somewhat lurid hue because they are patterns of the other attacks which are made upon the youth as he meets the world. The family is a little microcosm, a sheltered group where youth feels all those currents of influence that sway men in their social life. Some of them are exaggerated, some perverted, but they are most of them there in that little world. It is no new discovery that in family life one can find heaven or one can find hell. The only pressure that is practically absent in the family is the economic pressure, by which I mean the inducements, and even necessities, that a youth is under of conforming to codes or customs and changing his ideals and ideas, when he comes to earn his livelihood. This pressure affects him as soon as he looks for an opening, as he calls it, in which to make his living. At that time all this talk of natural talents or bents or interests begins to sound far-away and ideal. He soon finds that these things have no commercial value in themselves and will go but a short way towards providing him with his living. The majority of us "go to work" as soon our short "education" is completed, if not before, and we go not by choice, but wherever opportunity is given. Hence the ridiculous misfits, the apathy, the restlessness and discontent. The world of young people around us seems too largely to be one where both men and girls are engaged in work in which they have no interest, and for which they have no aptitude. They are mournfully fettered to their work; all they can seem to do is to make the best of it, and snatch out of the free moments what pleasure and exhilaration they can. They have little hope for a change. There is too much of a scramble for places in this busy, crowded world, to make a change anything but hazardous. It is true that restlessness often forces a change, but it is rarely for the better, or in the line of any natural choice or interest. One leaves one's job, but then one takes thankfully the first job that presents itself; the last state may be worse than the first. By this economic pressure most of us are sidetracked, turned off from our natural path, and fastened irrevocably to some work that we could only acquire an interest in at the expense of our souls.
It is a pressure, too, that cannot easily be dodged. We can frankly recognize our defeat, plunge boldly at the work and make it a part of ourselves; this course of action, which most of us adopt, is really, however, simply an unconditional surrender. We can drift along apathetically, without interest either in our work or our own personalities; this course is even more disastrous. Or we can quietly wait until we have found the vocation that guarantees the success of our personalities; this course is an ideal that is possible to very few. And yet, did we but know it, a little thought at the beginning would often have prevented the misfit, and a little boldness when one has discovered the misfit would often have secured the favorable change. That self-recognition, which is the only basis for a genuine spiritual success in life, is the thing that too many of us lack. The apathy comes from a real ignorance of what our true work is. Then we are twice a slave — a prey to our circumstances and a prey to our ignorance.
Like all discoveries, what one's work is can be found only by experiment. But this can often be an imaginative experiment. One can take an "inventory of one's personality," and discover one's interests, and the kind of activity one feels at home with or takes joy in. Yet it is true that there are many qualities which cannot be discovered by the imagination, which need the fairy touch of actual use to develop them. There is no royal road to this success. Here the obstacles are usually too thick to be dodged. We do not often enough recognize the incredible stupidity of our civiliation where so much of the work is uninteresting and monotonous. That we should consider it a sort of triumph that a man like Mr. John Burroughs should have been able to live his life as he chose, travel along his own high road, and develop himself in his own natural direction, is a curious reflection on our ideals of success and on the incompleteness of our civilization. Such a man has triumphed, however, because he has known what to dodge. He has not been crushed by the social opinion of his little world, or lured by specious success, or fettered by his "job," or hoodwinked by prejudice. He has kept his spirit clear and pure straight through life. It would be well for modern youth if it could let an ideal like this color their lives, and permeate all their thoughts and ambitions. It would be well if they could keep before them such an ideal as a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night.
If we cannot dodge this economic pressure, at least we can face it. If we are situated so that we have no choice in regard to our work, we may still resist the influences which its uncongeniality would bring to bear upon us. This is not done by forcing an interest in it, or liking for it. If the work is socially wasteful or useless or even pernicious, as so much business and industrial work today is, it is our bounden duty not to be interested in it or to like it. We should be not playing our right place in society if we enjoyed such a prostitution of energies. One of the most insidious of the economic pressures is this awaking the interest of youth in useless and wasteful work, work that takes away energy from production to dissipate in barter and speculation and all the thousand ways that men have discovered of causing money to flow from one pocket to another without the transference of any fair equivalent of real wealth. We can dodge these pressures not by immolating ourselves, but by letting the routine work lie very lightly on our soul. We can understand clearly the nature and effects of this useless work we are doing, and keep it from either alluring or smothering us. We can cultivate a disinterested aloofness towards it, and keep from breathing its poisonous atmosphere. The extra hours we can fill with real interests, and make them glow with an intensity that will make our life almost as rich as if we were wholly given over to a real lifework. We can thus live in two worlds, one of which is the more precious because it is one of freedom from very real oppression. And that oppression will seem light because it has the reverse shield of liberty. If we do drudgery, it must be our care to see that it does not stifle us. The one thing needful in all our work and play is that we should always be on top, that our true personality should always be in control. Our life must not be passive, running simply by the momentum furnished by another; it must have the motive power within itself; although it gets the fuel from the stimulation of the world about it, the steam and power must be manufactured within itself.
