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Character and Its Expression

Endless are the marks of identification we carry about us, whether the insignia of rank, or mental scars and birthmarks. The evidences of our present outlook—the impress of the restless mind upon the plastic clay—are written all over the man, and head, face and hands are pages on which are crowded hieroglyphics, or which are still left blank. Here is a vacant space where knowledge shall one day put her seal and stamp the indelible lines—furrows of insight between the brows. Command is written in a nose, resistance in a chin, and lust or sweetness in a mouth. Look to the chin for bulldog pertinacity but to the brow and nose for the sign of the cloud-compelling, irresistible, god-like character. Look to the high cheek bones for the Indian fighter, but to the firm and furrowed, yet serene and smiling mouth, for the poise which marks the self-conqueror, the invincible. As a man carries his burdens, so does he carry himself, erect or bowed over; as he controls or is controlled, so does he stride or shamble; as he holds his head, such assurance has he in himself; and according as his perception is small or great does he grope in his walk or move with the sanguine and unshaken confidence of one who trusts.

We are autobiographers one and all; writing volumes in our eyes and mouths, recording the history of the past and predictions for the future. That which we would not tell another he is reading in our eyes; that of which we are unaware is betrayed in the shape of the head. Promise yet unfilled is inscribed upon the brow; the shadows of the past are still shadows on the face. Here are truth, sincerity, repose, shining in these eyes, a beacon to all who may scan the human face; here are kindliness and beneficence speaking from these silent lips. One says in an off moment that he cannot, but his thumbs know better and proclaim the indomitable will. The knotty hands bespeak the philosophic mind, the tapering fingers reveal the love of art. We may look into the upturned faces in a crowd and read the history of civilization from savagery to refinement. There are faces that bear the impress of the Iron Age; faces that still have the stamp of the Stone Age, and those that would seem to lick their chops and snarl. And there are faces that are a load-stone to our virtues and draw forth the pith and marrow of our excellence; faces that command us to stand erect; faces that bid us be happy.

We continually set a value upon ourselves in everything we do. Here are we ensconced behind a mask of flesh, as a theater stands behind the posters that advertise what manner of performance is taking place within, whether tragedy or comedy. To write your name is to publish your present worth and your deficiency. The pen is the veriest telltale and hastens to write down the caliber and distinction of the mind that directs it, and to announce its secret foibles; runs uphill or down, hops and skips or plays the laggard, crosses t's or omits them, writes coarse or fine, forms every letter and makes every dot and dash in accordance with the bent of this same mind. In our letter we forward unwittingly our credentials to friend and stranger, expressing the amplitude of our vibration, the measure of our content, our hopes, our equanimity. There are letters that are colorless, that have no luster and never sparkle even in the kindliest light, and to receive such a flabby missive is like shaking a clammy hand; there are others that are full of force and originality and breathe vitality and good-will; others that bristle with idiosyncrasies. Some letters are messengers of hope—bright joyous airs suddenly striking upon the ear; and some are like a discordant note—scratchy, wheezy, complaining lines. There are men whose every letter enriches our thought and is like a glimpse of some fair garden; they waft the perfume of heliotrope and mignonette, and we fancy we have seen the gleam of hummingbirds in the climbing honeysuckle.

The voice is one envoy of character that represents us at the court of the world. Deep, full and sonorous, it carries conviction, commands and assures; blustering and noisy, it betokens latent coarseness; smooth and polished, reveals the diplomat. A sincere jovial voice rings true, and is the sweetest music to the ear. We hear voices that are weary and voices that are sad; athletic voices, and voices with lame backs; elementary voices—those that express mental diffusion and incoherence; others concentrated as lye. Listen, and we shall hear the animal affinities speaking through the voice—whining, growling, purring, cackling. There are voices that are even and balanced and tell of stable equilibrium; tones eloquent and persuasive; tones that are full of sympathy and which soothe and caress. Others there are that when they have ceased it is to feel that an angel has passed our way. But it is when we laugh that we are taken unawares. Some men seldom if ever laugh aloud, and there are those whose laugh is hollow and mirthless. A certain laugh betrays moral disintegration, and there is that again which sounds clear and reinforcing as the taps of a hammer, and builds for us a little sound palace of merriment. Sweet is the contagion of a benign smile and a genial laugh.

