Moral Perspective


Is there anything in nature which when scrutinized does not appear wonderful ? Familiar as it may be to our careless glances, the moment we begin to examine it we find how much more than we had imagined there is in it to study and ponder over. And true as this is of objects in nature, it is more true, so to speak, with regard to our fellow-men. The nearer the relationship, the closer the intimacy, the more we find to learn about our friend or brother. Never while he lives ought we to fancy we know of any man all there is to be known. The main lines of character, the stronger currents of feeling, we have perhaps discovered, but we may be sure there are regions whose depths we have not penetrated. All we do know has come to us as fragments, and we put the pieces together as a child does his " dissected map.” Is it not true, on the other hand, that the very nearness to a friend which gives us opportunity of studying him in detail in another way interferes with our gaining a just and whole impression ? We know there is an opposite method of approach to objects that brings into view features which, seen too close at hand, we are likely to overlook. I think we often fail of a proper understanding of our best known friend by forgetting to look at him in perspective. We see the picture habitually at too short remove from it, and not in the large wholeness of the composition, as in the intention of the artist and in its true proportions it should be viewed.

We regard our neighbor or friend too often from the standpoint of our own relation to him ; it is as he affects us that we chiefly think of and judge him. It does not occur to us that he may have qualities which are not brought out at all in connection with us. The personality of each of us is like a little sphere, which meeting with another touches it at a single point and leaves it, rolling on to meet and touch in like manner a third sphere at some different point of its own circumference. To take a thorough and true account of any man, therefore, it is necessary — and impossible — that we know him as intimately in his relation to other persons as in his relation to ourself.

If we were taxed with the fault, most of us would admit that we are less grateful for the blessings of our life than disposed to complain of its deprivations and misfortunes. In the same fashion, we take our dear brother’s or sister’s graces and virtues calmly, as matters of course, while we wonder at and deplore his defects and faults. We are prepared to love perfectly, we believe, but it is a perfect being we unconsciously make demand for as the object of our affection.

Suppose we were really to love our neighbor as ourself, — in the way that makes us certain that we are better than any one knows us to be. We are aware of unworthy thoughts and wishes at times, it is true, which we should be ashamed to have come to light, and yet we are conscious also of aspirations and strivings after the infinitely good and true which we can never put into words. There are depths of love for those my life is bound up with that are never wholly revealed, either in my words or deeds. There is an ideal self in me to which my actual self is always striving to conform ; is there not in my brother, too, an ideal I but dimly guess at? There is no time when we come so near to knowing a friend truly as when he has gone forever from our earthly sight. Then for the first time we see him in right focus of vision. Pettier, accidental traits are lost to us ; the more distinctive ones come out; the general scope of character, the permanent, constructive forces of his soul, stand forth in clear light. We think of him not merely as he was to us, but as he was to himself and to his Maker. We wonder then that we thought so little of the ideal aspect of the man, — of that which during all his frail and faulty life he wished to be, tried to be, and perhaps in truth was more nearly than we suspected.

Thus sympathetically reviewed, the career of our dead friend becomes sometimes strangely pathetic. Brilliant in mind, sanguine in temperament, full of confidence and energy, he started out to win intellectual honors and social distinction, and perhaps achieved a measure of success; but repeated misfortunes or certain inherent weaknesses of character, lack of balance, wisdom, or staying power, got in his way, clogged the wheels of his advance, till at last he dropped behind, gave up the race, and ended his days in premature retirement from the world’s activities. This drama of his life, — it was of intense moment and interest to him, but, preoccupied with ourselves, how little thought we had to spare for our friend ! The new and truer apprehension of him flashed on us when too late ; only in time to bring self-reproach for our selfish blindness.

Friends often smile inwardly as they listen to a mourner fondly recalling the noble and endearing qualities of a dear one gone, and go away saying to each other benevolently, It is only natural a man’s family should idealize him when they have lost him. Yes, it is natural and it is right, and in the long perspective to which death has removed him he is first truly seen and known.