The Making of Character
J. R. Miller, 1902
The artist was painting a picture of a dead mother, and was using a photograph as his copy. But to make the face look fresher and younger, he was leaving out the lines and marks of old age and care on the face. "No, no!" said the son. "No! don't take out the lines; just leave everyone of them. It wouldn't be my mother—if all the lines were gone." Then he told the story of her devotion to her children through their infancy and through times of sickness. The lines which seemed to disfigure the face—were love's records, telling of sacrifice and suffering.
He said it was well enough for young people who had never known a care—to have a picture with a face smooth and lovely, without wrinkles; but when one has lived seventy years—years of earnest and noble life, full of suffering, toil, struggle, and self-denial, it would be like lying to cover up their track!
Then the young man went on to speak in detail—of some of the burdens which his mother had borne, the sacrifices she had made, and the sufferings and sorrows which had furrowed her life. He did not want a picture with the story of all these years taken out of the face. Its very beauty was in the marks and lines which told of what the mother's brave heart and faithful hands had done for love's sake.
This incident has its suggestions concerning the cost and sacredness of motherhood. It is not easy to be a mother, and to bring up a family of children, especially in poor circumstances, where the burdens of household care rest heavily on the mother herself. We should honor the marks which tell the story of what love has done. The dearest things in our mother—should be the lines in which the record of her love is kept. Sometimes children forget this. They see that the mother's face has lost something of its freshness, that she has not her old alertness and vivacity, and that her hands are wrinkled; but they do not remember that these signs of decay or wasting of strength and beauty—are the furrows which love for them has ploughed. Instead of being considered marring or blemishes—they should be regarded as insignia of honor, like the soldier's scars gotten in fighting for his country!
But the incident suggests also in a larger way—how character is made. The word 'character' meant originally, the lines, furrows, or scratches which the engraver made upon the metal. In life, character consists of the impressions left, the tracks cut in the soul—by life's experiences. A baby has no character; its life is like a smooth tablet with nothing yet engraved upon it. At once, however, the record begins to be made. Education, influence, the impacts of other lives, joys, sorrows, successes, and failures—all leave their 'touches'—their lines of beauty or of marring, their furrows of suffering; and at length, in mature years, the man stands among men with a character distinctively his own, the composite product of all the varied experiences of his whole life.
The face ofttimes carries in itself—an outer record, one that all can see—of the inner life. The face of a young girl has only beauty. She has never suffered, nor has she known care, struggle, or pain. Love comes; and its story is written in glowing, transfiguring lines on the features. Motherhood brings another new experience, and the girl-face passes, is left behind. We see now instead—the earnest, thoughtful, serious, solicitous woman face. The years move on with their eager life and deep yearning, their trials, their cares, their broken nights and anxious days, their hopes and fears, their desires and longings, their prayers and cryings for help. There is sickness; and the mother is ever at the bedside, her heart in her watching. Perhaps death comes, and sorrow overwhelms her. As the children grow up, the mother's load grows heavier. She has her fond hopes and dreams, which too often she must see vanish without realization. So she lives on until she is threescore and ten.
Now, if we were to bring together the portraits of the young girl at twenty—and the mother at seventy—we would see all the story of the fifty years graven on the old woman's face. We might comment upon the difference in the two pictures, saying, "What a pity the mother at seventy could not still have the sweet girl face of twenty!" But there is far more meaning in the old woman's face—than in the girl's. Every line holds a story of self-denial. Every mark of fading, is a record of love's toil and cost. Under all the traces which tell of age and feebleness, there run under-lines which tell of victoriousness, of battles fought and won, of lessons learned in tears, of heart struggles, of joy and hope, of pain and sorrow, of griefs and disappointments.
The son was right in saying that the lines should not be taken from his mother's picture—as it would not have been his mother's picture at all—if the marks of the years had been taken out. Beautiful in its way was the face of the young girl before there was a line of difficult experience furrowed in it; but far more beautiful in its way is the face of the woman at seventy—faded, wrinkled, deeply tracked—because it records a story of heroism, gentleness, endurance, patience, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, all the marvelous story of mother love.
Those who are young are only beginning to make their character—but every day will leave some mark. The lesson, is the need of watchfulness over all their life. Every book they read, every picture they look at, every friendship they form, every touch of another life on theirs, every thought they nourish, every experience of joy or sorrow, of victory or defeat—has its place among the makers of their character.
If at the end, we would have a character of which we shall not be ashamed, we must keep a close watch over every influence which we allow to affect us. The heart builds the character. Our thoughts carve the lines in our soul. If we are weak, cowardly, proud, selfish, sordid, or envious—these blemishes will appear in the final result. But if we are strong, brave, true, just, unselfish, and holy in thought and feeling—these qualities will become part of an enduring and noble personality.
Life's moods also write their story, both in the character and on the countenance. Worry or discontent makes an unquiet face. Peace in the heart—sets its shining beauty on the features. "Human physiognomy," says Victor Hugo, "is formed by the conscience and by the life, and is the result of a number of mysterious excavations." This is more true than any of us imagine. We carry the story of all our inner life—on our face for all men to read it.
A daughter writes after her father's death: "His face had been my greatest comfort all this summer, even when he could converse but little. It was the same pure, holy face and smile in all his suffering." But it took seventy years of noble, unselfish, holy living—for Christ and for the good of men to make this transfigured face.
The work which Christ gives to us—really is to build character. We are not in the world to have a good time, to make money, to do great things, to write books, to cultivate farms, to sell goods, or to study; we are here to make noble men and women of ourselves. The test of success at the end—is not our wealth, the extent of our fame, the number of things we have done—but our character. Our character is that which will live on the other side of death, the person who will appear before God when our spirit presents itself there. It is of the greatest importance, therefore, that we give first heed to the work that is being done on our inner life along the years.
We must remember, too, that every thought, feeling, and desire, every play of emotion, every decision, and every motive nourished, does its part in making the character. All of life writes its records—and the records are indelible!
Men are digging up these days in Assyria, clay tablets which bear yet the writing upon them thousands of years since. Just so, we are writing records, as we go on, in the books of our own life; and from these records—we shall be judged in the great day of accounts! We never can get away from ourselves, or from the story of our own life. How important it is that every thought shall be white and holy!
It is not the easy life—which leaves the noblest record in character. It is plainly taught in Holy Scripture, that we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom. A twofold baptism is appointed to believers—with the Holy Spirit—and with fire. We are told even of Jesus that, though He was a Son—yet He learned obedience through the things that He suffered; and that He was made perfect through suffering. Much more needful is it for us that we pass through tribulations—in the purifying of our life, and the making of Christly character in us.
We are not to suppose that the bereavements and the common sorrows of which others know—are all of the trials through which we must pass. Our bitterest griefs and struggles are endured—in the sacred secrecy of our own heart, where no eye but God's can see. We can make no step forward and upward in spiritual life—but through battle, through victory over our old self. Something in SELF must die—in every true gain we make in character. In the book of Revelation, we read of certain great blessings which are offered to the followers of Christ—but everyone of them waits beyond a line of battle. Only "to him who overcomes" are these prizes of character, these rewards for achievement, promised.
It is these inward struggles and battles—that most deeply scar our life. We come out of them bearing marks which we shall carry forever. But these marks are not disfigurements; they are lines which tell of spiritual gains. The stone is not marred by the sculptor's hewing. "While the marble wastes—the image grows." At the last that which will be most beautiful in us—will not be what we have saved from the hard blows of the hammer—but the marks which will tell of the deepest cuttings of the chisel.