Chapter 1 - Live in "Day-tight Compartments"

23 April 2022

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In the spring of 1871, a young man picked up a book and read twenty-one words that
had a profound effect on his future. A medical student at the Montreal General
Hospital, he was worried about passing the final examination, worried about what to do,
where to go, how to build up a practice, how to make a living.
The twenty-one words that this young medical student read in 1871 helped him to
become the most famous physician of his generation. He organised the world-famous
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxfordthe highest honour that can be bestowed upon any medical man in the British Empire.
He was knighted by the King of England. When he died, two huge volumes containing
1,466 pages were required to tell the story of his life.
His name was Sir William Osier. Here are the twenty-one words that he read in the
spring of 1871-twenty-one words from Thomas Carlyle that helped him lead a life free
from worry: "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do
what lies clearly at hand."
Forty-two years later, on a soft spring night when the tulips were blooming on the
campus, this man, Sir William Osier, addressed the students of Yale University. He told
those Yale students that a man like himself who had been a professor in four universities
and had written a popular book was supposed to have "brains of a special quality". He
declared that that was untrue. He said that his intimate friends knew that his brains
were "of the most mediocre character".
What, then, was the secret of his success? He stated that it was owing to what he called
living in "day-tight compartments." What did he mean by that? A few months before he
spoke at Yale, Sir William Osier had crossed the Atlantic on a great ocean liner where
the captain standing on the bridge, could press a button and-presto!-there was a
clanging of machinery and various parts of the ship were immediately shut off from one
another-shut off into watertight compartments. "Now each one of you," Dr. Osier said to
those Yale students, "is a much more marvelous organisation than the great liner, and
bound on a longer voyage. What I urge is that you so learn to control the machinery as
to live with 'day-tight compartments' as the most certain way to ensure safety on the
voyage. Get on the bridge, and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working
order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out
the Past-the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the
Future -the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe-safe for today! ... Shut off the past!
Let the dead past bury its dead. ... Shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the
way to dusty death. ... The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried
today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past. ... The
future is today. ... There is no tomorrow. The day of man's salvation is now. Waste of
energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about
the future. ... Shut close, then the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to
cultivate the habit of life of 'day-tight compartments'."
Did Dr. Osier mean to say that we should not make any effort to prepare for tomorrow?
No. Not at all. But he did go on in that address to say that the best possible way to
prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm,
on doing today's work superbly today. That is the only possible way you can prepare for
the future.
Sir William Osier urged the students at Yale to begin the day with Christ's prayer: "Give
us this day our daily bread."
Remember that that prayer asks only for today's bread. It doesn't complain about the
stale bread we had to eat yesterday; and it doesn't say: "Oh, God, it has been pretty dry
out in the wheat belt lately and we may have another drought-and then how will I get
bread to eat next autumn-or suppose I lose my job-oh, God, how could I get bread
No, this prayer teaches us to ask for today's bread only. Today's bread is the only kind of
bread you can possibly eat.
Years ago, a penniless philosopher was wandering through a stony country where the
people had a hard time making a living. One day a crowd gathered about him on a hill,
and he gave what is probably the most-quoted speech ever delivered anywhere at any
time. This speech contains twenty-six words that have gone ringing down across the
centuries: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take
thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
Many men have rejected those words of Jesus: "Take no thought for the morrow." They
have rejected those words as a counsel of perfection, as a bit of Oriental mysticism. "I
must take thought for the morrow," they say. "I must take out insurance to protect my
family. I must lay aside money for my old age. I must plan and prepare to get ahead."
Right! Of course you must. The truth is that those words of Jesus, translated over three
hundred years ago, don't mean today what they meant during the reign of King James.
Three hundred years ago the word thought frequently meant anxiety. Modern versions of
the Bible quote Jesus more accurately as saying: "Have no anxiety for the tomorrow."
By all means take thought for the tomorrow, yes, careful thought and planning and
preparation. But have no anxiety.