These counsels of aloofness from drudgery suggest the possibilities of avoiding the economic pressures where they are too heavy completely to dodge, and where the work is an irrevocable misfit. But the pressures of success are even more deadly than those of routine. How early is one affected by that first pressure of worldly opinion which says that lack of success in business or a profession is disgraceful! The one devil of our modern world is failure, and many are the charms used by the medicine man to ward him away. If we lived in a state of society where virtue was its own reward, where our actions were automatically measured and our rewards duly proportioned to our efforts, a lack of success would be a real indication of weakness and flaw, or, at best, ill-preparation. But where business success is largely dependent on the possession of capital, a lucky risk, the ability to intimidate or deceive, and where professional success is so often dependent upon self-assertion or some irrelevant but pleasing trait of personality, failure means nothing more than bad luck, or, at most, inability to please those clients to whom one has made one's appeal. To dodge this pressure of fancied failure and humiliation is to have gone a long way towards guaranteeing one's real success. We are justified in adopting a pharisaical attitude towards success — "Lord, I thank thee that I have not succeeded as other men have!" To have judged one's self by the inner standards of truth to one's own personality, to count the consciousness of having done well, regardless of the corroboration of a public, as success, is to have avoided this most discouraging of pressures.
It is even doubtful whether business or professional success, except in the domain of science and art, can be attained without a certain betrayal of soul. The betrayal may have been small, but at some point one has been compressed, one has yielded to alien forces and conformed to what the heart did not give assent to. It may be that one has kept silent when one should have spoken, that one has feigned interests and enthusiasms, or done work that one knew was idle and useless, in order to achieve some goal; but always that goal has been reached not spontaneously but under a foreign pressure. More often than not the fortunate one has not felt the direct pressure, has not been quite conscious of the sacrifice, but only vaguely uneasy and aware that all was not right within him, and has won his peace only by drugging his uneasiness with visions of the final triumph. The pressure is always upon him to keep silent and conform. He must not only adopt all the outward forms and ceremonies, as in the family and social life, but he must also adopt the traditional beliefs.
The novice soon finds that he is expected to defend the citadel, even against his own heresies. The lawyer who finds anomalies in the law, injustice in the courts, is not encouraged to publish abroad his facts, or make proposals for reform. The student who finds antiquated method, erroneous hypotheses in his subject, is not expected to use his knowledge and his genius to remodel the study. The minister who comes upon new and living interpretations for his old creeds is not encouraged to speak forth the truth that is in him. Nor is the business man who finds corrupt practices in his business encouraged to give the secrets away. There is a constant social pressure on these "reformers" to leave things alone.
And this does not arise from any corrupt connivance with the wrong, or from any sympathy with the evildoers. The cry arises equally from the corrupt and the holy, from the men who are responsible for the abuses and those who are innocent, from those who know of them and those who do not. It is simply the instinctive reaction of the herd against anything that savors of the unusual; it is the tendency of every social group simply to resist change. This alarm at innovation is universal, from college presidents to Catholic peasants, in fashionable club or sewing circle or political party. On the radical there is immediately brought, without examination, without reason or excuse, the whole pressure or the organization to stultify his vision and force him back into the required grooves. The methods employed are many: a warning is issued against him as being unsound and unsafe; his motive is to make trouble, or revenge himself on the directors for some slight; finally he is solemnly pilloried as an "enemy of the people." Excellent reasons are discovered for his suppression. Effective working of an organization requires cooperation, but also subordination; in the interests of efficiency, therefore, individual opinion cannot be allowed full sway. The reputation of the organization before the world depends on its presenting a harmonious and united front; internal disagreements and criticisms tend to destroy the respect of the public. Smoothness of working is imperative; a certain individual liberty must, therefore, be sacrificed for the success of the organization. And if these plausible excuses fail, there is always the appeal to authority and to tried and tested experience. Now all these reasons are simply apologies brought up after the fact to justify the first instinctive reaction. What they all mean is this, and only this: He would unsettle things; away with him!
