The Conquest Of Obstacles
Nature, when she adds difficulties, adds brains.
Exigencies create the necessary ability to meet and conquer
Many men owe the grandeur of their lives to their tremendous
The rugged metal of the mine
Must burn before its surface shine.
When a man looks through a tear in his own eye, that is a lens
which opens reaches in the unknown, and reveals orbs no
telescope could do.
No man ever worked his way in a dead calm.
"Kites rise against, not with, the wind."
Then welcome each rebuff,
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting, that bids not sit nor stand, but go.
"What a fine profession ours would be if there were no gibbets!" said
one of two highwaymen who chanced to pass a gallows. "Tut, you
blockhead," replied the other, "gibbets are the making of us; for, if
there were no gibbets, every one would be a highwayman." Just so with
every art, trade, or pursuit; it is the difficulties that scare and keep
out unworthy competitors.
"Life," says a philosopher, "refuses to be so adjusted as to eliminate
from it all strife and conflict and pain. There are a thousand tasks,
that, in larger interests than ours, must be done, whether we want them
or no. The world refuses to walk upon tiptoe, so that we may be able to
sleep. It gets up very early and stays up very late, and all the while
there is the conflict of myriads of hammers and saws and axes with the
stubborn material that in no other way can be made to serve its use and
do its work for man. And then, too, these hammers and axes are not
wielded without strain or pang, but swung by the millions of toilers who
labor with their cries and groans and tears. Nay, our temple building,
whether it be for God or man, exacts its bitter toll, and fills life
with cries and blows. The thousand rivalries of our daily business, the
fierce animosities when we are beaten, the even fiercer exultation when
we have beaten, the crashing blows of disaster, the piercing scream of
defeat--these things we have not yet gotten rid of, nor in this life
ever will. Why should we wish to get rid of them? We are here, my
brother, to be hewed and hammered and planed in God's quarry and on
God's anvil for a nobler life to come." Only the muscle that is used is
"Troubles are often the tools by which God fashions us for better
things," said Beecher. "Far up the mountain side lies a block of
granite, and says to itself, 'How happy am I in my serenity--above the
winds, above the trees, almost above the flight of birds! Here I rest,
age after age, and nothing disturbs me.'
"Yet what is it? It is only a bare block of granite, jutting out of the
cliff, and its happiness is the happiness of death.
"By and by comes the miner, and with strong and repeated strokes he
drills a hole in its top, and the rock says, 'What does this mean?' Then
the black powder is poured in, and with a blast that makes the mountain
echo, the block is blown asunder, and goes crashing down into the
valley. 'Ah!' it exclaims as it falls, 'why this rending?' Then come
saws to cut and fashion it; and humbled now, and willing to be nothing,
it is borne away from the mountain and conveyed to the city. Now it is
chiseled and polished, till, at length, finished in beauty, by block and
tackle it is raised, with mighty hoistings, high in air, to be the
top-stone on some monument of the country's glory."
"It is this scantiness of means, this continual deficiency, this
constant hitch, this perpetual struggle to keep the head above water and
the wolf from the door, that keeps society from falling to pieces. Let
every man have a few more dollars than he wants, and anarchy would
"Do you wish to live without a trial?" asks a modern teacher. "Then you
wish to die but half a man. Without trial you cannot guess at your own
strength. Men do not learn to swim on a table. They must go into deep
water and buffet the waves. Hardship is the native soil of manhood and
self-reliance. Trials are rough teachers, but rugged schoolmasters make
rugged pupils. A man who goes through life prosperous, and comes to his
grave without a wrinkle, is not half a man. Difficulties are God's
errands. And when we are sent upon them we should esteem it a proof of
God's confidence. We should reach after the highest good."
Suddenly, with much jarring and jolting, an electric car came to a
standstill just in front of a heavy truck that was headed in an opposite
direction. The huge truck wheels were sliding uselessly round on the car
tracks that were wet and slippery from rain. All the urging of the
teamster and the straining of the horses were in vain--until the
motorman quietly tossed a shovelful of sand on the track under the heavy
wheels, and then the truck lumbered on its way. "Friction is a very good
thing," remarked a passenger.
