MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
When I wrote to you about the dangers of evil companions, I did not wish you to suppose that you must avoid all society. This would be very wrong, and would make you mopish and sullen. I desire you to frequent the company of all such young friends as can do you good; and I hope there are some whose example you would do well to follow. When you find such a one, who is diligent, kind, respectful, and serious, you will act wisely to be as much as possible with him, and to follow in his steps.
It is very true, as is often said, that example speaks louder than words. We often think that certain things are impossible until we see them done by others, and then we begin to attempt them ourselves. There is something in our nature which leads us to imitate the example of those around us. It is thus that most of the boys in a school will have the same sports and pastimes; one learns from another, until they all go in the same path. Now you should take care to follow none but good examples. And here you will have to be very cautious, for our evil hearts lead us more naturally to what is evil, than to what is virtuous. There is nothing base or low in copying the good example of your friends. It is in this way that some of the best and greatest men have become what they are.
I would recommend to you to read the lives of people who have been remarkable for their knowledge or their goodness. When these memoirs are well written, it is almost as if we were acquainted with the living people, seeing them act and hearing them speak. There is no kind of reading which is more entertaining than biography, and there is none which is more instructive. In this way you may be constantly setting before your mind the brightest examples, and this will stir you up to be more active in trying to improve. I have never found any books which made me more anxious to excel, than good biographical sketches. When you read of a person who has raised himself from ignorance and obscurity to learning and honor, by his own endeavors, a laudable emulation will lead you to imitate his excellence. Thus the Life of Dr. Franklin has caused many a young mechanic to store his mind with knowledge.
But the best of all biographies are those which are contained in the Holy Scriptures. Have you ever taken notice how much of the Bible is filled with the memoirs of good men? The reason of this no doubt is, that example is so much more powerful than precept. The four gospels contain the memoirs of our Lord Jesus Christ. And they are so beautifully simple, so exact, and so touching, that we seem to see the blessed Redeemer, holy and benevolent, going about doing good, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead. We seem to hear him speaking as never any man spoke, and the influence of his example is most powerful upon the mind of the serious reader.
My dear brother, read these lovely histories every day. Try to frame in your mind all the circumstances of the scenes there described. Endeavor to feel that it is Christ himself who is speaking to you, and let his words sink into your heart. Find out how he acted under all different circumstances, and then copy his example. How did he treat his parents? How did he feel towards the afflicted? How did he act when he was reviled and persecuted? What was his manner as to prayer and devotion? Every hour of the day be careful to ask yourself how the Lord Jesus would have acted under similar circumstances.
It is an advantage for young people to keep company with those who are older and wiser; but there are few youth who have any taste for this kind of society. They are too apt to think that elderly people are sour and gloomy. And sometimes, it cannot be denied that those who are advanced in years do not take pains to gratify the inquiries of the young and to do them good. When, however, you find any aged man who loves to give instruction to the young, and whose example is beautiful and pure, try to be as much with him as possible. I have known such a one.
Benevolus is a man of sixty years. His hair is white with age, and he is too feeble to leave the house. But he is happy, because he has faith in Christ, and enjoys the love of God shed abroad in his heart. There is nothing peevish or morose about him, and he welcomes the visits of all his young relatives and friends. He delights in teaching them what is good, and in giving them the history of his early days. And all who come into his presence see the excellence of true religion, and the advantage of having a mind stored with useful knowledge.
I have said so much about following good examples, that it will be less needful for me to explain the importance of your setting a good example to others. No one of us is allowed to live for himself aloneóbut we must all endeavor to do good to others. We are commanded to let our light shine before men. You must not suppose that, because you are so young, nobody will follow your example. If you do what is wrong, others of your companions will be encouraged to do the same; and if you do what is right, you may be a blessing to all around you. One boy in a school will often be of service to all the rest, just in this way. I will give you an instance of such a case, and take notice that I sometimes invent names, because I have reasons for not mentioning the individuals.
Tyro was a young lad of about fourteen. He was sent to a school where most of the boys were very idle. They cared but little about the improvement of their minds, and were constantly engaged in sports and mischief. Tyro tried to set them a better example. He got every lesson perfectly, and he assisted others in their tasks. He made it his amusement to read more than was assigned for his lesson, and he induced some of the idle fellows to become diligent. He put them in the way of attempting new studies, and of writing compositions. He persuaded them to form a little society for mutual improvement, and had many little plans of this kind, for their benefit. The consequence was that I never saw a school of the same extent, in which there were so many fine scholars. And I am sure that Tyro was more influential in this than even the teacher himself. Think of this example.
You cannot go through life without having some influence upon others. This influence is either for good or for evil. You may be either a blessing or a curse. Pray and strive that your example may do good to all around you. Endeavor to lead others in the right way, especially the way of religion. You cannot begin this too soon, and in future life, it will be very pleasing for you to look back and see that you had early begun to be useful to your fellow creatures. Ask assistance from above, that you may be enabled to live in this way. And remember that many eyes are fixed upon you, to see how you will act, and that the happiness of your friends, and especially of your affectionate parents, depends greatly upon your conduct.
Your affectionate brother,