AN AIM IN LIFE.
For the sake of girls who are just beginning life, let me tell the stories of some other girls who are now middle-aged women. Some of them have succeeded and some have failed in their purposes, and often in a surprising way.
I remember a girl who left school at seventeen with the highest honors. Immediately we began to see her name in the best magazines. The heavy doors of literature seemed to swing open before her. Then suddenly we heard no more of her. A dozen years later she was known to no one outside her own circle. She was earning her living as book-keeper in a large five-cent store! She led the life of a drudge, and that was not the worst of it. She was a sensitive woman, and there was much that was mortifying in her position. All her Greek and Italian books were packed away. She knew no more of science than when she left school. At odd minutes she read[Pg 8] good novels, and that was all she had to do with literature. Those who had expected much of her thought her life was a failure, and she thought so too.
Yet there is another side to the picture. The aim she had set for herself in life was not to be an author, though that idea had taken strong hold on her, and she tried to realize it in spite of great discouragements. This was her minor aim, but the grand aim with her had always been to lead the divine life at whatever cost. It proved to cost almost everything. Her utmost help was needed for her large family, which was poor. Unusual as her success with editors had been, no girl of seventeen could depend on a large income from magazines. A good salary was offered her as book-keeper, and she accepted it.
She tried to continue her favorite occupation by rising early, but she was not strong enough to go on long in that way. She sometimes had an hour in the evening, but when she saw the wistful look in her mother’s face she would not shut herself up alone. At the rare times when she was still free to choose she went back to her books and her pen, but she could not do much, and at last she felt it would be better not to try. It was simply a source of vexation, and she needed a serene mind above all things.
The only way her life could open towards beauty or happiness at all was by putting the true spirit[Pg 9] into her daily work. With a resolute heart she did this. No books were ever more beautifully kept than hers; every figure was clear and perfect; every column was added without a mistake. In short, she did her work like an artist.
To the sales-girls she was like a guardian angel. She might have written good stories all her life without helping others half so much. Little, weak, frivolous girls became strong, fine women simply from daily contact with her. She did not realize that. She only knew that she loved the girls and that they loved her. She did know that she helped her family—with her money. Her spirit helped them unconsciously still more.
When at last she gave up the minor aim of her life, and no longer tried to be learned or famous, she had her energies set free for many little things which had previously been crowded out. It was easy now to find a leisure hour to help any one who needed sympathy. There was time to watch the beauty of the sunset or of the falling snow. If she had no time to scramble through a volume of a new poet, she could still learn line by line some favorite old poem, and let it sink into her heart, so that it did its work thoroughly. If she could not find time to learn the history of all the artists from the time of Phidias to the last New York exhibition, yet when a beautiful picture was before her she could look at it thoughtfully without feeling that she must hurry on to[Pg 10]the next. In this way, perhaps, she gained a more absolute culture than in the way she would have chosen, a culture of thought and character which told on every one who came near her.
She was always climbing up towards God, and his help never failed her. The climbing was hard, yet the pathway was radiant with light. Those who were stumbling along in the darkness by her side saw the light and were able to walk erect.
I cannot say she was altogether happy with so many of her fine powers unused. Perhaps she was not even quite right in sacrificing herself completely. Sometimes she fostered selfishness in others while she tried to cast it out of herself. But so far as she could see she had no choice. If she had refused the sacrifice, it would have been by giving up the grand aim of her life. Her minor aim was good in itself, but it conflicted with something better. Those who did not know her life intimately thought it a failure. Those who saw deeper knew that her utter failure in what was non-essential had been the condition of essential success.
I remember another brilliant girl who did win her way. She was poor and plain and friendless, but she won wealth and fame and friends, and then, with all this success, she blossomed into beauty. She had a struggle, but she came out[Pg 11] victorious. I think she was happy. She was glad to be beautiful and to be loved. She had music and pictures and travel in abundance, and she appreciated these things. She liked to give to the poor, and she did give bountifully and with a grace and sweetness better than the gift.
She painted pictures which everybody admired, and that pleased her. She had dreamed of all this when a child. She had genius and she had perseverance. Her aim was to be a famous artist, and she did not flinch from any work or sacrifice which would help her to that end. So far all was well, and she reached the goal. As there was nothing to prevent her carrying out secondary plans at the same time, she could be cultivated and charitable without giving up her great object.