There is a beautiful tale of Scandinavian mythology. A hero, under the
promise of becoming a demi-god, is bidden in the celestial halls to
perform three test-acts of prowess. He is to drain the drinking-horn of
Thor. Then he must run a race with a courser so fleet that he fairly
spurns the ground under his flying footsteps. Then he must wrestle with
a toothless old woman, whose sinewy hands, as wiry as eagle claws in the
grapple, make his very flesh to quiver. He is victorious in them all.
But as the crown of success is placed upon his temples, he discovers for
the first time that he has had for his antagonist the three greatest
forces of nature. He raced with thought, he wrestled with old age, he
drank the sea. Nature, like the God of nature, wrestles with us as a
friend, not an enemy, wanting us to gain the victory, and wrestles with
us that we may understand and enjoy her best blessings. Every greatest
and highest earthly good has come to us unfolded and enriched by this
terrible wrestling with nature.
A curious society still exists in Paris composed of dramatic authors who
meet once a month and dine together. Their number has no fixed limit,
only every member to be eligible must have been hissed. An eminent
dramatist is selected for chairman and holds the post for three months.
His election generally follows close upon a splendid failure. Some of
the world-famous ones have enjoyed this honor. Dumas, Jr., Zola and
Offenbach have all filled the chair and presided at the monthly dinner.
These dinners are given on the last Friday of the month, and are said to
be extraordinarily hilarious.
"I do believe God wanted a grand poem of that man," said George
Macdonald of Milton, "and so blinded him that he might be able to write
"Returned with thanks" has made many an author. Failure often leads a
man to success by arousing his latent energy, by firing a dormant
purpose, by awakening powers which were sleeping. Men of mettle turn
disappointments into helps as the oyster turns into pearls the sand
which annoys it.
"Let the adverse breath of criticism be to you only what the blast of
the storm wind is to the eagle,--a force against him that lifts him
"I do not see," says Emerson, "how any man can afford, for the sake of
his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It
is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation,
want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges
every opportunity of action passed by as a loss of power."
"Adversity is a severe instructor," says Edmund Burke, "set over us by
one who knows us better than we do ourselves, as He loves us better too.
He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill.
Our antagonist is our helper. This conflict with difficulty makes us
acquainted with our object, and compels us to consider it in all its
relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial."
Strong characters, like the palm tree, seem to thrive best when most
abused. Men who have stood up bravely under great misfortune for years
are often unable to bear prosperity. Their good fortune takes the spring
out of their energy, as the torrid zone enervates races accustomed to a
vigorous climate. Some people never come to themselves until baffled,
rebuffed, thwarted, defeated, crushed, in the opinion of those around
them. Trials unlock their virtues; defeat is the threshold of their
"Every man who makes a fortune has been more than once a bankrupt, if
the truth were known," said Albion Tourgee. "Grant's failure as a
subaltern made him commander-in-chief, and for myself, my failure to
accomplish what I set out to do led me to what I never had aspired to."
"What is defeat?" asked Wendell Phillips. "Nothing but education." And a
life's disaster may become the landmark from which there has begun a new
era, a broader life for man.
"To make his way at the bar," said an eminent jurist, "a young man must
live like a hermit and work like a horse. There is nothing that does a
young lawyer so much good as to be half starved."
We are the victors of our opponents. They have developed in us the very
power by which we overcome them. Without their opposition we could never
have braced and anchored and fortified ourselves, as the oak is braced
and anchored for its thousand battles with the tempests. Our trials, our
sorrows, and our griefs develop us in a similar way.
"Obstacles," says Mitchell, "are great incentives. I lived for whole
years upon Virgil and found myself well off." Poverty, Horace tells us,
drove him to poetry.
Nothing more unmans a man than to take away from him the spur of
necessity, which urges him onward and upward to the goal of his
ambition. Man is naturally lazy, and wealth induces indolence. The great
object of life is development, the unfolding and drawing out of our
powers, and whatever tempts us to a life of indolence or inaction, or to
seek pleasure merely, whatever furnishes us a crutch when we can develop
our muscles better by walking, all helps, guides, props, whatever tempts
to a life of inaction, in whatever guise it may come, is a curse. I
always pity the boy or girl with inherited wealth, for the temptation to
hide their talents in a napkin, undeveloped, is very, very great. It is
not natural for them to walk when they can ride, to go alone when they
can be helped.
