Just Because I Want to Play


I HAVE disappointed my friends.

Not only that, but some of those friends are convinced of my ill health. Others go further: there comes a curious look in their eyes, and I know they wonder whether it is not possible that there may be something mentally wrong with me.

And why?

For two reasons: —

Just because I said that I wanted to play, and forthwith resigned from active business.

And, second, that thus I have refused to be like other American business men, who insist upon working until they have one foot in the grave, with the other dangling dangerously over the edge; who want to ‘drop in the harness,’ as they call it. Now, to my way of looking at it, there can be no possible objection to a man ‘dropping in the harness ’ if he is bent upon doing so. But why should I not have the privilege as well of dropping with the blinders off, if I so prefer?

My friends will not have it so, however. Even so acute a student of human affairs as the editor of the Atlantic immediately wrote to me upon my announced retirement from business and hoped ‘I would soon get well’! Yet never in my life had I felt more fit, as the English put it. Others go further. One of my friends has given me twelve months in which to ‘degenerate,’ as he politely termed my parting with mental capacity. And as the time is rolling on toward the end of this period, I feel his anxious eye upon me. I think he is really disappointed that no visible signs of the ‘degeneration ’ have appeared as yet, and I know he leads me into an argument on some abstruse subject with the sole intent of seeing whether my mind still works in anything like an orderly fashion. Another friend, only last evening, fixed my complete mental collapse at two years. He was, at least, more considerate, since he gives me still more than a year and a half of the capacity to understand what others are talking about — and to read the Atlantic with ordinary intelligence.

All this is the point of view of my friends when I explain my ‘why.’ It never occurs to them, however, that I may have a ‘why’ also upon their point of view; and I dare say that my point of view upon their point of view is infinitely stranger and more inexplicable to them than is theirs to me.

To me, theirs is essentially the American point of view—and more’s the pity that one can speak of it so. Not that I do not consider myself an American. I do by training, if not by birth; and sometimes I like to think that this latter parental gift makes me somewhat of a better American than the average American-born. For I have tried to take on and into myself the best that America has to offer, but I have also held on to some of the best of my Dutch ideals and ideas. And one of the latter is to enjoy the results of a lifetime of work while the capacity is still there with which to enjoy them. The European, with an older civilization and larger experience behind him, has learned this; the Englishman likewise has felt it; but the American has still to grasp the truth that the great adventure of life is something more than work — and money.

One of the most pathetic sights in our American business life is the inability of men to let go, not only for their own good, but to give the younger men behind them a chance. They hang on beyond their years of greatest usefulness and efficiency: convince themselves that they are indispensable to their business, while, in scores of cases, the truth is exactly the opposite: the business would be distinctly benefited by their retirement and the resultant coming to the front of the younger blood in affairs. A great many men in pivotal positions apparently do not see that they often have it within their power to advance the fortunes of a number of younger men by stepping out when they have served their time; while by refusing to let go they often work dire injustice, and even disaster, to their younger associates.

The real trouble with the American business man is that in many instances he is actually afraid to let go because, out of business, he would not know what to do. For years he has so immersed himself in business, to the exclusion of all other interests, that at fifty or seventy he finds himself a slave to his business, with positively no inner resources. Retirement from the one thing that he does know would naturally leave such a man useless to himself, his family, and his community: worse than useless, as a matter of fact, for he would become a burden to himself and a nuisance to his family. You rarely ever find a European or English business man reaching a mature age devoid of outside interests: he always lets the breezes of other worlds blow over his mentality when he is in affairs, with the result that, when he is ready to retire from business, he has other interests to fall back upon. This is rarely the case with the American business man. It is becoming more frequent that we see American men retiring from business and devoting themselves to other interests, and their number will undoubtedly increase as time goes on and we learn the lessons of life with a richer background. But one cannot help feeling regretful that the number is not growing larger more rapidly.

A man must unquestionably prepare years ahead for his retirement. I do not mean alone financially, which naturally is paramount, but mentally as well. I have been interested to note that, in nearly every case where a business man has told me that I have made a mistake in my retirement, and that the proper life for a man is to stick to the game and see it through, — to ’hold her nozzle agin the bank,’ as Jim Bludso would say, — it has been a man with no resource outside of his business. Naturally, my action is a mistake in the eyes of such a man; but think of the pathos of such a position, where, in a world of so much interest and an age so fascinatingly full of worth-while things, a man has allowed himself to become so absorbed in his business that he has become a slave to it and to it alone, and cannot imagine another man happy without the same bone at which to gnaw.

It is this lesson that the American business man has still to learn: that he is not living a four-squared life if he concentrates every waking thought on his material affairs. He has still to learn that man cannot five by bread alone. The making of money, the accumulation of material power, is not all there is to living. Life is something more than those two things, and the man who misses this truth misses the greatest joy and satisfaction that can come into his life — that is, from service for others.

