From The Simple Life, 1903
By Charles Wagner
In its dreams, man’s ambition embraces vast limits, but it is rarely given us to achieve great things, and even then, a quick and sure success always rests on a groundwork of patient preparation. Fidelity in small things is at the base of every great achievement. We too often forget this, and yet no truth needs more to be kept in mind, particularly in the troubled eras of history and in the crises of individual life. In shipwreck a splintered beam, an oar, any scrap of wreckage, saves us. On the tumbling waves of life, when everything seems shattered to fragments, let us not forget that a single one of these poor bits may become our plank of safety. To despise the remnants is demoralization.
You are a ruined man, or you are stricken by a great bereavement, or again, you see the fruit of toilsome years perish before your eyes. You cannot rebuild your fortune, raise the dead, recover your lost toil, and in the face of the inevitable, your arms drop. Then you neglect to care for your person, to keep your house, to guide your children. All this is pardonable, and how easy to understand! But it is exceedingly dangerous. To fold one’s hands and let things take their course, is to transform one evil into worse. You who think that you have nothing left to lose, will by that very thought lose what you have. Gather up the fragments that remain to you, and keep them with scrupulous care. In good time this little that is yours will be your consolation. The effort made will come to your relief, as the effort missed will turn against you. If nothing but a branch is left for you to cling to, cling to that branch; and if you stand alone in defense of a losing cause, do not throw down your arms to join the rout. After the deluge a few survivors repeopled the earth. The future sometimes rests in a single life as truly as life sometimes hangs by a thread. For strength, go to history and Nature. From the long travail of both you will learn that failure and fortune alike may come from the slightest cause, that it is not wise to neglect detail, and, above all, that we must know how to wait and to begin again.
In speaking of simple duty I cannot help thinking of military life, and the examples it offers to combatants in this great struggle. He would little understand his soldier’s duty who, the army once beaten, should cease to brush his garments, polish his rifle, and observe discipline. “But what would be the use?” perhaps you ask. Are there not various fashions of being vanquished? Is it an indifferent matter to add to defeat, discouragement, disorder, and demoralization? No, it should never be forgotten that the least display of energy in these terrible moments is a sign of life and hope. At once everybody feels that all is not lost. During the disastrous retreat of 1813-1814, in the heart of the winter, when it had become almost impossible to present any sort of appearance, a general, I know not who, one morning presented himself to Napoleon, in full dress and freshly shaven. Seeing him thus, in the midst of the general demoralization, as elaborately attired as if for parade, the Emperor said: My general, you are a brave man!