In the preface to “David Copperfield," Charles Dickens tells how with mingled feelings of regret and pleasure he laid down the pen after putting "finis” to that masterly work. He speaks of how sorrowfully the task was ended, and with what emotions he dismissed the crowd of the creatures of his brain forever. But, he goes on further to say, “instead of looking back, I will look forward."
It is profitable at times to look back, to take a retrospect, no matter how unpleasant and painful the operation may be. Indeed, before we are able to look forward with any advantage, we must first of all look back. The business man is fully aware of the importance of looking back, before he attempts to go forward; and from time to time he gets out his books, and by going carefully through them page by page, thus learns his financial position. By balancing up his profits and losses, his income and expenditure, he realizes whether he is solvent, or whether bankruptcy is impending. The stock-taking may reveal a condition of things either gratifying or disquieting, as the case may be, but it is neither shirked nor welcomed for either of these reasons, but is undertaken as a duty to himself and those he has business relations with, in order to see how he stands.
In like manner if we are to succeed in the business of life—if we are to make the most, and the best, use of our capabilities—we must, from time to time, look back. In business parlance we must have a periodical moral and spiritual stock-taking, and so find out how we are situated, and what manner of men and women we are. We must learn what are our assets, if we have any, whether we are solvent or not, whether we are being hard pressed by sin and evil, or, worse still, whether we are drifting into moral and spiritual bankruptcy. The day-book of our lives must be opened, and, going through each entry one by one, we must bring to bear upon it the light of reason and conscience. The examination and scrutiny must be thorough and searching, with no glossing over nor shirking unpleasant and damaging particulars, and no over-estimating of our position. We must weigh ourselves in the balances, and see if we are found wanting.
The need for looking back, for pausing in our labors, and so discovering whether we are retrogressing or progressing is obvious to all who desire to regulate their lives rationally and intelligently. To go blindly forward with an unreasoning blindness, oblivious of the past, shutting our eyes to its lessons, untaught by its experiences, profitless by renewed acquaintance with evil and suffering, and rebellious against its discipline, is to court failure and defeat. As the wise man at the end of each day, calmly and quietly reviews the events of the past few hours, so should we in the hurly-burly of life, from time to time withdraw ourselves from its turmoil and strife, and by earnest meditation and dispassionate introspection learn the lessons of the past, and so profit by its teachings. The self-examination may be humiliating and depressing, and reveal our unfruitfulness, and the puerile and vain illusions we have been chasing, when we might have entered into the realities of life. From the vantage-ground of the present we see the past in its proper perspective, and realize with shame and mortification the triviality and littleness of our past lives. As one writer puts it: “It is only when we occupy ourselves with mean and little things that this life seems mean and insignificant. As we rise above the merely sensuous, and make truth our chief care and delight—as we devote ourselves to its pursuit and live the calm and dignified life of thought and reflection, so does it seem more and more worthwhile to us to live. The only regret a man then feels when he thinks of the shortness of life is that so little time is left him to repair the wasted opportunities of his earlier days. He looks back over the years of his youth and early manhood, when he gave himself up to frivolous or low and sordid pursuits, and neglected those things in which he now finds his chief happiness, with shame and remorse. But then, observe, his regrets arise not so much because life is short, but because he has had so little wisdom to make a right use of it."
Thus by looking back, by retracing our lives step by step, we discover where we have erred, what mistakes we have made, and so gain knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge of ourselves, which is the essence of all knowledge, and wisdom to apply the knowledge acquired, to live in the present a truer and nobler life than in the past. To repine over the irremediable past is fatuous in the extreme and worse than useless, but to look back in order to avoid the same pitfalls, is as imperative to the seeker after the pure and the good, as it is judicious. If our self-examination has been searching and sincere, we shall have come to the realization that "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." The past has gone; the future is not; but the present is here for us to use its opportunities and privileges. As Carlyle says in “Past and Present." “Behold, the day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our happiness, our un- happiness—it is all vanished; a thing that has been. But our work—behold that is not vanished, it remains, or the want of it remains, for endless time and eternities. What hast thou done, and how?"
By doing our work faithfully, diligently, and uncomplainingly, not seeking our own happiness or gratification, but striving for truth and holiness and beauty of character, we shall be making the best preparation for the future. Then the looking back will not be marred by any regrets for past follies or derelictions, but our retrospect will be a season of joy and gladness in the remembrance of victories achieved over sin and self. The incubus of sorrow and suffering will for us have lost all its terrors, and we shall look forward calmly and fearlessly, firm in the faith that to the true, the virtuous and the upright no evil can happen. As someone has said in outlining a plan of life, “Work well and wisely, and when your little day is over, go to sleep calmly, accepting with an equal mind whatever fate, if fate there be, may be in store for you behind the veil.”
Or, as the poet beautifully expresses it:
The innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust; approach the grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
—William Cullen Bryant
Greatly begin, though thou have time
But for a line, be that sublime—
Not failure, but low aim, is crime!
—J. R. Lowell