Some men argue that they can give service and be in business too. But ‘service’ with such men generally means the drawing of a check for some worthy cause and letting it go at that. I would not for a moment belittle the giving of contributions, but it is a poor nature that can satisfy itself that it is serving humanity by the mere signing of a check. There is no form of service so easy and so cheap as to give a check to an object with the interest stopping there. Real service is where a man gives himself with his check, and that the average business man cannot do if he remains in affairs. Particularly true is this of to-day, when every problem of business is so engrossing, demanding a man’s fullest time and thought. It is the rare man who can devote himself to business and be fresh for the service of others afterward. No man can, with efficiency to either, serve two masters so exacting as are these. He can do one or the other effectively; both, he can do only ineffectively. Besides, if his business has seemed enough worth while to demand his entire attention, are not the great uplift questions equally worth his exclusive thought? Are they any easier of solution than the material problems?


As I see it, a man should divide his life into three periods.

First, that of education, acquiring the fullest and best within his power.

Second, that of achievement: achieving for himself and his family, and discharging the first duty of any man — to see that in case of his incapacity those who are closest to him are provided for. But such provision does not mean an accumulation that becomes to those he leaves behind him an embarrassment rather than a protection. To prevent this, the next period confronts him.

Third, service for others. That is the acid test where many a man falls short: to know instinctively and truly when he has enough, and to be willing, not only to let well enough alone, but to give a helping hand to the other fellow; to recognize, in a practical way, that we are our brothers’ keepers; that a brotherhood of man does exist elsewhere than in a war-oration or an afterdinner speech. Too many men make the mistake, when they reach the point of having enough, of going on pursuing the same old game: accumulating more money, grasping for more power, until either a nervous breakdown overtakes them and a sad incapacity is the result, or they drop ‘in the harness,’ which is, of course, calling an early grave by another name. They cannot seem to get the truth into their heads that, as they have been helped by others, so should they now help others.

No man has a right to leave the world as he found it. He must add something to it: either he must make its people better or happier, or he must make the face of the world more beautiful or fairer to look at. And the one really means the other.

Take the really tragic picture that we all too often see in our American family life, where the father has become so completely a slave to his business that he has no time to be a father. If the saying be true that everything achieved in this life is at the expense of something else, it would seem sometimes that a man’s material success is too often bought at the cost of the fatherly relation. I saw an instance of this only a few days ago, when a fine lad of twenty ran home just overnight from college, to consult his father as to what at that age looms so very important: a heart affair. He found his father talking with a business friend, and the mother took the boy off to her room, the father saying that he would be up shortly. But he became engrossed in the topic under discussion, and when he went upstairs at midnight the boy, tired of waiting, had gone to bed. In the morning, father and son went to the city together; but the father had some ‘important papers’ to look over, and the boy, fearful of disturbing him and knowing that he would not secure his attention for the subject in mind, remained silent, and the two parted without the highly desired confidences being exchanged.

Too busy! ‘Father is such good company,’ said a son, looking at his father absorbed in some business papers; ‘but the trouble is, he is so busy you can’t get hold of him.’ How often one hears this of the successful man; and the sons or daughters proceed with their lives, their enjoyments, and leave the father out! ‘He is so nice,’ said a daughter of a busy, successful man, ‘but we do not feel as if he belonged to us any more. It is always business, business. He has got himself into so many things that he really has n’t time for us.’ What a picture to contemplate!

One of the loveliest girls I know said to me of her father: ‘How I wish father would do what you have done! He could easily do it. As it is, we hardly see anything of him; he is hardly ever at home, and when he is, he is busy at meetings or conferences in the evenings, or he has business friends at the house. It is always that horrid business.’ A man who had recently retired from a pivotal position told me that what brought him to a decision was his daughter’s saying to him, ‘Dear Daddy, I could love you so much if I only had a chance’ to get acquainted with you.’

Wife after wife complains of the husband’s utter absorption in business, to the exclusion of herself and her children; and yet the husband goes on piling up more money, reaching out for more power; and, pray, for what? The wife repeatedly says, ‘We have plenty. Let up now and take some pleasure.’ The children look longingly to their father for those parental times to which they are entitled. But the man has grown, as it were, to his desk, until, as Charles Lamb says, the very wood has entered his soul. And unless he awakes in time, either he passes away or his children pass out of his home, and the great, deep, satisfying feeling of a father’s relation has never been his. It has all been sordid materialism: he has sold his highest self for a mess of pottage. In truth, what shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world, and lose his child?