But where indeed may we draw the line, for the very cobblestones have tongues and walls have ears. "Wear at the toe, spend as you go; wear at the heel, spend a great deal." What character in a well-worn pair of boots, eloquent of the dignity of their owner, or bespeaking frivolity, or plain, unvarnished sense! In shaking hands is discovered somewhat of the mind's complexion—for a man either gives or withholds himself in his salutation and in either case betrays his attitude, and for the moment his temperament ekes out at his fingers' ends and pervades you through your arm—sanguine or despondent, electric or phlegmatic. The clasping of hands is always a contact of the poles of two batteries, from which ensues attraction or repulsion according to the conditions. In our tastes, our pursuits, our clothes, do we still publish ourselves; our very ailings herald us and announce wherein we are warped and crooked.

But these indications are but straws which reveal the direction of the prevailing winds; for so impermanent are we in these our growing days that we would seem to be no one person, but one today and another tomorrow, and the body a receptacle in which to exhibit various stages of growth. Here is an epicure turned Stoic; there a cynic become optimist, a materialist transformed and spiritualized, a roué turned parson—one man of many minds no less than many men of many minds. We disown that man we were ten years since; we marvel at the views we once held and at the aspect life once presented. How is it possible we thought as we did then? Then we would have asked could it be possible for us to think as we do now. Shifting! Changing! Evolving! Mists taking shape, worlds resolving themselves out of the nebulous mass of undeveloped, misty, vaporous thought: such are the minds of men. How long, through what eons, must the mass continue whirling and surging before it takes shape, before it becomes a sphere, begins to cool, to assume an identity of its own and become amenable to higher ends? But through it all is seen the hand at the potter's wheel, molding and shaping—a man.

We are wont to think of how intimately we know our friend when in fact we know him hardly at all, nor any one—not even ourselves. Character we know and recognize in a degree, but to read character out and out is to perceive but a dim reflection of the Soul. All these years we have walked and talked together and have come but little nearer save in an outward and personal sense. The son is an enigma to the father and the father to the son; husband and wife, brother and sister, all seemingly unrelated and unrevealed one to the other. Our friend dwells beside us a perpetual mystery, and we never fathom his secret nor he ours. He is like a house with whose exterior we are familiar but whose inmate we have never seen. Occasionally a light has flashed from the windows, and then we have watched and it has been dark for days; but still we are led to anticipate that some time it shall be brightly and continuously illumined. On rare instances sweet melodies have been wafted abroad from within the house; again, there have been long periods of silence, or the ears have been assailed by din and hubbub.

It requires character to read character. Superficially we are all things to all men despite ourselves. One considers us taciturn, another loquacious; to some we have seemed clever and to others dull. Because of these ideals we have cherished, one calls us visionary, another, wise and prophetic. Every man gages us by himself. A rogue believes all men are rascals; and moral weakness excuses mankind on the same ground. But a Parsifal sees no rascality in any one, for the pure see all things purely. In our own eyes we are every one a chronometer to other men's watches.

The boon companion of youth meets us in middle age and we are as far apart as the antipodes and no longer have any common ground on which to stand. We may never expect that all men shall call us good, for some will persist in calling us villain, and the companions of our weakness will disparage our strength. But in spite of what we may appear to the world we are yet something different. Let the world vote on any man and he would have as many aspects as there were votes and still would be none of these but something more, for no one can fully take our measure but must use what measuring-stick he has. We take our estimate of the persons of history from the slim evidence of their biographies, but were we to have talked with the men themselves we would have received a different impression, and could we have seen the secret workings of the mind, a different one still. A man's contemporaries give one verdict and posterity another, and neither is complete. To understand greatness we must be great; to fully comprehend Shakespeare we must possess the mind of Shakespeare; and to appreciate the motives which prompt a thief, it is doubtless necessary to have somewhat of the thieving propensity. Every quality appeals to its prototype within us; the heroic to our heroism, the noble to our nobleness, the base to our baseness.

Who is competent to judge Caesar save Caesar himself, and he is unequal to the task. When we judge another we pass judgment upon ourselves; to condemn another is to utter our own condemnation. We are as noble today as our ideals, and tomorrow it may be we shall transcend these; we are as great as our idea of God—and just as little. We are judged of no one, then, save the truth, and though we are not yet able to affirm the sum and magnitude of our identity, we can none the less depose as to that which we are not. We are not this weak and complaining person nor this sick and repining one that we may seem to be; not this vacillating, indefinite, pusillanimous creature, nor this vain and boastful one, nor yet this narrow and self-centered man. These are but the guises our thoughts have worn. But as immeasurable freedom exists, then are we free; as virtue exists, so do we partake of it; as love exists, so are we of it. Whatever is, of that we partake; whatever is seeming we but temporarily reflect. It is given us to prove what we are, and character is the present measure of our soul-realization. It is the little leaven working in this batch of dough, and shall after a time leaven the whole mass. It is an aura that precedes us and is felt rather than reasoned about; it is a nimbus that makes our presence radiant. And yet my character is not I but only the mark of my present recognition of my Self—the forerunner of my greatness. We shall put the mark higher presently and give greater token of the hidden store. Character admonishes us that we are approaching the Soul, as the green branches floating on the water were evidence to Columbus that he was nearing land—the undiscovered country. So across the sea of our separation do we waft these green tokens one to another.

