Chapter 9 - Co-Operate With The Inevitable

23 April 2022

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When I was a little boy, I was playing with some of my friends in the attic of an old,
abandoned log house in north-west Missouri. As I climbed down out of the attic, I rested
my feet on a window-sill for a moment-and then jumped. I had a ring on my left
forefinger; and as I jumped, the ring caught on a nailhead and tore off my finger.
I screamed. I was terrified. I was positive I was going to die. But after the hand healed, I
never worried about it for one split second. What would have been the use? ... I
accepted the inevitable.
Now I often go for a month at a time without even thinking about the fact that I have
only three fingers and a thumb on my left hand.
A few years ago, I met a man who was running a freight elevator in one of the
downtown office buildings in New York. I noticed that his left hand had been cut off at
the wrist. I asked him if the loss of that hand bothered him. He said: "Oh, no, I hardly
ever think about it. I am not married; and the only time I ever think about it is when I
try to thread a needle."
It is astonishing how quickly we can accept almost any situation-if we have to-and
adjust ourselves to it and forget about it.
I often think of an inscription on the ruins of a fifteenth-century cathedral in
Amsterdam, Holland. This inscription says in Flemish: "It is so. It cannot be otherwise."
As you and I march across the decades of time, we are going to meet a lot of unpleasant
situations that are so. They cannot be otherwise. We have our choice. We can either
accept them as inevitable and adjust ourselves to them, or we can ruin our lives with
rebellion and maybe end up with a nervous breakdown.
Here is a bit of sage advice from one of my favourite philosophers, William James. "Be
willing to have it so," he said. "Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to
overcoming the consequence of any misfortune." Elizabeth Connley, of 2840 NE 49th
Avenue, Portland, Oregon, had to find that out the hard way. Here is a letter that she
wrote me recently: "On the very day that America was celebrating the victory of our
armed forces in North Africa," the letter says, "I received a telegram from the War
Department: my nephew- the person I loved most-was missing in action. A short time
later, another telegram arrived saying he was dead.
"I was prostrate with grief. Up to that time, I had felt that life had been very good to
me. I had a job I loved. I had helped to raise this nephew. He represented to me all that
was fine and good in young manhood. I had felt that all the bread I had cast upon the
waters was coming back to me as cake! ... Then came this telegram. My whole world
collapsed. I felt there was nothing left to live for. I neglected my work; neglected my
friends. I let everything go. I was bitter and resentful. Why did my loving nephew have
to be taken? Why did this good boy-with life all before him-why did he have to be killed?
I couldn't accept it. My grief was so overwhelming that I decided to give up my work,
and go away and hide myself in my tears and bitterness.
"I was clearing out my desk, getting ready to quit, when I came across a letter that I had
forgotten-a letter from this nephew who had been killed, a letter he had written to me
when my mother had died a few years ago. 'Of course, we will miss her,' the letter said,
'and especially you. But I know you'll carry on. Your own personal philosophy will make
you do that. I shall never forget the beautiful truths you taught me. Wherever I am, or
how far apart we may be, I shall always remember that you taught me to smile, and to
take whatever comes, like a man.'
"I read and reread that letter. It seemed as if he were there beside me, speaking to me.
He seemed to be saying to me: 'Why don't you do what you taught me to do? Carry on,
no matter what happens. Hide your private sorrows under a smile and carry on.'
"So, I went back to my work. I stopped being bitter and rebellious. I kept saying to
myself: 'It is done. I can't change it. But I can and will carry on as he wished me to do.' I
threw all my mind and strength into my work. I wrote letters to soldiers-to other
people's boys. I joined an adult-education class at night-seeking out new interests and
making new friends. I can hardly believe the change that has come over me. I have
ceased mourning over the past that is for ever gone. I am living each day now with joyjust as my nephew would have wanted me to do. I have made peace with life. I have
accepted my fate. I am now living a fuller and more complete life than I had ever
Elizabeth Connley, out in Portland, Oregon, learned what all of us will have to learn
sooner or later: namely, that we must accept and co-operate with the inevitable. "It is
so. It cannot be otherwise." That is not an easy lesson to learn. Even kings on their
thrones have to keep reminding themselves of it. The late George V had these framed
words hanging on the wall of his library in Buckingham Palace: "Teach me neither to cry
for the moon nor over spilt milk." The same thought is expressed by Schopenhauer in
this way: "A good supply of resignation is of the first importance in providing for the
journey of life."
