An Appraisal of Life’s Values
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:36, 37)
The founders of constitutional government took their cue from universal human experience when they defined fundamental rights to consist of life, property and the pursuit of happiness; for it is impossible for anyone to get away from his own inner sense that he is an entity, a person, and that things have a relation to him in the sense of ownership, profit, utility and their opposites.
Stating the case as it is for the present world, we know that a man must first have life before he can have property or have anything in addition to life. That is why a worldly wise Satan in the days of Job said, “All that a man hath he will give for his life.” Although Satan is the author, yet these words are true within limits. They are not true to the wide scope to which Satan sought to apply them, indicating that honor and integrity too must go if they stand in the way when a man would save his life. But within the limits of earthly good, life is first, and a man would be fooling who would give his life for property, position or passing worldly honor; for these things can be of no profit to him if in gaining them he loses his life.
Then it should not be difficult for us to follow on to the conclusion of the Master, that if, when we come to the end of life, we have not saved our souls, there can be no profit in the accumulations we have made otherwise. And just as a man is worldly wise who would give all his material possessions to save his life, so a man is “other-worldly wise” who gives up anything and everything demanded that he may save his soul for eternity.
We state these two principles in the beginning that we need not revert to them frequently hereafter. Life for the body and eternal salvation for the soul are at the basis of all earthly and heavenly gains. Let us acknowledge these fundamental values and make them into a foundation upon which to build. Let us place them out in a class by themselves that we may not become confused when other comparisons are made. No earthly good is in a class with life itself, and no eternal gain is in a class with salvation. There can be no gain on earth unless a man is alive and here to claim it, and there can be no reward in heaven unless a man is saved and there to enjoy it.
But as we come to the consideration of values in the classes or ranks which fall somewhat below life and salvation, we find it convenient to approach from just two angles. We may appraise life’s values in terms of soundness and in terms of dimension.
I. In Terms of Soundness
That word sound is one of the big little words of our language. It applies to almost everything. It means free from flaw or defect or decay; undamaged, unimpaired. Applied to the body it means healthy and robust. Applied to the mind it means sane and well balanced. Applied to finances it means solvent. Applied to judgment it means dependable for wisdom. Applied to doctrine it means orthodox, historically acceptable. Applied to legal matters it means valid. Applied to an act of any kind it means thorough. And it is an exceedingly difficult word to corrupt into any secondary or reversed meaning.
Let us think of soundness as applied to the body, and as implying good health. Both justice and mercy compel us to say that health and soundness of the body are not the heritage of all, and those who live well in spite of the handicap of physical weakness and ill health testify to a wealth of spirit that is a full compensation for their physical lack.
But health is a duty for all to whom it is available, and any dissipation that endangers health is sinful. We know that moral evil cannot attach directly to anything material; so when we say that alcohol is an evil, we mean that it is poison to the human body. All the evils that come out of it are chargeable in the end to just the one thing, and that is that alcohol is a poison and is injurious to the human body. The same may be said of the use of tobacco. Tobacco is expensive, but this consideration alone could scarcely condemn it. The use of tobacco is a filthy habit. But even at that, it could be tolerated if it were a food or even if it were a harmless palliator. But it is a poison and its use is injurious to the human body, therefore the whole tobacco business, like the liquor business, is illegitimate.
The foundation for health and longevity is said to be laid before one reaches the age of twenty. That is what makes the matter pathetic, for there are few who can be stirred to concern about health and long life at such an early age. Later, when health is a boon, and long life a prize, it is too late to do much about it.
The scriptural putting of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit gives ground for the highest motives in taking care of the heritage of health which may have been our portion, and this conception puts eating and drinking and exercise and work and everything that has to do with the building or destroying of the body on high moral grounds. Health is partly a heritage and partly a duty. But in any case, health is a good thing. Let us not underestimate its worth or neglect its demands.
Then there is soundness as applied to the intellect. There are some who are over-credulous and accept statements without demanding evidence. Then there are some who hold that nothing can be really proved, and that skepticism and agnosticism are the attitude of intelligence. But, as is usually the case, the golden mean lies between these extremes, and the scientific mind as ready to believe as to doubt, and asks only for sufficient evidence to be convinced.
After Lincoln started his practice as a lawyer he came to the conclusion that he was not familiar with the laws of evidence, and that he did not really know when he had proved anything. He therefore dropped out of active practice for a year and gave himself to the study of geometry that he might find out when he had proved anything. He wanted to be sure that he himself knew when he had made a point in the courts.