She wanted to be good besides. She never deliberately decided for the wrong against the right. And yet a noble life was not first in her thoughts. When she was a school-girl she had a lover who was like a better self. By and by he chose to study for the ministry, while she went to the city to try her fortune. So far they shared every thought and feeling and hope. She knew she was a better woman with him than with any one else. But at last he was called to a remote country parish, and for himself was satisfied with it. But she—how then could she be his wife? Her heart was torn in the strife. Some women whose[Pg 12] vision was less keen would have married him, hoping that in some way they might still carry out their own ambition. But she was at a critical point in her career and she knew it. She had just begun to be known personally to influential people, and her name was beginning to be known to the public. She dared not risk leaving her post. She wrote her lover a charming letter,—for she did love him,—and told him how it was. “When I have won my victory,” said she, “I shall be a free woman. And you will love me just as much when I have more to give you than I have now. But now I have my little talent confided to me, and I dare not fold it away in a napkin.” Her lover agreed to this, though it was hard for him. They worked apart year after year. At last she was a free woman, with money enough to live without work at all, and with fame enough to work when and where she pleased. But gradually she cared less and less for the objects of her lover’s life. She would not own to herself that she had failed in constancy to him. She always thought she was glad to see him when he came to the city. But he felt the difference in her, though he tried not to see it. She was far more beautiful than when he had first loved her; but in the days when she was so plain and had worn shabby dresses there had been an expression about her mouth which he missed now. The lovely face was still eager with longing, but[Pg 13] it had lost the look of aspiration. Reluctantly, he admitted the change in her. At last he told her what he felt, that she had ceased to love him. She had deceived herself so far that she had not realized how idle her excuses were for putting off the marriage from year to year. When the separation came she felt a sharp pang—as much of mortification at her own failure as of wounded love. Yet she consented to the separation, and she seemed to be happy after it. She thought her life had been tragic, and that she had made a heroic sacrifice of her love to the necessity which her genius laid upon her to do a certain work in the world.
I should be afraid to say that she was altogether wrong. There are, no doubt, some women who are meant to serve the whole world rather than the little domestic circle. And yet she did give up what she had believed the best part of herself. And her pictures, though they were admired, lacked an indescribable something of which her first crude sketches had given promise. I do not think that, after all, they did very much to interpret beauty to the world. She had two aims in life, both good, but she placed the first second, and the second first. Perhaps, on the whole, she was happier for the choice she made. But she missed something better than happiness which is always missed by those who make the lower aim their object—she missed the aspiration for higher happiness.
[Pg 14]I have seen many successful lives led by women who as girls showed very moderate abilities, simply because they had one definite aim. I knew a girl who became an excellent actress. She was a pretty girl with a little talent. She was not poor, but she had an ambition to be on the stage. She had the good sense to see that she was not a genius, but she also had courage enough to persevere in using the ability she had. For the first ten years she made so little apparent headway that even among her acquaintances many people did not know she had ever acted at all. In the mean time she had studied hard. She knew many popular plays by heart, and had carefully watched other actresses. She was acquainted with a number of theatrical people. She had always been at hand when a manager wanted an extra peasant girl, or when a waiting maid was ill. She had joined a small troupe traveling through the bleakest and roughest parts of the Northwest in midwinter. By and by she was fitted to be of use in a stock company. Then, after a few more years, she achieved what she had been striving for. She was able to take the slighter characters in the plays of Shakespeare. No one excelled her here. No great actress would take so small a part, and no small actress was willing to take such pains. Her power was unique and she was indispensable. Her name was seldom on the play-bills, but she added something to the culture of the world by[Pg 15] making the interpretation of Shakespeare more complete.
