Our Social Salvation
The world is enlarged for us, not by new objects, but by finding more affinities and potencies in those we have...It is not talent, but sensibility which is best: talent confines, but the central life puts us in relation to all...Feel yourself, and be not daunted by things.
It is frequently remarked that a certain individual is 'very exclusive'; or that certain society, supposed to comprehend within itself many desirable qualities, is 'a very exclusive society.' The expression is invariably held to be of the most complimentary nature imaginable, and the grande dame who could achieve the reputation of being the most exclusive of her time was the grandest dame of all!
Still more remarkable was a local article on Old Trinity, New York, in the columns of the New York Herald, in which the writer evidently intended to express himself in the most complimentary terms regarding this church, and he therefore described it as 'the most wealthy and exclusive church in New York'
But why 'exclusive'? the average reader would inquire. Is the ministry of the Gospel to be judged by a curious social standard that holds up exclusiveness rather than delusiveness as a cardinal virtue? And whom does it exclude? It is the poor only who are excluded, because it is, as its chronicler describes, a 'wealthy' church? Or is it the absolutely sinful and immoral who are excluded from the teaching of Him who declares that He came to save sinners? Or is it the ill-clad or the ill-bred, or the people who, though sufficiently well-to-do, and well-clad and well-bred, are still not' in society'? It would be interesting to learn just what people or class of people are excluded by an 'exclusive' church.
The attribute of exclusiveness has for a long time masqueraded under the highest and choicest pretensions. Is it not time to prick the bubble of a most absurd fallacy—of one utterly out of keeping with the spirit of the age, one at variance with every Christian grace and every better impulse of gentle breeding, and show it for what it is—as a term denoting defective social sympathy, limited intellect, absurd pretension, and colossal conceit?
To be exclusive is to exclude. Now, the note of the day, in all its higher and nobler trend of thought, is to include, to share, to communicate.
When will arise the grande dame of society sufficiently secure in her grandeur to assume the inclusive rather than the exclusive position—one whose social aspirations will take the form of outgoing generous sympathies and liberal recognition and sunny stimulus—one of whom her admirers will say, as the highest praise they can bestow, that she 'is one of the most inclusive women of society'?
The truth is that anyone can be exclusive. It requires, to be sure, a petty brain, and a cold and narrow heart, and a lack of sympathy and imagination, and a very distorted and exaggerated opinion of oneself; still, all these qualities can be cultivated, if this is the true social ideal to be held before humanity, and their successful cultivation by all the communicants of a 'wealthy and exclusive church' would doubtless enable the church itself to become most highly and rigidly exclusive. The only question is: Is this the true ideal?
Emerson has remarked that' exclusiveness excludes itself.' All that we keep out we go without. If we admit no one we deprive ourselves of every one. If we admit a few, in order that we may lay that flattering unction of exclusiveness to our souls, we exclude the many. Cui bono? Or on the plane of the intellectual rather than the plutocratic aristocracy, is there no pleasure in the society of people who have not written a book? It takes, or rather it should take—it is not safe to assert that it invariably does—some good degree of knowledge to write; but there is much to be said for that portion of the community who know enough not to write a book. On the whole, literature does not comprehend within itself all the intellect of the world nor all the intellectual activity.
There is a great universal love which the world only dimly comprehends. There is a transcendent greatness of life into which every soul may and should enter. There is the joy of possessing, and the infinitely greater joy of sharing all spiritual possessions. If you have greater knowledge, better manners, finer culture, do not exclude those who have less, but include and share, and thus find in it its divinest sweetness. Exclusiveness is the attribute of the barbarian, the savage, or the defective person. Why should it be affected by those whose greatest glory should lie in the inclusiveness of all human aid and human affections!
And all absolute judgment of people is erroneous, because character is an ever-living and ever-growing force. The man who was unworthy five years ago may be most worthy today, and he may have been enabled to attain a state of worthiness by means of one who did not pose as an exclusive, but whose noble convictions and generous ardor led him 'to condense and crystallize into the uses of daily life the teachings of Christ.
Is it not true that it is not exclusiveness which is great, but rather the power to so touch and inspire the best qualities of others, to develop and quicken these, that they shall grow worthy of inclusiveness? Even to be common is less vulgar than to be snobbish; to be capable of appreciation and reverence is higher than to be only capable of severe criticism; to give always of one's best—these are the qualities that most unvaryingly characterize the spirits finely touched but to fine issues.