There are those who would cast away all the conclusions of the past and start all over in the pursuit of knowledge. But this is intellectual egotism. Time tested truths are valid, and are the basis upon which progress depends. This is true in science, in philosophy, in morality and in religion. And those who are so intellectually flighty that they make a heap of all that is accepted by men and try to build a temple of knowledge on bare ground are too presumptuous to be either sound or useful. It is all right to examine the foundations, but it is not necessary to wreck the superstructure. And whatever is true will stand for honest scrutiny and will come out in better evidence than it went in. Unreasoning skepticism and unfounded faith are alike untenable, and the man of sound mind will not hastily embrace either.
Agnosticism is untenable in an intelligible universe. Just as light is involved in the existence of the eye, so knowledge is involved in the existence of the intellect. And one cannot be classed as of sound mind who has come to the conclusion that truth does not exist or cannot be found. But if it exists and can be found, then the sound mind sets off in pursuit and will not be embarrassed to confess its find if once it truly overtakes its object.
And, finally, soundness applies to moral character. Much of the bias of judgment is accounted for by warped affections. To love well is to think straight. To be defiled is to color all we see. “To the pure all things are pure.” Those who would define all goodness as mere adjustment of the will have overlooked the fact that while we do business in our heads, we live in our hearts. We do not do what we know we should, we do what we desire to do, therefore sound moral character requires the purifying of the affections as well as the enlightening of the intellect and the correction of the will.
Bishop Quayle used to tell of a friend of his who worked at an observatory on the top of a hill. When work time came this man would climb the hill, enter the observatory and lock the door behind him, that he might work undisturbed. All through the hours of his assignment the man would study the heavens above him and make notes on his observations and do the work he was expected to do. But when his work time was finished he would come out of the observatory, walk down the hill and turn to a little five-room cottage on a side street where he lived with his wife and little ones. From this experience Bishop Quayle drew an analogy. He said we are all somewhat like that. We go out to work in our heads and with our hands, but we come home to live in cur hearts.
There is no power within the human realm by which our love can be purified, but this is the province of divine grace. There is promise of a fiery baptism with the Holy Spirit, and fire is the element which purifies. There is a purifying of the affections that will bring us to love the good and hate the evil, and this state is essential to sound moral character.
In this country we believe in the separation of the church and state, but that does not mean we are atheists. It means rather that we are challenged to be sincere, clean and real. It means that we discount the formal and question the effectiveness of force. We know that if men are good they must be good in fact. We know that neither fear nor hope of gain can father genuine morality. One must be good in fact. We must be sound morally. And let us not suppose that our democracy can exist without morality, or that true morality can exist without religion. A state composed of citizens who are morally sound will be an enduring state. But a state founded upon atheism, moral looseness and practical godlessness will collapse.
II. In Terms of Dimension
Volume must have three dimensions: length, breadth and thickness. And life has volume. Every life has some length, some breadth, and some thickness, and the product of these three is the measure of life.
The full life involves childhood, youth, maturity, old age, and in the ideal life all these periods are experienced. Our day is not entirely of our own making, but nevertheless, we should plan to live long. If in the province of God our day is shortened, that is not our responsibility. But we should plan to live long. There are adaptations to every age, so that one can do things at one period of his life — useful things — which are not possible to him at some other period. It is indeed a poor life that involves youth as an essential. If the calling is such that only a youth can perform it, then the youth should reject it. If the joy of living ends when the bloom of youth falls, then the joy was not a fruit, for the fruit follows the falling of the bloom.
But let us not forget that a straight line, be it drawn ever so far, cannot encompass volume. It may be that it is just our records that are at fault, but it seems that Methuselah did little else than to live a long time. There is nothing to indicate that he lived fully while he was at it. It may be he just centered his interest on longevity and gave little thought to breadth and thickness. And he is not alone. All of us have known people whose lives were little more than one long, monotonous line. They scored one good point, but one point is not enough.
The volume of life depends largely upon its breadth. We should plan to live widely. Even better still, we should live widely. Faith and righteousness should be the only limiting factors. That breadth which would junk faith and disregard righteousness in order to know to the full all the possibilities of life is yet more limited than it thinks, for one cannot know the blessed provinces of faith and righteousness if he lives in the township of doubt and sin.
But we should avoid provincialism both in knowledge and in sympathy. I know the tendency in modern education is toward early specialization and continued concentration. One has said that the modern student is called upon to “learn more and more about less and less.” And this may be necessary, since the body of human knowledge is now so great as to be entirely beyond the capacity of any individual. And yet we should not give away entirely to the trend of the times. The whole scope of knowledge is our rightful inheritance, and even the shackles of specialization will give a little if we pull at them hard enough and constantly enough.
