ONE DAY AT A TIME
By William Lyon Phelps
On a certain morning in the year 1900 I called on President Eliot at his office in Harvard University.
He was in a gracious mood and we talked of many things. As I rose to leave I said
I hoped I might always have the privilege of calling on him whenever I came to Cambridge.
He remarked gravely (in every sense of that word): "The next time you come I may not be here."
"What's the matter? Are you going to re-sign?" "Resign? Certainly not. But, remem-ber, I am sixty-six years old." The only answer to that was a laugh, which I provided spontaneously.
Now if the distinguished president of Harvard had known then that twenty-five years after this interview, he would be in the full possession of his physical and mental faculties, even though he had ceased to possess the Harvard one, he would have wasted not a single moment on the thought of his approaching death. And if gold rusts, what shall iron do?
In the eighteenth century, the poet Young was an intimate friend of the novelist Richardson and their correspondence has a certain mortuary interest. For Young's letters are as gloomy as his verses; they are largely taken up with predicting his own speedy death, which, however, Richardson awaited in vain, as the aged poet survived him. In his own last moments Richardson may have felt something akin to resentment
at having wasted his sympathy on one who would attend his funeral.
We look backward too much and we look for-ward too much. Thus we miss the passing mo-ment.
In our regrets and apprehensions, we miss the only eternity of which man can be absolutely sure, the eternal Present. For it is always NOW. As Browning's clever Bishop Blougram remarked
Do you know, I have often had a dream
( work it up in your next month's article)
Of man's poor spirit in its progress, still
Losing true life forever and a day
Through ever trying to be and ever being-In
the evolution of successive spheres-Before
its actual sphere and place of life,
Halfway into the next, which having reached
It shoots with corresponding foolery
Halfway into the next still, on and off!
As when a traveller, bound from North to South,
Scouts fur in Russia; what's its use in France?
If France spurns flannel; what's its need in Spain?
If Spain drops cloth, too cumbrous for Algiers!
Linen goes next, and last the skin itself,
A superfluity in Timbuctoo.
When, through his journey, was the fool at ease?
When Thoreau was questioned as to his beliefs in a life beyond the grave, he answered impatiently, "Oh, one world at a time." I was deeply impressed in reading Dr. Cushing's admirable biography of Sir William Osler, to see that the physician and philosopher laid the greatest stress on living one day at a time.
That was his summary of the art of living, for all those who wished to accomplish as much as possible, and retain their peace of mind: Live one day at a time.
I remember, when I was twenty years old, I wasted many good hours in speculating on what I should do after graduation from college, which event was two years ahead. An old man told me not to give it a moment's thought: "You can-not decide what to do till the emergency comes."
Meanwhile there was the daily work. The best way to prepare for the future was to do that well, rather than waste one's energies on idle worry. "Give us this clay our daily bread." There are always gloomy prophets who can-not enjoy the present moment, because they are so sure trouble is coming. The winter of 1917-1918 was the coldest in my recollection; and many said, "Well, the climate is changing and we must not expect any mild winters." Then came the winter of 1918-1919, which was the mildest in my recollection. And how distinctly I recall conversations like the following. Along
about Christmastide, I would say, "What a beautiful winter!" and in every instance, without a single exception, I got the reply, "Just wait. We'll catch it later." Then when the weather continued sweet all through January, I made the same remark to different individuals, and always got a warning for my pains. But the evil came not at all. My friends had determined to be miserable. They could not enjoy a lovely mild season, for in its loveliness they shook with the chill of apprehension.
The fear of life is the favourite disease of the twentieth century. Too many people are
afraid of tomorrow-their happiness is poisoned by a phantom. Many are afraid of old age, forgetting that even if they should lose their bodily vigour, weakness itself may minister to the development of the mind and spirit. In the words of the aged poet Waller,
The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made.
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become,
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Let the scientists worry about our origin-slime, monkeys, what not; let the prophets
worry about our future-"the decline of western civilisations," and what not. Some people are alarmed because in nine thousand billion years the sun's fuel may give out. Instead of chagrin over our past, and alarm over our future, suppose we consider our opportunity.
Listen to Emerson: "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. No man has earned anything rightly until he knows that every day is doomsday. Today is a king in disguise. Today always looks mean to the thoughtless, in the face of a uniform experience that all good and great and happy actions are made up precisely of these blank todays. Let us not be deceived, let us unmask the king as he passes."
Our Lord, in his daily conversations, was al-ways drawing the attention of his listeners away from vague speculations, to the present moment and the present opportunity. To such absurd enquiries as, "Whose wife shall she be in heaven?" he said, "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." To the man who said that he must postpone action until he had at-tended a funeral, the Master replied crisply, "Let the dead bury the dead and come and follow me." And after an enumeration of the various worries about the future with which men and women torment their minds, he said, "Take no
thought for the morrow." Do not worry about the future. He added, significantly, that if we are determined to look for trouble, we can find it today without waiting for tomorrow.