During the war, our military leaders planned for the morrow, but they could not afford
to have any anxiety. "I have supplied the best men with the best equipment we have,"
said Admiral Ernest J. King, who directed the United States Navy, "and have given them
what seems to be the wisest mission. That is all I can do."
"If a ship has been sunk," Admiral King went on, "I can't bring it up. If it is going to be
sunk, I can't stop it. I can use my time much better working on tomorrow's problem than
by fretting about yesterday's. Besides, if I let those things get me, I wouldn't last long."
Whether in war or peace, the chief difference between good thinking and bad thinking
is this: good thinking deals with causes and effects and leads to logical, constructive
planning; bad thinking frequently leads to tension and nervous breakdowns.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of one of
the most famous newspapers in the world, The New York Times. Mr. Sulzberger told me
that when the Second World War flamed across Europe, he was so stunned, so worried
about the future, that he found it almost impossible to sleep. He would frequently get
out of bed in the middle of the night, take some canvas and tubes of paint, look in the
mirror, and try to paint a portrait of himself. He didn't know anything about painting,
but he painted anyway, to get his mind off his worries. Mr. Sulzberger told me that he
was never able to banish his worries and find peace until he had adopted as his motto
five words from a church hymn: One step enough for me.
Lead, kindly Light ...
Keep thou my feet: I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
At about the same time, a young man in uniform-somewhere in Europe-was learning the
same lesson. His name was Ted Bengermino, of 5716 Newholme Road, Baltimore,
Maryland-and he had worried himself into a first-class case of combat fatigue.
"In April, 1945," writes Ted Bengermino, "I had worried until I had developed what
doctors call a 'spasmodic transverse colon'-a condition that produced intense pain. If the
war hadn't ended when it did, I am sure I would have had a complete physical
"I was utterly exhausted. I was a Graves Registration, Noncommissioned Officer for the
94th Infantry Division. My work was to help set up and maintain records of all men killed
in action, missing in action, and hospitalised. I also had to help disinter the bodies of
both Allied and enemy soldiers who had been killed and hastily buried in shallow graves
during the pitch of battle. I had to gather up the personal effects of these men and see
that they were sent back to parents or closest relatives who would prize these personal
effects so much. I was constantly worried for fear we might be making embarrassing and
serious mistakes. I was worried about whether or not I would come through all this. I
was worried about whether I would live to hold my only child in my arms-a son of
sixteen months, whom I had never seen. I was so worried and exhausted that I lost
thirty-four pounds. I was so frantic that I was almost out of my mind. I looked at my
hands. They were hardly more than skin and bones. I was terrified at the thought of
going home a physical wreck. I broke down and sobbed like a child. I was so shaken that
tears welled up every time I was alone. There was one period soon after the Battle of
the Bulge started that I wept so often that I almost gave up hope of ever being a normal
human being again.
"I ended up in an Army dispensary. An Army doctor gave me some advice which has
completely changed my life. After giving me a thorough physical examination, he
informed me that my troubles were mental. 'Ted', he said, 'I want you to think of your
life as an hourglass. You know there are thousands of grains of sand in the top of the
hourglass; and they all pass slowly and evenly through the narrow neck in the middle.
Nothing you or I could do would make more than one grain of sand pass through this
narrow neck without impairing the hourglass. You and I and everyone else are like this
hourglass. When we start in the morning, there are hundreds of tasks which we feel that
we must accomplish that day, but if we do not take them one at a time and let them
pass through the day slowly and evenly, as do the grains of sand passing through the
narrow neck of the hourglass, then we are bound to break our own physical or mental
"I have practised that philosophy ever since that memorable day that an Army doctor
gave it to me. 'One grain of sand at a time. ... One task at a time.' That advice saved me
physically and mentally during the war; and it has also helped me in my present position
in business. I am a Stock Control Clerk for the Commercial Credit Company in Baltimore.
I found the same problems arising in business that had arisen during the war: a score of
things had to be done at once-and there was little time to do them. We were low in
stocks. We had new forms to handle, new stock arrangements, changes of address,
opening and closing offices, and so on. Instead of getting taut and nervous, I
remembered what the doctor had told me. 'One grain of sand at a time. One task at a
time.' By repeating those words to myself over and over, I accomplished my tasks in a
more efficient manner and I did my work without the confused and jumbled feeling that
had almost wrecked me on the battlefield."