Quentin Matsys was a blacksmith at Antwerp. When in his twentieth year
he wished to marry the daughter of a painter. The father refused his
consent. "Wert thou a painter," said he, "she should be thine; but a
blacksmith--never!" "_I will be_ a painter," said the young man. He
applied to his new art with so much perseverance that in a short time he
produced pictures which gave a promise of the highest excellence. He
gained for his reward the fair hand for which he sighed, and rose ere
long to a high rank in his profession.
Take two acorns from the same tree, as nearly alike as possible; plant
one on a hill by itself, and the other in the dense forest, and watch
them grow. The oak standing alone is exposed to every storm. Its roots
reach out in every direction, clutching the rocks and piercing deep into
the earth. Every rootlet lends itself to steady the growing giant, as if
in anticipation of fierce conflict with the elements. Sometimes its
upward growth seems checked for years, but all the while it has been
expending its energy in pushing a root across a large rock to gain a
firmer anchorage. Then it shoots proudly aloft again, prepared to defy
the hurricane. The gales which sport so rudely with its wide branches
find more than their match, and only serve still further to toughen
every minutest fibre from pith to bark.
The acorn planted in the deep forest shoots up a weak, slender sapling.
Shielded by its neighbors, it feels no need of spreading its roots far
and wide for support.
Take two boys, as nearly alike as possible. Place one in the country
away from the hothouse culture and refinements of the city, with only
the district school, the Sunday school, and a few books. Remove wealth
and props of every kind; and, if he has the right kind of material in
him, he will thrive. Every obstacle overcome lends him strength for the
next conflict. If he falls, he rises with more determination than
before. Like a rubber ball, the harder the obstacle he meets the higher
he rebounds. Obstacles and opposition are but apparatus of the gymnasium
in which the fibres of his manhood are developed. He compels respect and
recognition from those who have ridiculed his poverty. Put the other boy
in a Vanderbilt family. Give him French and German nurses; gratify every
wish. Place him under the tutelage of great masters and send him to
Harvard. Give him thousands a year for spending money, and let him
The two meet. The city lad is ashamed of his country brother. The plain,
threadbare clothes, hard hands, tawny face, and awkward manner of the
country boy make sorry contrast with the genteel appearance of the
other. The poor boy bemoans his hard lot, regrets that he has "no chance
in life," and envies the city youth. He thinks that it is a cruel
Providence that places such a wide gulf between them. They meet again as
men, but how changed! It is as easy to distinguish the sturdy, self-made
man from the one who has been propped up all his life by wealth,
position, and family influence, as it is for the shipbuilder to tell the
difference between the plank from the rugged mountain oak and one from
the sapling of the forest. If you think there is no difference, place
each plank in the bottom of a ship, and test them in a hurricane at sea.
The athlete does not carry the gymnasium away with him, but he carries
the skill and muscle which give him his reputation.
The lessons you learn at school will give you strength and skill in
after life, and power, just in proportion to the accuracy, the clearness
of perception with which you learn your lessons. The school was your
gymnasium. You do not carry away the Greek and Latin text-books, the
geometry and algebra into your occupations any more than the athlete
carries the apparatus of the gymnasium, but you carry away the skill and
the power if you have been painstaking, accurate and faithful.
"It is in me, and it _shall_ come out!" And it did. For Richard
Brinsley Sheridan became the most brilliant, eloquent and amazing
statesman of his day. Yet if his first efforts had been but moderately
successful, he might have been content with mere mediocrity. It was his
defeats that nerved him to strive for eminence and win it. But it took
hard, persistent work in his case to secure it, just as it did in that
of so many others.
Byron was stung into a determination to go to the top by a scathing
criticism of his first book, "Hours of Idleness," published when he was
but nineteen years of age. Macaulay said, "There is scarce an instance
in history of so sudden a rise to so dizzy an eminence as Byron
reached." In a few years he stood by the side of such men as Scott,
Southey and Campbell. Many an orator like "stuttering Jack Curran," or
"Orator Mum," as he was once called, has been spurred into eloquence by
ridicule and abuse.