Her success came first from having a definite aim, and second, from understanding herself sufficiently to aim at something within her power; but happily it was also the highest thing within her power. She was both humble and aspiring. She showed her humility in shrinking from no drudgery, and satisfied her cravings for the ideal by doing the smallest thing in the best way possible to her. She enjoyed even her drudgery because she put the best of herself into it, but, more than that, she knew it was leading her exactly in the direction she wanted to go. If the drudgery had led to nothing she would have needed all the moral power of our little book-keeper to save her from misery. Her own happier life required some moral power, how much it is hard to say. A woman might do all she did and be little the better for it. It would depend on the aim she cherished in her heart. If she had no higher aim than to be a good actress her life did not avail much. But if her acting was only the minor aim, then her life was thoroughly noble as well as successful. Her choice of a minor aim makes it probable that she also had the highest aim. Otherwise she would have been either more or less humble. She would either have wished to be a star actress or have been contented with any trifling parts which brought her money and admiration.
[Pg 16]The best happiness comes from our perseverance in following the grand aim of life. But “the kind of happiness which we all recognize as such” is generally that which comes from the successful pursuit of our minor aim. Herbert Spencer says that every creature is happy when he is fully using his powers. I have known a girl with a magnificent voice who endured great hardships for a musical education, and who finally accomplished her purpose and enchanted the world with her singing. She was happy. Of course everybody expected her to be. But I have known another girl, equally happy, carefully working in the laboratory to find the water-tubes of a star-fish or the nerves of a clam. This girl said to me with a face bright with enthusiasm, “When I first began to work with Professor —— in the laboratory it was as if I had been traveling all my life in a desert land, and had suddenly come upon fountains of fresh water.” She was as poor and obscure as my singer was rich and famous, but she was using her powers and was happy.
Of course the kind of happiness to be found even in secondary success depends on the great aim of any life. In some cases it almost seems as if the minor aim were the only one. The happiness it brings cannot go very high, yet so far as a looker-on may judge it feels like happiness. But most people—perhaps all, if we only knew it—do acknowledge the grand aim in life, even[Pg 17]though they make very little effort to reach it. When they consciously neglect this for the minor aim, they are uneasy and not thoroughly happy; but when the minor aim is good in itself and is always made subservient to the higher, success there does prove a well-spring of delight.
Spencer’s remark is also true in the best sense, for no powers crave exercise so much as the higher powers. If my singer had done a sinful deed no applause could have made her happy. And, on a lower plane, if she had lost the husband she dearly loved, even her art would not have satisfied her.
It may seem as if I am choosing all my illustrations from among people who have special gifts, and that nothing I say applies to the great army of girls who will never be distinguished, and who are all the dearer for not wishing to be so. I have not forgotten this, but I began with striking illustrations because they are easiest to understand.
The grand aim of life should be the same for all, whether gifted or not. But the particular aim must vary with the individual. Probably with five girls out of ten the particular aim is to have a happy home. Once we might have said nine girls out of ten, but the present tendency of thought is to make girls ambitious,—too ambitious, it sometimes seems, for the very best of life.
Of course selfishness shows itself in various[Pg 18] ways, and the girl who wishes to have a happy home without thinking how she shall make a happy home may be more selfish than the girl who dreams of fame, but with the understanding that the price of fame is, and ought to be, the giving of some blessing to the world.
I know a delightful girl who seems to think of nothing but making others happy from the moment when she meets her maid with a cheerful “Good-morning,” till she contrives that some less attractive girl shall have the most desirable partner in the ball-room in the evening. She gives her money and her time and her thought to the service of other people. This is so natural to her that no one thinks of her as making it a conscious aim, but the result is so beautiful as to suggest that it would be the best aim for every girl. Nevertheless she has a still higher aim, for sometimes the happiness of other people—at least their visible happiness—clashes with some other duty. Then she does not fail. She gives her hard refusal in pleasant but firm words, and she tells the truth even if it makes some one wince. She is not a genius, but, on the whole, I hardly know another girl so full of the best life. That her highest aim is the true one is without question, and that her minor aim is the true one for her must also be admitted. Whether it is so for all is not quite clear. She has the natural gift which makes all her ministrations to others acceptable, but every one is not so endowed.
[Pg 19]She has a cousin as unselfish as she is whose capacity is entirely different. She is a quiet, reserved, thoughtful girl, who always speaks slowly. She is just and good-tempered, and is ready to give her time and money when she sees she can be of use. But her thoughts move in other channels. She has excellent mathematical abilities, and she is always resolving some difficult problem. She hopes some day to do some work in astronomy. Of course she would be glad to do some great work and be known as a benefactor to mankind, but probably she works from love of her work more than from the hope of doing good. She, too, is charming, but it takes a long time to know her well.