Obviously, circumstances alone do not make us happy or unhappy. It is the way we react
to circumstances that determines our feelings. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is
within you. That is where the kingdom of hell is, too.
We can all endure disaster and tragedy and triumph over them-if we have to. We may
not think we can, but we have surprisingly strong inner resources that will see us
through if we will only make use of them. We are stronger than we think.
The late Booth Tarkington always said: "I could take anything that life could force upon
me except one thing: blindness. I could never endure that."
Then one day, when he was along in his sixties, Tarkington glanced down at the carpet
on the floor. The colours were blurred. He couldn't see the pattern. He went to a
specialist. He learned the tragic truth: he was losing his sight. One eye was nearly blind;
the other would follow. That which he feared most had come upon him.
And how did Tarkington react to this "worst of all disasters"? Did he feel: "This is it! This
is the end of my life"? No, to his amazement, he felt quite gay. He even called upon his
humour. Floating "specks" annoyed him; they would swim across his eyes and cut off his
vision. Yet when the largest of these specks would swim across his sight, he would say:
"Hello! There's Grandfather again! Wonder where he's going on this fine morning!"
How could fate ever conquer a spirit like that? The answer is it couldn't. When total
blindness closed in, Tarkington said: "I found I could take the loss of my eyesight, just as
a man can take anything else. If I lost all five of my senses, I know I could live on inside
my mind. For it is in the mind we see, and in the mind we live, whether we know it or
In the hope of restoring his eyesight, Tarkington had to go through more than twelve
operations within one year. With local anaesthetic! Did he rail against this? He knew it
had to be done. He knew he couldn't escape it, so the only way to lessen his suffering
was to take it with grace. He refused a private room at the hospital and went into a
ward, where he could be with other people who had troubles, too. He tried to cheer
them up. And when he had to submit to repeated operations-fully conscious of what was
being done to his eyes-he tried to remember how fortunate he was. "How wonderful!" he
said. "How wonderful, that science now has the skill to operate on anything so delicate
as the human eye!"
The average man would have been a nervous wreck if he had had to endure more than
twelve operations and blindness. Yet Tarkington said: "I would not exchange this
experience for a happier one." It taught him acceptance. It taught him that nothing life
could bring him was beyond his strength to endure. It taught him, as John Milton
discovered, that "It is not miserable to be blind, it is only miserable not to be able to
endure blindness."
Margaret Fuller, the famous New England feminist, once offered as her credo: "I accept
the Universe!"
When grouchy old Thomas Carlyle heard that in England, he snorted: "By gad, she'd
better!" Yes, and by gad, you and I had better accept the inevitable, too!
If we rail and kick against it and grow bitter, we won't change the inevitable; but we
will change ourselves. I know. I have tried it.
I once refused to accept an inevitable situation with which I was confronted. I played
the fool and railed against it, and rebelled. I turned my nights into hells of insomnia. I
brought upon myself everything I didn't want. Finally, after a year of self-torture, I had
to accept what I knew from the outset I couldn't possibly alter.
I should have cried out years ago with old Walt Whitman:
Oh, to confront night, storms, hunger,
Ridicule, accident, rebuffs as the trees
and animals do.
I spent twelve years working with cattle; yet I never saw a Jersey cow running a
temperature because the pasture was burning up from a lack of rain or because of sleet
and cold or because her boy friend was paying too much attention to another heifer.
The animals confront night, storms, and hunger calmly; so they never have nervous
breakdowns or stomach ulcers; and they never go insane.
Am I advocating that we simply bow down to all the adversities that come our way? Not
by a long shot! That is mere fatalism. As long as there is a chance that we can save a
situation, let's fight! But when common sense tells us that we are up against something
that is so-and cannot be otherwise- then, in the name of our sanity, let's not look before
and after and pine for what is not.