One of the most appalling comments on our present way of life is that half of all the
beds in our hospitals are reserved for patients with nervous and mental troubles,
patients who have collapsed under the crushing burden of accumulated yesterdays and
fearful tomorrows. Yet a vast majority of those people would be walking the streets
today, leading happy, useful lives, if they had only heeded the words of Jesus: "Have no
anxiety about the morrow"; or the words of Sir William Osier: "Live in day-tight
You and I are standing this very second at the meeting-place of two eternities: the vast
past that has endured for ever, and the future that is plunging on to the last syllable of
recorded time. We can't possibly live in either of those eternities-no, not even for one
split second. But, by trying to do so, we can wreck both our bodies and our minds. So
let's be content to live the only time we can possibly live: from now until bedtime.
"Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall," wrote Robert Louis
Stevenson. "Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live
sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, till the sun goes down. And this is all that life really
Yes, that is all that life requires of us; but Mrs. E. K. Shields, 815, Court Street,
Saginaw, Michigan, was driven to despair- even to the brink of suicide-before she
learned to live just till bedtime. "In 1937, I lost my husband," Mrs. Shields said as she
told me her story. "I was very depressed-and almost penniless. I wrote my former
employer, Mr. Leon Roach, of the Roach-Fowler Company of Kansas City, and got my old
job back. I had formerly made my living selling books to rural and town school boards. I
had sold my car two years previously when my husband became ill; but I managed to
scrape together enough money to put a down payment on a used car and started out to
sell books again.
"I had thought that getting back on the road would help relieve my depression; but
driving alone and eating alone was almost more than I could take. Some of the territory
was not very productive, and I found it hard to make those car payments, small as they
"In the spring of 1938, I was working out from Versailles, Missouri. The schools were
poor, the roads bad; I was so lonely and discouraged that at one time I even considered
suicide. It seemed that success was impossible. I had nothing to live for. I dreaded
getting up each morning and facing life. I was afraid of everything: afraid I could not
meet the car payments; afraid I could not pay my room rent; afraid I would not have
enough to eat. I was afraid my health was failing and I had no money for a doctor. All
that kept me from suicide were the thoughts that my sister would be deeply grieved,
and that I did not have enough money to pay my funeral expenses.
"Then one day I read an article that lifted me out of my despondence and gave me the
courage to go on living. I shall never cease to be grateful for one inspiring sentence in
that article. It said: 'Every day is a new life to a wise man.' I typed that sentence out
and pasted it on the windshield of my car, where I saw it every minute I was driving. I
found it wasn't so hard to live only one day at a time. I learned to forget the yesterdays
and to not-think of the tomorrows. Each morning I said to myself: 'Today is a new life.'
"I have succeeded in overcoming my fear of loneliness, my fear of want. I am happy and
fairly successful now and have a lot of enthusiasm and love for life. I know now that I
shall never again be afraid, regardless of what life hands me. I know now that I don't
have to fear the future. I know now that I can live one day at a time-and that 'Every day
is a new life to a wise man.'"
Who do you suppose wrote this verse:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call to-day his own:
He who, secure within, can say:
"To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have liv'd to-day."
Those words sound modern, don't they? Yet they were written thirty years before Christ
was born, by the Roman poet Horace.
One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off
living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon-instead of
enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.
Why are we such fools-such tragic fools?
"How strange it is, our little procession of life I" wrote Stephen Leacock. "The child says:
'When I am a big boy.' But what is that? The big boy says: 'When I grow up.' And then,
grown up, he says: 'When I get married.' But to be married, what is that after all? The
thought changes to 'When I'm able to retire." And then, when retirement comes, he
looks back over the landscape traversed; a cold wind seems to sweep over it; somehow
he has missed it all, and it is gone. Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue
of every day and hour."