Should one of these girls try to do the work of the other? Or is one better than the other? I think not, since both look so steadily towards the highest star in their field of vision. The minor aim of life must always have reference to the gifts of the individual. Even visiting the poor would become absurd if nobody did anything else.
If we believe in an overruling Providence we cannot of course say that anything is by chance; but so far as we can see, failure in this world—that is, failure to reach our minor aim—does sometimes seem to be due to a trifling accident. Yet success is not so. If Byron, for instance,[Pg 20] awoke one morning and found himself famous, it was because he had previously done the work which was suddenly recognized by the world. Indeed, none of us need look for success who does not choose a definite aim in life. And, more than that, no discouragement must turn us aside from it. We may fail in the end then, but we shall have followed the only possible path to success.
How shall we choose our aim? We know what our grand aim must be, and that if we do our part there we shall not fail, for we shall have God to help us; and we know that our minor aim must never be opposed to this. But what shall our minor aim be, or shall we be content to drift without any at all?
We must try to understand ourselves so far at least as to know what our own powers and tastes are, and choose accordingly. A young girl hardly knows her own bent. Then the uncertainty in regard to her marriage and the great change that necessarily makes in her pursuits renders the problem harder for her than for her brothers.
Most girls wish to be the centre of a happy home, but many of them are very careless about the means of making themselves fit to be such a centre. They think when love comes it will do everything, and it is true that it will do wonders. But suppose a girl remembers that if she is well she can make her family happier then if[Pg 21] she is always ailing,—suppose she remembers how much good housekeeping does to make a home attractive; that if she is musical her singing will calm the troubled waters, while if she is not her practicing will be a burden; that there are some studies which bear directly on life and some others which will be of infinite use to a mother in training her children,—is she not more likely to have a happy home than if her aim had been less definite?
But what of the girls who choose this aim and who never have a home? Their lot is hard, but they may add happiness to some home not their own. If they are not obliged to support themselves, they can probably create some kind of a home for themselves, though not that of their ideal. If they must earn their living, the problem is harder. Circumstances may force them into a widely different path from that they would have chosen. Then they must remember the grand aim of their lives, and do the best work they can for the sake of it. Still, they may use the home-making faculty in some measure in the humblest attic.
But there is a large and ever larger class of girls with other tastes than domestic ones. Here, I think, the danger is greater than in case of even the most unfortunate girls with domestic tastes; for tastes and talents do not always agree. We have all known girls willing to practice six hours[Pg 22] a day who could never be musicians, and most girls think they could write a book. Many people who are quite free to choose make too ambitious a choice. It seems a part of the office of culture to correct such ambitions. I have in mind a class of half-taught school-girls many of whom fondly hoped to be poetesses; and I remember a class of highly cultivated girls, who had had every advantage of education which money could buy, who were full of anxiety on leaving school because they could not see that they had capacity enough to do any work worth doing in the world. The general verdict among them was that as they had money they could give it to the poor, but that they had nothing in themselves. They were as much too timid as the others were too confident.
A girl who has to earn her living has a safeguard, for which few are very thankful. No one will pay her to indulge her tastes without reference to her talents. She finds out gradually what ought to be her minor aim, for she discovers the special service she can render to the world in return for what it offers to her. In most cases she wins a reasonable measure of success and happiness.
But some of us are obstinate. We see one pathway we long to tread even though it is beset with stones and briers. We are determined to take that way, even if we never climb high enough to penetrate the low-lying mists which[Pg 23] darken it. We would rather pursue even a little way the painful pathway which leads to the glorious mountain-top than to follow an easier path to some lower summit. If we truly feel that, we do well to take the path, for we have a right to forget ourselves for the sake of our aim. But if we ask for success after all, it is mere blind vanity which makes us so obstinate in our choice.
Let us remember that our direct usefulness in the world and most of our conscious happiness will depend on our choosing and steadily pursuing as our minor aim that for which our nature fits us, even if we wish our nature had been different; while our utmost usefulness and our highest happiness will depend on our clearness of vision in seeing, and our unwavering fidelity in following, the grand aim of life.
Categories: English Literature