Both poetry and philosophy are prodigal of eulogy over the mind which rescues itself, by its own energy, from a captivity to custom, which breaks the common bonds of empire and cuts a Simplon over mountains of difficulty for its own purposes, whether of good or of evil. We can not help admiring such a character. It is a positive relief to turn from the contemplation of those relying on some one else for a solution of the difficulties that surround them to those who are strong in their own self-reliance, who, when confronted with fresh trials and difficulties, only put on a more determined mien, and more resolutely apply their own powers to remove the obstacle so unexpectedly put in their way. There is no surer sign of an unmanly and cowardly spirit than a vague desire for help, a wish to depend, to lean upon somebody and enjoy the fruits of the industry of others.
In the assurance of strength there is strength, and they are the weakest, however strong, who have no faith in themselves or their powers. Men often conquer difficulties because they think they can. Their confidence in themselves inspires confidence in others. The man who makes every thing that conduces to happiness to depend upon himself, and not upon other men, on whose good or evil actions his own doings are compelled to hinge, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the possessor of manly character and wisdom. By self-reliance is not meant self-conceit. The two are widely different. Self-reliance is cognizant of all the ills of earthly existence, and it rests on a rational consciousness of power to contend with them. It counts the cost of the conflict with real life, and calmly concludes that it is able to meet the foes which stand in frowning array on the world’s great battle-field. Self-conceit, on the other hand, is a vainglorious assertion of power. It knows not the real difficulties it has to contend with, and is too supercilious to inquire into them. It rejects well-meant offers of counsel or assistance. It feels above taking advice. The unhappy possessor of such a trait of character is far from being a self-reliant man.
It has been said God never intended that strong, independent beings should be reared by clinging to others, like the ivy to the oak, for support. The difficulties, hardships, and trials of life—the obstacles one encounters on the road to fortune—are positive blessings. They knit his muscles more firmly, and teach him self-reliance, just as by wrestling with an athlete who is superior to us we increase our own strength and learn the secret of his skill. All difficulties come to us, as Bunyan says of temptation, like the lion which met Sampson, the first time we encounter them they roar and gnash their teeth, but once subdued we find a nest of honey in them. Peril is the very element in which power is developed. Don’t rely upon your friends, nor rely upon the name of your ancestor. Thousands have spent the prime of life in the vain hope of help from those whom they called friends, and many thousands have starved because they had a rich father.
Rely upon the good name which is made by your own exertions, and know that better than the best friend you can have is unconquerable determination of spirit, united with decision of character. Seek such attainments as will enable you to confide in yourself, to rise equal to your emergencies. Strive to acquire an inward principle of self-support. Help yourself and heaven will help you, should be the motto of every man who would make himself useful in the world or carve his way to riches and honor. It is an old saying, “He who has lost confidence can lose nothing more.” The man who dares not follow his own independent judgment, but runs perpetually to others for advice, becomes at last a moral weakling and an intellectual dwarf. Such a man has not self within him, and believes in no self, but goes as a suppliant to others and entreats of, them, one after another, to lend him theirs. He is, in fact, a mere element of a human being, and is borne about the world an insignificant cipher, unless he desperately fastens to other floating and supplementary elements, with which he may form a species of incorporation resembling a man. Any young man who will thus part with freedom and the self-respect that grows out of self-reliance and self-support is unmanly, neither deserving of assistance nor capable of making good use of it.
Hardship is the native soil of manhood and self-reliance. Opposition is what we want and must have to be good for any thing. Men seem neither to understand their riches nor their own strength. Of the former they believe greater things than they should; of the latter, much less. Self-reliance and self-denial will teach a man to drink of his own cistern, and eat bread from his own kitchen, and learn to labor truly to get his living, and carefully to expend the good things committed to his care. Every youth should be made to feel that if he would get through the world usefully and happily he must rely mainly upon himself and his own independent energies. Young men should never hear any language but this: “You have your own way to make, and it depends upon your exertion whether you starve or not. Outside help is your greatest curse. It handicaps efforts, stifles aspirations, shuts the door upon emulation, turns the key upon energy.” The custom of making provisions to assist worthy young men in obtaining an education is often a positive evil to the recipient. The germ of self-reliant energy, which else would have done so much for his material good, is stifled in its growth by the mistaken kindness of benevolent beings. And no mental acquisitions can compensate any young man for loss of self-reliance.
It is not the men who have been reared in affluence who have left the most enduring traces on the world. It is not in the sheltered garden or the hothouse, but on the rugged Alpine cliffs, where the storms beat most violently, that the toughest plants are reared. Men who are trained to self-reliance are ready to go out and contend in the sternest conflicts of life, while those who have always leaned for support on others around them are never prepared to breast the storms of adversity that arise. Self-reliance is more than a passive trust in one’s own powers. It shows itself in an active manner; it demonstrates itself in works. It is not ashamed of its pretentions, but invites inspection and asks recognition. Because there is danger of invoicing yourself above your real value, it does not follow that you should always underrate your worth. Because to be conspicuous, honored, and known you should not retire upon the center of your own conscious resources, you need not necessarily be always at the circumference. An excess of modesty is well-nigh as bad as an excess of pride, for it is, in fact, an excess of pride in another form, though it is questionable if this be not more hurtful to the individual and less beneficial to society than gross and unblushing vanity.
It is true, we all patronize humility in the abstract, and, when enshrined in another, we admire it. It is a pleasure to meet a man who does not pique our vanity, or thrust himself between us and the object of our pretensions. There is no one who, if questioned, would not be found in the depths of his heart secretly to prefer the modest man, proportionally despising the swaggerer “who goes unbidden to the head of the feast.” But while such is our deliberate verdict when taken to task in the matter, it is not the one we practically give. The man who entertains a good, stout opinion of himself always contrives somehow to cheat us out of a corresponding one, and we are too apt to acquiesce in his assumption, even though they may strike us unpleasantly. Nor need this excite our surprise. The great mass of men have no time to examine the merits of others. They are busy about their own affairs, which claim all their attention. They can not go about hunting modest worth in every nook and corner. Those who would secure their good opinion must come forward with their claims, and at least show their own confidence by backing them with vigorous assertions.
If, therefore, a man of fair talents arrays his pretensions before us, if he duns and pesters us for an admission of his merits, obtruding them upon us, we are forced at last to notice them, and, unless he fairly disgusts us by the extravagance of his claims, shocking all sense of decency, we are inclined to admit them, even in preference to superior merits, which their possessor by his own actions seem to underrate. It is too often cant by which indolent and irresolute men seek to lay their want of success at the door of the public. Well-matured and well-disciplined talent is always sure of a market, provided it exerts itself; but it must not cower at home and expect to be sought after. There is a good deal of cant, too, about the successes of forward and impudent men, while men of retiring worth are overlooked. But it usually happens that those forward men have that valuable quality of promptness and activity, without which worth is a mere inoperative quality.
The conclusion of the whole matter is, that in this busy, bustling period of the world’s history self-confidence is almost an essential trait of character in one who means to get along well and win his way to success and fortune. This may exist entirely independent of self-conceit, the two being by no means necessarily concomitant. He must remember that he can not expect to have people repose confidence in his ability unless he displays confidence in them himself. If poverty be his lot, and troubles and discouragements of all kinds press upon him, let him take heart and push resolutely ahead, cultivating a strong, self-reliant disposition. By so doing he will rise superior to misfortune. He will learn to rely on his own resources, to look within himself for the means wherewith to combat the ills that press upon him. By such a course of action he takes the road which most surely leads to success.
, In, pager