In olden times, they had sterner ways of enforcing these pressures. But although the stake and dungeon have disappeared, the spirit of conservatism does not seem to have changed very much. Educated men still defend the hoariest abuses, still stand sponsor for utterly antiquated laws and ideals. That is why the youth of this generation has to be so suspicious of those who seem to speak authoritatively. He knows not whom he can trust, for few there are who speak from their own inner conviction. Most of our leaders and moulders of public opinion speak simply as puppets pulled by the strings of the conservative bigotry of their class or group. It is well that the youth of today should know this, for the knowledge will go far towards steeling him against that most insidious form of pressure that comes from the intellectual and spiritual prestige of successful and honored men. When youth sees that a large part of their success has been simply their succumbing to social pressure, and that their honor is based largely on the fact that they do not annoy vested interests with proposals or agitations for betterment, he will seek to discover new standards of success, and find his prophets and guides among the less fortunate, perhaps, but among those who have retained their real integrity. This numbing palsy of conservative assent which steals over so many brilliant and sincere young men as they are subjected to the influence of prestige and authority in their profession is the most dangerous disease that threatens youth. It can be resisted only by constant criticism and candid vigilance. "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good," should be the motto of the intellectual life. Only by testing and comparing all the ideals that are presented to one is it possible to dodge that pressure of authority that would crush the soul's original enthusiasms and beliefs. Not doubt but convention is the real enemy of youth.
Yet these spiritual pressures are comparatively easy to dodge when one is once awake to them. It is the physical pressure that those in power are able to bring to bear upon the dissenter that constitutes the real problem. The weak man soon becomes convinced of his hardihood and audacity in supposing that his ideas could be more valuable than the running tradition, and recants his heresies. But those who stick stiff-neckedly out are soon crushed. When the youth is settled in life, has trained for his profession and burned his bridges behind him, it means a great deal to combat authority. For those in power can make use of the economic pressure to force him to conformity. It is the shame of our universities that they are giving constant illustrations of this use of arbitrary power, directed usually against nonconformity in social and political opinion. Recent examples show the length to which even these supposedly enlightened institutions are willing to go to prevent social heresy in their midst. Often such harsh measures are not needed. A subtle appeal to a man's honor is effective. "While you are a member of society," it is said, "it is your duty to think in harmony with its ideals and policies. If you no longer agree with those ideals, it is your duty to withdraw. You can fight honorably for your own ideas only from the outside." All that need be said about this doctrine, so fair and reasonable on the surface, is that it contains all the philosophic support that would perpetuate the evil of the world forever. For it means attacking vested evil from the weakest vantage-point; it means willfully withdrawing to the greatest distance, shooting one's puny arrows at the citadel, and then expecting to capture it. It means also to deny any possibility of progress within the organization itself. For as soon as dissent from the common inertia developed, it would be automatically eliminated. It is a principle, of course, that plays directly into the hands of the conservators. It is an appeal to honor that is dishonorable. Let is seduce no man's sincerity!
The principle object of every organization, as every youth soon discovers who feels dissatisfaction with the policies of church, club, college, or party, is to remain true to type. Each is organized with a central vigilance committee, whose ostensible function is direction, but whose real business is to resist threatening change and keep matters as they are. The ideal is smoothness; every part of the machine is expected to run along in its well-oiled groove. Youths who have tried to introduce their new ideas into such organizations know the weight of this fearful resistance. It seems usually as if all the wisdom and experience of these elders had taught them only the excellence of doing nothing at all. Their favorite epithet for those who have individual opinions is "troublemakers," forgetting that men do not run the risk of the unpopularity and opprobrium that aggressiveness always causes, for the sheer love of making trouble. Through an instinct of self-preservation, such an organization always places loyalty above truth, the permanence of the organization above the permanence of its principles. Even in churches we are told that to alter one's opinion of a creed to which one has once given allegiance is basely to betray one's higher nature. These are the pressures that keep wavering men in the footpaths where they have once put their feet, and stunts their truer, growing selves. How many souls false loyalty has blunted none can say; perhaps almost as many as false duty!