Who shall estimate the value of that character we have! To be a friend to oneself is to be in harmony with the spirit of truth and to perceive an infinite friendliness; but be your own enemy, and where shall you find any friend? We stand or fall by ourselves. In the emergency only that measure of inner force we possess shall avail; then it is that every outward support would seem to slip away and we are left alone—so much reliance, such a degree of faith, so great a realization of the good that lies in everything, with which to confront the specter that has appeared. Our true thoughts our good angels are and shall come forth majestically and sustain us.

Society ranks men according to their years, assuming they should be so wise or foolish at thirty, and so much the wiser at fifty. But age as a measure of wisdom is far from keeping pace with the years, and there may glance from the eye of a babe that which shall no more be seen until the call to depart has "clarified the vision. There is little connection between the span of years and the true age of man. We are old with reference to our understanding and not according to our years, and a cynic of seventy reveals to what little purpose the summers and winters may come and go. Some men are born old and others trundle hoops to the end of their days. Gray beards are wagging in the nursery of the world, while children sit in the company of the wise; so little is worldly wisdom commensurate with understanding; so often does experience signify familiarity with mistakes, so frequently are white hairs the truce flag of the misspent years. Thought matures and judgment ripens through living deeply rather than by living long. How do the stagnant years creep on apace, but there are moments that come as the light-winged messenger of the gods, swift flying to the heart—an impulse divine!

As to self-made men, where is there a man who is not self-made if made at all? Every man makes or unmakes himself. To throw advantages in his way unmakes him who is not ready to profit by them; but the more obstacles he overcomes of himself the more does he make of himself. As though money made a man—a man of snow indeed! It takes character to make a man, and where shall we find character, or where shall we buy it? What if we have not inherited the bluest blood? To persist in doing good is to become ennobled; and it is better to be the founder of a royal line than the degenerate descendant of kings. Our family dates back as far as the oldest—even to the ape—and its history in common with that of all families is better unwritten.

Floating, not drifting, buoyed up by the water of life, carried onward by the stream of progress, thus have we come. Listening to the murmuring of the living water, sometime conscious of its enfolding touch—all through the night we floated; in the darkness of the night we were carried over the rapids, whirling, twisting, dashing—through the eddies and the whirlpools—still we floated, we did not sink. Now we move out into the day, and the night is left behind; so tempestuous—yet certain is the evolution of character. It takes mind to make a man, and the science of increasing the mind, of pushing on day by day beyond the present limit, of extending the mental horizon and acquiring more and more mind, is the process of becoming self-made. We are provided with plans for a noble structure and left to execute them at our own sweet will. The wise observe us narrowly whether our success be real or a show merely, and if with riches, position, fame, we have acquired not understanding and are still unstable and discontent, we but add to the sum of human negation.

Character enjoins independence of thought and action; it is never deceived by numbers—is never a time server. So does it entail non-conformity, and while deferred to in the abstract is misunderstood in the particular. When we start to think for ourselves the impulse carries us on a tangent. Presently we find it is not good to go so alone, and we fall into a new orbit about humanity as a center—but an orbit without, and vastly greater than the old one. We pose with ourselves as philosophers only to find we have passed in the world for cranks, but the Infinite repays whatever faith we put in ourselves, and we have but to declare our leadership to have men fall in line. We shall find the test of our convictions among those who have no conception of our ideals, our plan of life; we must step from the assurance of privacy into the arena where we are regarded with wonder and curiosity, and still retain our dignity and composure. We shall cherish still our vision of truth though men call it vagary; still repeat our axioms though they are scoffed at as theories, for by their fruits shall they be known.

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Stanton Davis Kirkham

  • Born on December 7th, 1868 in Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France and died on January 6th, 1944 in New York City.
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Quoted in As a Man Thinketh by James Allen

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