‘All very beautiful,’ will say some men. ‘But that’s idealism.’ Of course it is. But just what is the matter with idealism? What, really, is idealism? Do one tenth of those who use the phrase so glibly in these days know its true meaning and the part it has played in the world? The worthy interpretation of an ideal is that it consists of an idea: a conception of the imagination which perceives ideals. But all ideas are first ideals; they must be. The producer brings forth an idea, but some dreamer has dreamed it before him either in whole or in part. Where would human history be to-day were it not for the ideals of men? Washington, in his day, was decried as an idealist. So was Jefferson. It was a remark commonly made of Lincoln that he was ‘a rank idealist.’ Morse, Watt, Marconi, Edison— all were adjudged idealists. We say of the League of Nations that it is ideal, and we use the term in a derogatory sense. But that was exactly what was said of the Constitution of the United States. ‘Insanely ideal,’ was the term used of it. The idealist, particularly to-day when his need is so great, is not to be scoffed at. It is through him, and only through him, that the world will see its new and clear vision of what is right and true. It is he who has the power of going out of himself, a power which too many utterly lack nowadays; it is he who, in seeking the ideal, will, through his own clearer perception, or that of others, transform the ideal into the real. ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish,’ is a thought well worth remembering in these days. Where would the world be to-day were it not for the vision of the idealist?

I notice, however, that the vast majority of my friends mistake my idea when I say that ‘ I want to play.’ ‘ Play ’ to them means tennis, golf, horseback, polo, travel, and the like. (Curious how seldom one has mentioned reading.) No one enjoys some of these playforms more than I do; but God forbid that I should spend the rest of my days on the golf-course or in the saddle. In moderation, yes; most decidedly. But ‘ play ’ means — at least to me — something more than all this. Play is diversion : an exertion of the mind as well as of the body. There is such a thing as mental play as well as physical play. We ask of play that it shall rest, refresh, and exhilarate us. Is there any form of mental activity that does all these so thoroughly and so directly as when one is doing something he really likes to do; doing it with all his heart, and conscious all the time that he is helping to make the world better for someone else? Can man raise himself to any higher possible standard or eminence, and thus to greater exhilaration, mental and physical, than when he is serving?

A man’s ‘play’ can take any form. If his life has been barren of books or travel, let him read and see the world. But he reaches his high estate through either of these worlds only when he reads or travels to enrich himself, so that he may give out what he gets from the printed line he reads or the new worlds he sees, and thereby enrich the lives of others. He owes it to himself to get his own refreshment, his own pleasure; but he can get all that without pure self-indulgence.

Other men, with more active bodies and minds, feel drawn to the modern arena of great questions that puzzle. It matters not in which direction a man goes, any more than the length of a step matters so much as does the direction in which it is taken. He should seek those questions which engross his deepest interest, whether literary, musical, artistic, civic, economic, or what not. Our cities, towns, and communities of all sizes and kinds, urban and rural, cry out for men to solve their problems of every sort. There is room and to spare for the man of any bent. The ancient Greeks looked forward, on coming to the age of retirement, which was definitely fixed, to a rural life; and they hied themselves to a little place in the country, held open house for their friends, and ‘kept bees.’ While bee-keeping is unquestionably interesting, there are other and more vital occupations awaiting the hand of the retired American man. The main thing is to secure that freedom of foot movement that will let a man go where he will and do what he thinks he can do best, and prove to himself and to others that the acquirement of the dollar is not all there is to life. No man can realize, until he has awakened some morning and felt its exhilaration, that sense of freedom that comes from a condition where he can choose his own doings and control his own goings — can walk about and not to and fro, as Charles Lamb said of his retirement. Time is of more value than money, and it is that which the man who retires feels that he possesses.

Hamilton Mabie once said, after his retirement from an active editorial position, ‘ I am so happy that the time has come when I elect what I shall do’; which is true; but then he added, ‘I have rubbed out the word “must” from my vocabulary’; which was not true. No man ever reaches that point. Duty of some sort confronts a man in business or out of business, and duty spells ‘must.’ But there is less ‘must’ in the vocabulary of the retired man; and it is this lesser quantity that gives the tang of joy to the new day.

It is a wonderful point of inner personal satisfaction to reach when a man can say, ‘I have enough.’ I like to think that he is made over by it, that his soul and character are refreshed by it. He begins a new life; he gets a sense of a new joy that he has never had; he feels, for the first time, what a priceless possession is that thing that he never knew before — freedom. And if he seeks that freedom at the right time in his life, when he is at the summit of his years and powers, and at the most opportune time in his affairs, he has the supreme satisfaction that is denied to so many men, and the opposite of which comes home with such cruel force to them: that they overstayed their time; they wore out their welcome.

There is no satisfaction that so thoroughly satisfies as that of going while the going is good!