But as mentioned before, we live in our hearts more than in our heads anyway. And we can be as broad as our sympathies. Caste is the curse of more lands than India. Right in our own lives we have a tendency to shut ourselves in and neither know nor care how others fare. Dickens’ Scrooge in the Christmas story is typical of many who confine their sympathies to their own selfish concerns. Knowledge makes us a part of everything, sympathy makes us a part of everybody, and the limits in both cases are of our own setting.
A famous man boasted that he never met a man he did not like. Perhaps he was a little more fortunate in his acquaintances than some of us. But I think we can all be so full of sympathy that we can at least say we never meet anyone who does not interest us. I often see people whose choices seem to me to be very unwise, and whose manner of life is entirely different from my own. But even these people interest me. I want to know why they choose as they do. I want to know from what unfortunate past their unfortunate present sprang. I want to know by what means they are convinced that their course is the wise one. I want to know what their plans for the future are. And even when I seem utterly unable to contribute anything of value to such strange acquaintances, I find they contribute something to me and I live more for having met them.
Eight months ago my wife, my companion for thirty-seven years, went on into “the more excellent glory.” This deepest sorrow of life has nevertheless broadened my sympathy. Just today I examined all the death notices in the morning paper, and compared the age of each deceased one with that of my beloved. Many of them were younger than she was. Some of them left minor children. Some of them died in tragic accidents. My sympathies went out and I felt a community of interests with the bereaved. My dread has become my enlargement. I know I can never be as indifferent toward the sorrows and bereavements, even of strangers, as I have been in the past. I do not boast, as some have boasted to me in my grief, “I know how to sympathize with you,” for I have found that everyone’s sorrow has its own sharp edge, and that there are no duplicates in the repertory of grief. But even learning this has made me broader.
And there remains yet the thickness — the depth and height of life. At the Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown, I asked the guide where the well finished brick came from which composed the walls of the old mansion built there when Abraham Lincoln was a babe in a backwoods cabin not more than forty miles away. He said the bricks came from England. Answering my insistent inquiries, the old guide went on to say that these bricks were made in England by expert brickmakers, and that the brickmakers had an arrangement with the shipmasters by which a good supply of bricks were kept stored on the wharves in England. Ships from those shores brought manufactured goods. Those going from these shores took raw material. A cargo of manufactured goods was much lighter than one of raw materials, but the ships, sailing ships, they were, had to have heavy cargo in the holds for ballast, so the shipmasters filled their holds with the English brick, and higher up they placed their paying cargo. They brought the bricks to this side, and here unloaded them to make room for white oak and walnut logs, and other heavy materials which paid tariff, on the return trip. The bricks on this side of the ocean still belonged to the brickmakers in England, but as they had been transported across the Atlantic without charge, the arrangement just served to widen the field for the distribution of brick, and the ships could travel faster with the bricks in the hold, for this low-slung weight enabled the sailors to enlarge the sails and stand up against more wind.
We have all learned by now that we must have ballast to stand up against the winds. We have found we cannot be shallow and stand the blasts. We have found that we flounder when we over-advertise. Perhaps the metaphor will bear the exhortation to live deep. Think more than you speak. Love more than you do. Balance your shouting with praying. Seek rather to be praiseworthy than to receive praise. Be more careful to earn than to collect. Allow that character is more valuable than reputation and that manhood far outweighs money.
And how shall I say that concluding word on the height of life? “If a man’s reach is not longer than his grasp, what is a heaven for?” It is customary to tell the young that they are preparing for life,” but I think this is a wrong construction. Youth is living now, and the mature and the aged are still just getting ready to live. Anyone is living who is doing what he should do at the time he is doing it. Dirt, they say, is just soil misplaced, and dirt in the field is soil, not dirt. Child, youth, man, all are living and all are getting ready to live. There is no period from which the highest motives are debarred, and there is no time, not even in the dying hour, when one can do better than just his sincere best.
Man stands upright that he may the more readily lift his eyes to heaven. For a time his feet must be upon the earth, but all the time his heart can be in the skies. We must day by day perform our ordinary services to men, but through it all our motives can be the pleasing of God. The king on the throne may have heart and eyes but for the earth, while the digger in the ditch may live in the fellowship of angels. It is the heart and the motive that differentiate men.
Length multiplied by breadth, and the product multiplied by thickness equals life; and life is little or big, depending upon the measure of these dimensions. I may not come to you and exhort you to live long — this may be beyond your power. There are some limitations on breadth that are also beyond you. Books and travel and leisure for art cost time and money, and you may not have these to spare. But there is no reason at all why we should not all live deep and high. Here there are no limits except the ones we ourselves set. Down to the depths, then, of a pure and sincere heart, let us begin our life today. And up to the heaven of highest motive, let us aspire. And then, even though longevity be denied us, and even though breadth draw its lines too soon, we shall live big, because we lived so deep and so high.