There is a common saying current which runs, "If you want to know what a man is ask his wife," and like most homely maxims this saying expresses an obvious truth. It is but to utter a platitude to say that a man’s real character is best known to those nearest to him. In the world it is possible to throw dust into men’s eyes, to deceive them, intentionally or unintentionally, and in this way a man may gain a reputation at variance with his character, but in the home the mask is torn off, all pretences and assumptions are unavailing, and he is known for what he is. His weaknesses, shortcomings, and imperfections, yes, and his virtues, stand out in all their nakedness.
But when all this has been said and admitted, in every individual there are certain beneficent qualities of mind and character, undreamed of even by his dearest friend. A well-known writer, in one of his books, tells the story of a man who, although he had never treated his wife with cruelty, yet had somewhat neglected her, looking upon her with indifference. The woman died, and one day, the husband, in looking over some of his late wife’s belongings, came upon a diary she had kept, all unknown to him. He commenced to read the entries day by day, and was filled with amazement and humbled to the dust. A character of the most exquisite beauty was revealed. With blinding tears he read the most beautiful thoughts, the holiest aspirations, and the most intense yearnings for the sorrows and sufferings of others. Love, pity, gentleness had filled her heart to overflowing; her life had been spent in expiation and service, yet her husband had been blind to all her virtues. Thinking her commonplace, he had been the daily companion of a woman, only a little lower than the angels.
No man is said to be a hero to his valet, and it is perfectly true that familiarity very often breeds something akin to contempt. This, I am afraid, is because human nature is prone to look for the evil in others instead of the good. Most persons possess more virtue than we give them credit for, and, generally speaking, we underestimate and undervalue the characters of those we come in daily contact with. How ready we are to excuse our own shortcomings, and how quick to condemn others. The poet Longfellow said: "lf, invisible ourselves, we could follow a single human being through a day of his life, and know all his secret thoughts and hopes, and anxieties, his prayers and tears and good resolves, his passionate delights and struggles against temptation, we should have poetry enough to fill a volume." A belief in the innate goodness of human nature is the mark of a great and noble mind; or, as a writer beautifully expresses it: "To know all is to forgive all." Unable to comprehend the workings of another’s mind, to enter the inner sanctuary of his soul, we are utterly at loss to even as much as guess his secret thoughts and aspirations. Thus we are never in a position to judge another’s actions, unless we know the motive prompting the act, and this is almost impossible.
We often hear it lamented how, in time of trouble and adversity, friends show their perfidy by utter indifference, if not actual desertion, but little is said of those who under similar circumstances seek to mitigate our misfortunes by everything in their power. Before we criticize the conduct of others, it is as well to ask ourselves the question, how do we treat others in misfortune? Who, during a trying illness, has not realized with mingled feelings of surprise and gratitude, the latent sympathy and kindness, possessed by his friends and relatives, each vying to outstrip the other in their efforts to assuage his sufferings. Phases of character show themselves which previously we would not have given their possessors credit for, and deeds of unselfishness, and acts of self-denial are almost hourly occurrences. At such a time we recognize that the heart of man is good and not evil, that sin is alien to human nature, and not inherent.
We are all said to possess two characters, one by which we are known to our friends and acquaintances, and the other known only to ourselves; and it is the latter, and the best side of our nature which is entirely hidden from the eyes of men. Thus, in our judgments, we judge blindly and with insufficient knowledge, and entirely misunderstand the position of others, frequently causing sorrow and pain.
"If men only understood
All the emptiness and aching
Of the sleeping and the waking
Of the souls they judge so blindly,
Of the hearts they pierce unkindly,
They, with gentler words and feeling,
Would apply the balm of healing—
If they only understood."
In almost every department of life we give men credit for more talent and ability than they exhibit. We anticipate that the literary man possesses a deeper knowledge of men and things than he embodies in his books, and the teacher more learning than he expounds. Thus in ethics we may safely say that all human beings possess more virtue than we imagine. "They have a reserve of righteousness and goodness which some time or other will find a channel of expression. If then, we ever judge our fellow creatures, we should always bear this in mind—"the one truth more"—that deep down in their hearts, there lies a fount of holiness far exceeding our highest anticipations.