The late Dean Hawkes of Columbia University told me that he had taken a Mother Goose
rhyme as one of his mottoes:
For every ailment under the sun.
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
While writing this book, I interviewed a number of the leading business men of America;
and I was impressed by the fact that they co-operated with the inevitable and led lives
singularly free from worry. If they hadn't done that, they would have cracked under the
strain. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
J.C. Penney, founder of the nation-wide chain of Penney stores, said to me: "I wouldn't
worry if I lost every cent I have because I don't see what is to be gained by worrying. I
do the best job I possibly can; and leave the results in the laps of the gods."
Henry Ford told me much the same thing. "When I can't handle events," he said, "I let
them handle themselves."
When I asked K.T. Keller, president of the Chrysler Corporation, how he kept from
worrying, he said: "When I am up against a tough situation, if I can do anything about it,
I do it. If I can't, I just forget it. I never worry about the future, because I know no man
living can possibly figure out what is going to happen in the future. There are so many
forces that will affect that future! Nobody can tell what prompts those forces-or
understand them. So why worry about them?" K. T. Keller would be embarrassed if you
told him he is a philosopher. He is just a good business man, yet he has stumbled on the
same philosophy that Epictetus taught in Rome nineteen centuries ago. "There is only
one way to happiness," Epictetus taught the Romans, "and that is to cease worrying
about things which are beyond the power of our will."
Sarah Bernhardt, the "divine Sarah" was an illustrious example of a woman who knew
how to co-operate with the inevitable. For half a century, she had been the reigning
queen of the theatre on four continents-the best-loved actress on earth. Then when she
was seventy-one and broke-she had lost all her money-her physician, Professor Pozzi of
Paris, told her he would have to amputate her leg. While crossing the Atlantic, she had
fallen on deck during a storm, and injured her leg severely. Phlebitis developed. Her leg
shrank. The pain became so intense that the doctor felt her leg had to be amputated.
He was almost afraid to tell the stormy, tempestuous "divine Sarah" what had to be
done. He fully expected that the terrible news would set off an explosion of hysteria.
But he was wrong. Sarah looked at him a moment, and then said quietly: "If it has to be,
it has to be." It was fate.
As she was being wheeled away to the operating room, her son stood weeping. She
waved to him with a gay gesture and said cheerfully: "Don't go away. I'll be right back."
On the way to the operating room she recited a scene from one of her plays. Someone
asked her if she were doing this to cheer herself up. She said: "No, to cheer up the
doctors and nurses. It will be a strain on them."
After recovering from the operation, Sarah Bernhardt went on touring the world and
enchanting audiences for another seven years.
"When we stop fighting the inevitable," said Elsie Mac-Cormick in a Reader's Digest
article, "we release energy which enables us to create a richer life."
No one living has enough emotion and vigour to fight the inevitable and, at the same
time, enough left over to create a new life. Choose one or the other. You can either
bend with the inevitable sleet-storms of life-or you can resist them and break!
I saw that happen on a farm I own in Missouri. I planted a score of trees on that farm. At
first, they grew with astonishing rapidity. Then a sleet-storm encrusted each twig and
branch with a heavy coating of ice. Instead of bowing gracefully to their burden, these
trees proudly resisted and broke and split under the load-and had to be destroyed. They
hadn't learned the wisdom of the forests of the north. I have travelled hundreds of miles
through the evergreen forests of Canada, yet I have never seen a spruce or a pine
broken by sleet or ice. These evergreen forests know how to bend, how to bow down
their branches, how to co-operate with the inevitable.
The masters of jujitsu teach their pupils to "bend like the willow; don't resist like the
Why do you think your automobile tyres stand up on the road and take so much
punishment? At first, the manufacturers tried to make a tyre that would resist the
shocks of the road. It was soon cut to ribbons. Then they made a tyre that would absorb
the shocks of the road. That tyre could "take it". You and I will last longer, and enjoy
smoother riding, if we learn to absorb the shocks and jolts along the rocky road of life.
