Dealing with Adversity
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
"Tripped up again!"
"Poor fellow! He has a hard time of it. Is he all the way down?"
"I presume so. When he begins to fall, he usually gets to the bottom of the ladder."
It was true; Brantley had tripped again; and was down. He had been climbing bravely for three or four years, and was well up the ladder of prosperity, when in his eagerness to make two rundles of the ladder at a step instead of one — he missed his footing and fell to the bottom. My first knowledge of the fact came through the conversation just recorded. From all I could hear, Brantley's failure was a serious one. I knew him to be honorable and conscientious, and to have a great deal of sensitive pride.
A few days afterwards, while passing the pleasant home where Brantley had been residing, I saw a notice that his house was for sale. A few days later I met him on the street. He did not see me. His eyes were on the pavement; he looked pale and careworn; he walked slowly, and was in deep thought.
"He is of tougher material than most men, if the heart is not all taken out of him," I said in speaking of him to a mutual friend.
"And he is of tougher material," was answered, "that is, of finer material. Brantley is not one of your common men."
"Still, there must be something wrong about him. Some defect of judgment. He is a good climber; but not sure-footed. Or, it may be that beyond a certain height, his head grows dizzy."
"If one gets too eager in any pursuit, he is almost sure to make false steps. I think Brantley became too eager. The steadily widening prospect as he went up, up, up, caused his pulses to move at a quicker rate."
"Too eager, and less scrupulous," I suggested.
"His honor is unstained," said the friend, with some warmth.
"In the degree that a man grows eager in pursuit, he is apt to grow blind to collateral things, and less concerned about the principles involved."
"In some cases that may be true, but is hardly probable in the case of Brantley. I do not believe that he has swerved from integrity in anything."
"It is my belief," I answered, "that if he had not swerved, he would not have fallen. I may be wrong, but cannot help the impression."
"Brantley is an honest man. I will maintain that in the face of everyone," was replied.
"Honest as the world regards honesty. But there are higher than legal standards. What one may consider fair — another may regard as questionable. He has his own standard; and if he falls below that in his dealings with men, he departs from his integrity."
"I have nothing to say for Brantley under that view of the subject," said the friend. "If he has special standards of morality, and does not live up to them, the matter is between himself and his own conscience. We, on the outside, are not his judges."
It so happened that I met Brantley a short time afterwards. The circumstances were favorable, and our interview unreserved. He had sold his house, and a large part of the handsome furniture it contained, and was living in a humbler dwelling. I referred to his changed condition, and spoke of it with regret.
"There is no unnecessary evil," he remarked. "I have long been satisfied on that head. If we lose on one hand — we gain on another. And my experience in life leads me to this conclusion, that the loss is generally in lower things — and the gain in higher things."
I looked into his face, yet bearing the marks of recent trial and suffering, and saw in it the morning dawn.
"Has it been so with you?" I asked.
"Yes, and it has always been so," he answered, without hesitation. "It is painful to be under the surgeon's knife," he added. "We shrink back, shivering, at the sight of his instruments. The flesh is agonized. But when all is over, and the growing tumor, or wasting cancer, which was threatening life, is gone — we rejoice and are glad."
He sighed, and looked sober for a little while, as thought went back, and memory gave too vivid a realization of what had been, and then resumed:
"I can see now, that what seemed to me, and is still regarded by others as a great misfortune — was the best thing that could have taken place. I have lost — but I have gained; and the gain is greater than the loss. It has always been so. Out of every trouble or disaster which has befallen me in life — I have come with a deep conviction that my feet stumbled because they were turning into paths that would lead my soul astray. However much I may love myself and the world, however much I may seek my own, below all and above all, is the conviction that time is fleeting, and life here but as a short span; that if I gain the whole world, and lose my own soul, I have made a fearful exchange. There are a great many things regarded by business men as allowable. They are so common in trade, that scarcely one man in a score, questions their morality; so common, that I have often found myself drifting into their practice, and abandoning for a time, the higher principles in whose guidance there alone is safety. Misfortune seems to have dogged my steps; but in this pause of my life — in this state of calmness — I can see that misfortune is my good; for, not until my feet were turning into ways that lead to death — did I stumble and fall."
"Are you not too hard in self-judgment?" I said.
"No," he answered. "The case stands just here. You know, I presume, the immediate cause of my recent failure in business."
"A sudden decline in stocks."
The color deepened on his cheeks.
"Yes, that is the cause. Now, years ago, I settled it clearly with my own conscience, that stock speculation was wrong; that it was only another name for gambling, in which, instead of rendering service to the community, your gains were, in nearly all cases, measured by another's loss. Departing from this just principle of action, I was tempted to invest a large sum of money in a rising stock, that I was sure would continue to advance until it reached a point where, in selling, I could realize a net gain of ten thousand dollars. I was doing well. I was putting aside from two to three thousand dollars every year, and was in a fair way to get rich. But, as money began to accumulate, I grew more and more eager in its acquirement, and less concerned about the principles underlying every action, until I passed into a temporary state of moral blindness. I was less scrupulous about securing large advantages in trade, and would take the lion's share, if opportunity offered, without a moment's hesitation. So, not content with doing well in a safe path, I must step aside, and try my strength at climbing more rapidly, even though danger threatened on the left and on the right; even though I dragged others down in my hot and perilous scramble upwards. I lost my footing — I stumbled — I fell, crashing down to the very bottom of the hill, half way up which I had gone so safely, before the fiend of greed took possession of me."
"And have not been really hurt by the fall," I remarked.
"I have suffered pain — terrible pain; for I am of a sensitive nature," he replied. "But in the convulsions of agony, nothing but the outside shell of a false life has been torn away. The real man is unharmed. And now that the bitter disappointment and sadness which attend humiliation are over, I can say that my gain is greater than my loss. I would rather grope in the valley of poverty all my life, and keep my conscience clean — than stand high up among the mountains of prosperity with a taint thereon.
"God knows best," he added, after a pause, speaking in a more subdued tone. "And I recognize the hand of His good providence, in this wreck of my worldly hopes. To gain riches at the sacrifice of just principles — is to gather up dirt and throw away goodly pearls."
"How is it with your family?" I asked. "They must feel the change severely."
"They did feel it. But the pain is over with them also. Poor weak human nature! My girls were active and industrious at home, and diligent at school, while my circumstances were limited. But, as money grew more plentiful, and I gave them a larger house to live in, and richer clothes to wear — they wearied of their useful employments, and neglected their studies. Pride grew apace, and vanity walked hand in hand with pride. They were less considerate of one another, and less loving to their parents. If I attempted to restrain their fondness for dress, or check their extravagance — they grew sullen, or used unfilial language. Like their father, they could not bear prosperity. But all is changed now. Misfortune has restored them to a better state of mind. They emulate each other in service at home; their minds dwell on useful things; they are kind to their mother and considerate of their father. Home is a sweeter place to us all, than it has been for a long time."
"And so what the world calls misfortune, has proved a blessing."
"Yes. In permitting my feet to stumble; in letting me fall from the height I had obtained — God dealt with me and my family in infinite love. We give false names to things. We call that good, which is of the heart and life, and not in external possessions. God has taken from me the shadow, that He may give me the substance itself."
"If only all men could find like you," I said, "a sweet kernel at the center of misfortune's bitter nut."
"All men may find it if they will," he answered, "for the sweet kernel is there."
How few find it! God's providences with men are not like blind chances, but full of wisdom and love. In the darkness of sorrow and adversity — a light shines on the path that was not illumined before. When the sun of worldly prosperity goes down — a thousand stars are set in the skies. In the stillness that follows, God speaks to the soul and is heard.