MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
Long ago I read in one of Miss Edgeworth's tales, a maxim which has remained in my memory ever since. It was to this effectóNo one will ever become great, who is afraid of being laughed at. Now I do not wish you to seek after the empty and false greatness of this world. Ambition of this kind is contrary to the mind of Christ. But I desire you to have true greatness, virtuous independence, frankness, generosity, firmness, and decision of character.
It is not necessary for me to spend time in proving to you that the evil of which I speak is very common. Look around among your acquaintances, and you will see many who are more afraid of ridicule than they are of pain. I knew a remarkable instance of this fault. Lucius was a playmate of mine at school, and a very intimate friend. He was a lad of genius and of many good qualitiesóbut the fear of ridicule was ruinous to him. It spoiled almost all his fine traits. There was nothing so terrible to him as a laugh. At any time he would have chosen a whipping rather than a sneer from his school-mates. He therefore was led to do many wrong things, and kept from doing many right things, by his false shame. Lucius did not stop to ask whether any particular thing was right or wrong in the sight of God; the first question in his mind wasóWhat will people think of it?
The effect of this weakness was soon manifested, and it showed itself in some ways which were really ridiculous. For example, Lucius became so fully possessed of the idea that everybody was looking at him, and criticizing him, that whenever he walked the streets his whole appearance was affected by it. If he got a new coat, or hat, he was in misery, lest they should draw attention to it. On a certain occasion, I have even known him to walk through a puddle of water in order to conceal the gloss of a new pair of boots. The same foolish pride made him refuse the most useful articles of clothing, if they were a little uncommon. He seemed to imagine that he was an object of universal attention, and was a mere slave to the opinions of others.
Lucius was soon rendered very unhappy; for it was not long before the boys discovered his reigning foible. They took pleasure in laughing at his clothes, his features, his tone, his walk, and almost everything which he said or did. Poor Lucius could not keep control under their wicked attacks; and sometimes his eyes would fill with tears of mortification. This temper grew up with him, and the consequence is, that he is a poor, feeble, undecided, wavering fellow, who is afraid to take his course with a manly firmness, and must learn the opinion of everyone around him, before he ventures upon any proceeding.
This ridiculous pride, or false shame, is something more than a mere laughable peculiarity. It produces real misery, both to the subject of it and to others. Thus many people are kept from seeking the favor of Godóby fear of being ridiculed. In like manner, many neglect the duty of professing Christ before men, for the same cause. One young man is ashamed to become a Sunday-school teacher; people will take notice of it, and he will be laughed at! Another young man is afraid to admit that he has pious feelings, or say a word to his ungodly companions, lest they should scoff at him. Thus God is dishonored, and souls are lost.
Read the histories of great men, and you will see how different were their feelings. If John Howard had regarded those who used to call him "Mad Jack Howard," we never would have heard of his benevolent deeds. Or to go further back, if Columbus had been afraid of ridicule, America might not have been discovered.
Cultivate the habit of doing what is right, come what will. Be firm, be manly; have right opinions, and hold them fast. The dread of idle laughter is the basest sort of cowardice. Begin at once to overcome it. Especially in matters of duty and piety, beware how you allow the fear of man to ensnare you. I have known young men who would rather be detected in lying or swearing, than let it be known that they had retired for private devotion. And I have seen boys who would shut their Bible in the twinkling of an eye, and pretend to be doing something else, if any one came into the room where they were reading. How base, how foolish, how wicked, is such a disposition! Scorn to be guilty of this baseness of mind.
A proper regard for the opinion of others is surely desirable; but as a rational, an accountable, an immortal being, do not allow yourself to be in servitude to other minds. Above all, do not submit to the paltry laughter of those who are perhaps far inferior in judgment to yourself.
I repeat it, then, begin at once to conquer this failing, if you are conscious of it in any degree. Do what you believe to be right, in all casesódo it at onceóand at all risks. Suppose idle, foolish, or wicked people laugh at you. What then? Does their laughter injure you? Or will their good opinion repay you for the loss of a good conscience? Is not the praise of God better than the praise of man? You may depend upon it as an undoubted truth, that the very way to avoid mortification is to despise ignorant ridicule; and the very way to be constantly on the rack of confusion and injured vanity is, to yield to the scoffing of the unwise. And in the things of religion, to be governed by fear of shame is not only foolishóbut impious. It is nothing less than preferring man to God! Remember the words of Christó"Whoever shall be ashamed of me and my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels." Farewell.
Your affectionate brother,