All the same it is true that while errors, faults, even crimes, may be forgiven and condoned, a defect in taste cannot be. This may seem on the surface a flippant and superficial thing to say, and something to be tolerated only as a paradox—a sentiment, indeed, that, looked at seriously and rationally, has not sufficient consistency for cohesion; but a deeper consideration will reveal its eternal truth.
A fault of taste, either in language or manner, is rooted in personality. It is the external manifestation of an internal defect. It reaches back into heredity, environment, individuality. It is not the result of an impulse of the moment, of a flash of temper, or some erratic and temporary emotion; it is simply a thing that reveals the grain of life, its very quality.
There is something in being too fine for the world's coarser uses, too fastidious for associations that jar on the more delicate and exacting sense of the external fitness of things. Such a temperament should have its due respect, and perhaps may well be allowed to see its visions and to dream its dreams. To attain its own individual possibilities it absolutely requires a certain amount of guarding and shielding from ruder forces, and it is useless to call on it for the heroic, for that is not in its métier.
But while such a nature should have its due respect, it is not entitled to an undue portion. Its defects are not to be mistaken for some finer and more or less incomprehensible kind of virtues. To be unable to bear any degree of average contact with the world is not, necessarily, to be altogether superior to the world. It depends. It is a great misfortune to anyone to conceive and cherish the idea that he is not as other men are; that he is of finer clay and of a superior order of nature, and requires certain special dispensations of life and a particular ordering of events in relation to himself to enable him to endure this mortal pilgrimage at all. It is a misfortune, first, because it is difficult to persuade a sufficient number of persons of this conviction to insure the desired comfort of his life; and, secondly, because, if a large proportion, or even all with whom he comes in contact, were so persuaded, it would so isolate him in an atmosphere of selfishness that his better nature would be absolutely stifled and dwarfed, and in time killed—if that immortal part of us which is our better nature can die. There is not, however, much danger that a very alarming proportion of humanity will unite in this view of the being who feels himself alien to them; and such a belief on his own part, unsupported by others, produces a scarcely veiled antagonism which sets one ajar with life. It hinders his best development, and is a serious barrier to his usefulness. There is a sense in which fastidiousness and selfishness are almost synonymous.
This question, indeed, involves a problem which is of a very practical nature. The social life of the day—using the term 'society' in its large and general sense—is tending more and more to organization. There is no idea, no theory held that does not immediately become the nucleus of some club or society. Those who support the idea or the cause naturally gravitate to it, and the hourly proverb about the strange companions that poverty makes applies as well to the singularly incompatible personal associations often enforced by means of A's and B's devotion to the same idea.
Now it is very possible to have a true enthusiasm for ameliorating the condition of the Jews in Russia, or exterminating the saloon from the face of the earth, or giving lovely woman the ballot, or to place the railroads of the nation under government control, without being precisely able to love your neighbor as yourself—or, at least, to love all your neighbors as yourself—simply because they, too, have sympathetic fervors towards the Russian Jews, and hold convictions regarding the duty of the government.
In the clubs formed purely on the intellectual or literary basis, there is a strong presumption of sympathy in the beginning. People who unite in liking Dante must have a good deal in common with each other. Those who are drawn together by a common desire to pursue literary culture in this form are those that have mutual tastes and appreciations to a great degree.
Not necessarily is this true of the workers for some great reform. Emerson and Mrs. Childs have told us of the ludicrous incongruity of the anti-slavery workers, whose ranks included Garrison and Phillips on the one hand, and the most extraordinary specimens of humanity on the other hand. What then? Does the refined and courtly and polished Phillips withdraw from a cause he holds sacred because he is partly supported in the company of boors? Assuredly not.
For while there is much to be said, and due recognition to be given, to the refinement that is too fine for crude and common contact, there is more to be said for that refinement which is so fine that it can go among the coarsest, which is so perfected that it can endure and withstand and indeed be impervious to any rudeness or crudeness; a refinement that is not a merely decorative attribute of character, but that can go into the coarse and common life and inspire it with a suggestion of something better—that can spiritualize all with which it comes in contact.
Fastidiousness, that left alone degenerates into selfishness and aloofness, is, when inspired by the enthusiasm for humanity, redeemed to the refinement that lifts up others to its own high level.
Surely it is better to go into the highway and the byway, and love men, and serve them, and contribute an endeavor, be it much or little, to make the world a better place, than it is to wrap ourselves in the mantle of a fondly fancied superiority, and reject all contact with the great and the common daily currents of life.
More Articles by This Author Lilian Whiting
- Born on October 3rd, 1859 in Niagara Falls, New York and died in 1942
- Author and journalist
- Edited The Boston Traveler and The Boston Budget