The late Edward S. Evans of Detroit almost killed himself with worry before he learned
that life "is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour." Brought up in poverty,
Edward Evans made his first money by selling newspapers, then worked as a grocer's
clerk. Later, with seven people dependent upon him for bread and butter, he got a job
as an assistant librarian. Small as the pay was, he was afraid to quit. Eight years passed
before he could summon up the courage to start out on his own. But once he started, he
built up an original investment of fifty-five borrowed dollars into a business of his own
that made him twenty thousand dollars a year. Then came a frost, a killing frost. He
endorsed a big note for a friend-and the friend went bankrupt.
Quickly on top of that disaster came another: the bank in which he had all his money
collapsed. He not only lost every cent he had, but was plunged into debt for sixteen
thousand dollars. His nerves couldn't take it. "I couldn't sleep or eat," he told me. "I
became strangely ill. Worry and nothing but worry," he said, "brought on this illness.
One day as I was walking down the street, I fainted and fell on the sidewalk. I was no
longer able to walk. I was put to bed and my body broke out in boils. These boils turned
inward until just lying in bed was agony. I grew weaker every day. Finally my doctor
told me that I had only two more weeks to live. I was shocked. I drew up my will, and
then lay back in bed to await my end. No use now to struggle or worry. I gave up,
relaxed, and went to sleep. I hadn't slept two hours in succession for weeks; but now
with my earthly problems drawing to an end, I slept like a baby. My exhausting
weariness began to disappear. My appetite returned. I gained weight.
"A few weeks later, I was able to walk with crutches. Six weeks later, I was able to go
back to work. I had been making twenty thousand dollars a year; but I was glad now to
get a job for thirty dollars a week. I got a job selling blocks to put behind the wheels of
automobiles when they are shipped by freight. I had learned my lesson now. No more
worry for me-no more regret about what had happened in the past- no more dread of
the future. I concentrated all my time, energy, and enthusiasm into selling those
Edward S. Evans shot up fast now. In a few years, he was president of the company. His
company-the Evans Product Company-has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange
for years. When Edward S. Evans died in 1945, he was one of the most progressive
business men in the United States. If you ever fly over Greenland, you may land on Evans
Field - a flying-field named in his honour.
Here is the point of the story: Edward S. Evans would never have had the thrill of achieving
these victories in business and in living if he hadn't seen the folly of worrying if he hadn't
learned to live in day-tight compartments.
Five hundred years before Christ was born, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus told his students
that "everything changes except the law of change". He said: "You cannot step in the same
river twice." The river changes every second; and so does the man who
stepped in it. Life is
a ceaseless change. The only certainty is today. Why mar the beauty of living today by trying
to solve the problems of a future that is shrouded in ceaseless change and uncertainty -
a future that no one can possibly foretell?
The old Romans had a word for it. In fact, they had two words for it. Carpe diem. "Enjoy
the day. " Or, "Seize the day." Yes, seize the day, and make the most of it.
That is the philosophy of Lowell Thomas. I recently spent a week-end at his farm; and I
noticed that he had these words from Psalm CXVIII framed and hanging on the walls of his
broadcasting studio where he would see them often:
"This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."
John Ruskin had on his desk a simple piece of stone on which was carved one word: TODAY.
And while I haven't a piece of stone on my desk, I do have a poem pasted on my mirror where I
can see it when I shave every morning-a poem that Sir William Osier always kept on his desk -
a poem written by the famous Indian dramatist, Kalidasa:
Salutation To The Dawn
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendour of achievement.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
So, the first thing you should know about worry is this: if you want to keep it out of your
life, do what Sir William Osier did -
1. Shut the iron doors on the past and the future. Live in Day-tight Compartments
Why not ask yourself these questions, and write down the answers?
1. Do I tend to put off living in the present in order to worry about the future, or to
yearn for some "magical rose garden over the horizon"?
2. Do I sometimes embitter the present by regretting things that happened in the pastthat are over and done with?
3. Do I get up in the morning determined to "Seize the day"-to get the utmost out of
these twenty-four hours?
4. Can I get more out of life by "living in day-tight compartments" ?
5. When shall I start to do this? Next week? .. Tomorrow? ... Today?  

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