Where the sky is gray and the climate unkindly, where the soil yields
nothing save to the diligent hand, and life itself cannot be supported
without incessant toil, man has reached his highest range of physical
and intellectual development.
The most beautiful and the strongest animals, as a rule, have come from
the same narrow belt of latitude which has produced the heroes of the
The most beautiful as well as the strongest characters are not developed
in warm climates, where man finds his bread ready made on trees, and
where exertion is a great effort, but rather in a trying climate and on
a stubborn soil. It is no chance that returns to the Hindoo ryot a penny
and to the American laborer a dollar for his daily toil; that makes
Mexico with her mineral wealth poor, and New England with its granite
and ice rich. It is rugged necessity, it is the struggle to obtain, it
is poverty the priceless spur, that develops the stamina of manhood, and
calls the race out of barbarism. Labor found the world a wilderness and
has made it a garden.
The law of adaptation by which conditions affect an organism is simple
and well known. It is that which callouses the palm of the oarsman,
strengthens the waist of the wrestler, fits the back to its burden. It
inexorably compels the organism to adapt itself to its conditions, to
like them, and so to survive them.
As soon as young eagles can fly the old birds tumble them out and tear
the down and feathers from their nest. The rude and rough experience of
the eaglet fits him to become the bold king of birds, fierce and expert
in pursuing his prey.
Benjamin Franklin ran away and George Law was turned out of doors.
Thrown upon their own resources, they early acquired the energy and
skill to overcome difficulties.
Boys who are bound out, crowded out, kicked out, usually "turn out,"
while those who do not have these disadvantages frequently fail to "come
From an aimless, idle and useless brain, emergencies often call out
powers and virtues before unknown and unsuspected. How often we see a
young man develop astounding ability and energy after the death of a
parent or the loss of a fortune, or after some other calamity has
knocked the props and crutches from under him. The prison has roused the
slumbering fire in many a noble mind. "Robinson Crusoe" was written in
prison. The "Pilgrim's Progress" appeared in Bedford Jail. The "Life and
Times" of Baxter, Eliot's "Monarchia of Man," and Penn's "No Cross, No
Crown," were written by prisoners. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote "The History
of the World" during his imprisonment of thirteen years. Luther
translated the Bible while confined in the Castle of Wartburg. For
twenty years Dante worked in exile, and even under sentence of death.
His works were burned in public after his death; but genius will not
Adversity exasperates fools, dejects cowards, draws out the faculties of
the wise and industrious, puts the modest to the necessity of trying
their skill, awes the opulent, and makes the idle industrious. Neither
do uninterrupted success and prosperity qualify men for usefulness and
happiness. The storms of adversity, like those of the ocean, rouse the
faculties, and excite the invention, prudence, skill and fortitude of
the voyager. The martyrs of ancient times, in bracing their minds to
outward calamities, acquired a loftiness of purpose and a moral heroism
worth a lifetime of softness and security. A man upon whom continuous
sunshine falls is like the earth in August: he becomes parched and dry
and hard and close-grained. Men have drawn from adversity the elements
of greatness. If you have the blues, go and see the poorest and sickest
families within your knowledge. The darker the setting, the brighter the
diamond. Don't run about and tell acquaintances that you have been
unfortunate; people do not like to have unfortunate men for
This is the crutch age. "Helps" and "aids" are advertised everywhere. We
have institutes, colleges, universities, teachers, books, libraries,
newspapers, magazines. Our thinking is done for us. Our problems are all
worked out in "explanations" and "keys." Our boys are too often tutored
through college with very little study. "Short roads" and "abridged
methods" are characteristic of the century. Ingenious methods are used
everywhere to get the drudgery out of the college course. Newspapers
give us our politics, and preachers our religion. Self-help and
self-reliance are getting old fashioned. Nature, as if conscious of
delayed blessings, has rushed to man's relief with her wondrous forces,
and undertakes to do the world's drudgery and emancipate him from Eden's
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