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 it.”
“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 higher.”
“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 victory.
“Every man who makes a fortune has been more than once a bankrupt, if the truth were known,” said Albion Tourgée. “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.