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

travel extensively.

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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