In the dodging of these pressures many a man finds the real spiritual battle of his life. They are a challenge to all his courage and faith. Unless he understands their nature, his defeat will bring despair or cynicism. When the group is weak and he is strong, he may resist successfully, press back in his turn, actually create a public opinion that will support him, and transfuse it all with his new spirit and attitude. Fortunate, indeed, is he who can not only dodge these pressures but dissolve them! If he is weak and his efforts are useless, and the pressure threatens to crush him, he would better withdraw and let the organization go to its own diseased perdition. If he can remain within without sacrifice to his principles, this is well, for then he has a vantage-ground for the enunciation of those principles. Eternal vigilance, however, is the price of his liberty.
The secret ambition of the group seems to be to turn out all its members as nearly alike as possible. It seems to create a type to which all new adherents shall be moulded. Each group, then, that we have relations with is ceaselessly working to mould us to its type and pattern. It is this marvellous unseen power that a group has of forming after its own image all that come under its influence, that conquers men. It has the two instincts of self-preservation and propagation strongly developed, and we tend unthinkingly to measure its value in terms of its success in the expression of those instincts. Rather should it be measured always in terms of its ability to create and stimulate varied individuality. This is the new ideal of social life. This is what makes it so imperative that young men of today should recognize and dodge the pressures that would thwart the assertion of this ideal. The aim of the group must be to cultivate personality, leaving open the road for each to follow his own. The bond of cohesion will be the common direction in which those roads point, but this is far from saying that all the travelers must be alike. It is enough that there be a common aim and a common ideal.
Societies are rarely content with this, however; they demand a close mechanical similarity, and a conformity to a reactionary and not progressive type. If we would be resolute in turning our gaze towards the common aim, and dodging the pressure of the common pattern, our family, business, and social life would be filled with a new spirit. We can scarcely imagine the achievement and liberation that would result. Individuality would come to its own; it would no longer be suspect. Youth would no longer be fettered and bound, but would come to its own as the leaven and even leader of life. Men would worship progress as they now worship stagnation; their ideal in working together would be a living effectiveness instead of a mechanical efficiency.
This gospel is no call to ease and comfort. It is rather one of peril. The youth of this generation will not be so lightly seduced, or go so innocently into the bonds of conservatism and convention, under the impression that they are following the inspired road to success. Their consciences will be more delicate. They know now the dangers that confront them and the road they are called on to tread. It is not an easy road. It is beset with opportunities for real eccentricity, for selfishness, for willfulness, for mere bravado. It would be surprising, after the long premium that has been placed on the pattern, not to see a reaction in favor of sheer freakishness. Many of our modern radicals are examples of this reaction. Yet their method is so sound, their goal so clear and noble, their spirit so sincere, that they are true pioneers of the new individuality. Their raciness is but the raciness of all pioneers everywhere. And much of their irresponsibility is a result of that intolerable pressure against which they are revolting. They have dodged it, but it dogs them and concentrates itself sullenly behind them to punish them for their temerity. The scorn of the world hurts and hampers them. That ridicule which the family employed against deviation is employed in all large social movements against the innovators. Yet slowly and surely the new social ideal makes its way.
It is not a call to the surrendering of obligations, in family or business or profession, but it is a call to the criticism of obligations. Youth must distinguish carefully between the essential duties and the non-essential, between those which make for the realization of the best common ideals, and those which make merely for the maintenance of a dogma or unchallenged superstition. By resisting the pressures that would warp, do we really best serve society; by allowing our free personality to develop, do we contribute most to the common good. We must recognize that our real duty is always found running in the direction of our worthiest desires. No duty that runs rough-shod over the personality can have a legitimate claim upon us. We serve by being as well as by doing.
It is easy to distort this teaching into a counsel to unbridled selfishness. And that, of course, is the risk. But shall we not dare to take that risk? It may be also that in our care to dodge the pressures, we may lose all the inestimable influences of good that come along mixed in with the hurtful. But shall we not take the risk? Our judgments can only grow by exercise; we can only learn by constantly discriminating. Self-recognition is necessary to know one's road, but, knowing the road, the price of the mistakes and perils is worth paying. The following of that road will be all the discipline one needs. Discipline does not mean being moulded by outside forces, but sticking to one's road against the forces that would deflect or bury the soul. People speak of finding one's niche in the world. Society, as we have seen, is one vast conspiracy for carving one into the kind of a statue it likes, and then placing it in the most convenient niche it has. But for us, not the niche but the open road, with the spirit always traveling, always criticizing, always learning, always escaping the pressures that threaten its integrity. With its own fresh power it will keep strong and true to the journey's end.
Monadnock Valley Press > Bourne