What will happen to you and me if we resist the shocks of life instead of absorbing
them? What will happen if we refuse to "bend like the willow" and insist on resisting like
the oak? The answer is easy. We will set up a series of inner conflicts. We will be
worried, tense, strained, and neurotic.
If we go still further and reject the harsh world of reality and retreat into a dream
world of our own making, we will then be insane.
During the war, millions of frightened soldiers had either to accept the inevitable or
break under the strain. To illustrate, let's take the case of William H. Casselius, 7126
76th Street, Glendale, New York. Here is a prize-winning talk he gave before one of my
adult-education classes in New York:
"Shortly after I joined the Coast Guard, I was assigned to one of the hottest spots on this
side of the Atlantic. I was made a supervisor of explosives. Imagine it. Me! A biscuit
salesman becoming a supervisor of explosives! The very thought of finding yourself
standing on top of thousands of tons of T.N.T. is enough to chill the marrow in a cracker
salesman's bones. I was given only two days of instruction; and what I learned filled me
with even more terror. I'll never forget my first assignment. On a dark, cold, foggy day, I
was given my orders on the open pier of Caven Point, Bayonne, New Jersey.
"I was assigned to Hold No. 5 on my ship. I had to work down in that hold with five
longshoremen. They had strong backs, but they knew nothing whatever about
explosives. And they were loading blockbusters, each one of which contained a ton of
T.N.T.-enough explosive to blow that old ship to kingdom come. These blockbusters
were being lowered by two cables. I kept saying to myself: Suppose one of those cables
slipped-or broke! Oh, boy! Was I scared! I trembled. My mouth was dry. My knees
sagged. My heart pounded. But I couldn't run away. That would be desertion. I would be
disgraced-my parents would be disgraced-and I might be shot for desertion. I couldn't
run. I had to stay. I kept looking at the careless way those longshoremen were handling
those blockbusters. The ship might blow up any minute. After an hour or more of this
spine-chilling terror, I began to use a little common sense. I gave myself a good talking
to. I said: 'Look here! So you are blown up. So what! You will never know the difference!
It will be an easy way to die. Much better than dying by cancer. Don't be a fool. You
can't expect to live for ever! You've got to do this job-or be shot. So you might as well
like it."
"I talked to myself like that for hours; and I began to feel at ease. Finally, I overcame
my worry and fears by forcing myself to accept an inevitable situation.
"I'll never forget that lesson. Every time I am tempted now to worry about something I
can't possibly change, I shrug my shoulders and say: 'Forget it.' I find that it works-even
for a biscuit salesman." Hooray! Let's give three cheers and one cheer more for the
biscuit salesman of the Pinafore.
Outside the crucifixion of Jesus, the most famous death scene in all history was the
death of Socrates. Ten thousand centuries from now, men will still be reading and
cherishing Plato's immortal description of it-one of the most moving and beautiful
passages in all literature. Certain men of Athens- jealous and envious of old barefooted
Socrates-trumped up charges against him and had him tried and condemned to death.
When the friendly jailer gave Socrates the poison cup to drink, the jailer said: "Try to
bear lightly what needs must be." Socrates did. He faced death with a calmness and
resignation that touched the hem of divinity.
"Try to bear lightly what needs must be." Those words were spoken 399 years before
Christ was born; but this worrying old world needs those words today more than ever
before: "Try to bear lightly what needs must be."
During the past eight years, I have been reading practically every book and magazine
article I could find that dealt even remotely with banishing worry. ... Would you like to
know what is the best single bit of advice about worry that I have ever discovered in all
that reading? Well, here it is-summed up in twenty-seven words-words that you and I
ought to paste on our bathroom mirrors, so that each time we wash our faces we could
also wash away all worry from our minds. This priceless prayer was written by Dr.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Professor of Applied Christianity, Union Theological Seminary,
Broadway and 120th Street, New York.
God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; The courage to change
the things I can; And the wisdom to know the difference.
To break the worry habit before it breaks you, Rule 4 is:
Co-operate with the inevitable.  

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