Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Boreham on Second Thoughts

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recently published book, ‘Blink’, he is contending that ‘first thoughts’ are often the best. The author has some caveats but he is championing the merits of snap thinking and leaping before we look. The seductiveness of such an approach might have aided this book’s popularity but several decades ago F W Boreham wrote this reflection on the pros and cons of ‘second thoughts’:

The man who can keep ahead of his second thoughts is sure of the kingdom of God. But it is almost impossible to do it. Second thoughts are fleet of foot, and if I pause but for an instant they are upon me.

The ancients were haunted by a horror of the Furies. The dreaded sisters were tall of stature; of grim and frightful aspect; each was wrapped in a black and bloody robe; serpents twined in her hair, and blood trickled from her flaming eyes. Each held a burning torch in one hand and a whip of scorpions in the other. With swift, noiseless, and unrelenting footsteps they pursued their wretched victims. No distance could tire them; no obstacles could baffle them; no tears could move them; no sacrifices could appease them. What, I wonder, was the origin of this weird myth? What was the substance that cast this hideous shadow? What were the Furies? Each of the philosophers has a theory of his own; and so have I! Basing my hypothesis upon the firm foundation of my own experience, I have no hesitation in affirming that the Furies which the ancients dreaded were their second thoughts. In many ways, indeed, my second thoughts are far more terrible than the Furies. The Furies tracked down the unhappy object of their cruel malice and slew him; that was bad enough. But my second thoughts hunt me down with resolute and dogged persistence, and, leaving me unhurt, they snatch my children from my arms and dash them to pieces before my very eyes; that is very much worse. As soon as my children are born to me—the children of my noblest impulses, the children of my happiest moods, the children of my better self—my second thoughts give me no rest until they have completed their dread work of destruction. I have been able, happily, to save a few; but they cannot console me for the lovely creatures I have lost. My fairest flowers have all been shattered my dearest children are all dead!

In all this I am not alone. Others, to my certain knowledge, have suffered in the same way. The New Testament has a great story of four travellers who, one by one, made their way down the Bloody Pass—the short cut from Jerusalem to Jericho. Of the four I find the third—the Levite—by far the most interesting, at any rate, just now. I have never been able to find in my heart much sympathy for the first. He knew perfectly well the sinister reputation held by that gloomy pass; he knew that the darksome forests on either side of the way were infested by brigands; yet he deliberately took all the risks. He was not the first man in the history of the world, and he was certainly not the last, who plunged along a path that he knew to be perilous, and then blamed the church for not helping him when the thieves had done their worst. I am not excusing the priest; he must answer for himself. But I certainly think that the first of these four travellers has something to explain.

At this moment, however, it is the third for whom I have most sympathy. I see him journeying along the pass; I see him start as he hears a moan from the unfortunate traveller lying on the other side of the way; I see him turn aside and cross to the road to the sufferer's relief; and then I see him pause! That pause spoiled everything! The instant that he paused the Furies were upon him! His second thoughts pounced upon their prey. When he heard the moan, and turned aside, he really meant to help the man. A generous purpose had been born within his breast. His second thoughts, knowing of its birth, vowed that the noble resolution should be slain. His second thoughts watched their chance; he hesitated half-way across the road; his second thoughts instantly tore the kindly impulse from his grasp; with merciless hands they killed it on the spot.

Now, no man can look on both sides of the road at the same time. If that fourth traveler—the Good Samaritan—had been able to do so, he would have seen not one Victim, but two, in the Bloody Pass. As he came down the road, he, too, heard a smothered moan. Instantly he stopped his mule, glanced in the direction from which the sound proceeded, and saw the wounded man. The thieves, we are told, had left him half-dead. That is the difference between the thieves and the Furies. Second thoughts never do anything by halves. They utterly destroy their victim. He will never moan again. The beneficent impulse that his second thoughts tore from the Levite’s breast lay stiff and stark in the stillness of death by the roadside. The Good Samaritan helped the half-dead victim of the brigands from the ditch on the one side of the pass; and he was so absorbed in his merciful ministry that he did not notice the quite dead victim of second thoughts lying in the ditch on the other. It does not matter much; the poor murdered thing was beyond all human help; yet it would have elicited a certain amount of sympathy for the bereaved Levite if the Samaritan had noticed the body and reported it. His attention was, however, fully occupied; he failed to discover the traces of the second tragedy; and, although somewhat late in the day, I am writing these lines to repair, as far as possible, his omission.

And, whilst I think of it, it is my duty to point out that the failure of the Samaritan to observe the mutilated body of the Levite's generous purpose raises a particularly interesting and important question. Is a man to be judged by his first thoughts or his second thoughts? Is the Levite who turned aside to help, and then changed his mind, any better than the priest who never swerved from his course at all? A broken-hearted father loves to think, as he lowers into the grave the little casket that holds all that is mortal of his tiny babe, that, in spite of death's apparent victory, the child is still his. The little one died almost as soon as it was born; but he somehow feels that, for ever and for ever, it belongs to him, and that he is a richer man for its coming. Now the question is: Am I entitled to cherish the same sentiment in relation to those noble purposes and generous impulses that my second thoughts tore from my breast almost as soon as they were born? Am I not entitled to some credit for the handsome things that, on first thoughts, I meant to do, even though, on second thoughts, I never did them? I cannot say. The problem is too deep for me.

Whilst we stand here, however, baffled by this uncertainty on the major issue, let us gather up such minor certainties as we can find. If we cannot secure for ourselves the loaf that we covet, we need not refuse to eat such crumbs as are lying about at our feet. And this much, at least, is clear. Most of us are a great deal better than we seem. I happen to know the Levite and the Good Samaritan very well. I do not know what they were doing in the neighbourhood of Jericho, for nowadays they both live in our suburb. I have always been polite to the Levite, but there has been no love lost between us. Our relationship has been characterized by a distinct aloofness. But I feel to-day that I owe him an apology. I have been doing him a grave injustice. I have never given him the slightest credit for that high resolve that was so quickly murdered by his second thoughts. Even though his pity came to nothing, I like to think that the man whom I have treated so coldly is capable of pity. Even though his resolve perished as soon as it was born, I like to think that this apathetic neighbour of mine once said to himself, ‘I will turn aside and rescue this poor fellow.’ I have treated him distantly, and passed him with the merest nod, and, all the while, he and I are brothers. We are brothers in affliction. For his trouble is my trouble, his grief my grief. Have I not already said that, over and over again, my second thoughts have snatched my noblest purposes, my worthiest projects, from my breast and murdered them under my very eyes? The selfsame calamity has overtaken him, and I have shown him no sympathy! And all the while he has been watching me. He has seen no lofty design fulfilled by me, and he has taken it for granted that I never cherished one. He does not know what I have suffered at the hands of second thoughts. If I meet the Levite on my way home this evening, I shall show him a cordiality that has never before marked our intercourse with one another. Having been robbed of my own spiritual children by the worst of all the furies, I must extend a helping hand to an unfortunate comrade who has been put to grief in the same way.

The Good Samaritan, too, I meet very frequently. I saw him helping a lady with her parcels only this afternoon. I see now that to him also I have been unjust. Not that I have failed to recognize his worth. Ever since he turned aside that night in the Bloody Pass, and rescued the wounded man whose chance of life was so rapidly vanishing, I have given him a conspicuous place in my gallery of heroes. He is to me a knight of the most golden order of chivalry. And yet, for all that, I have never done him justice. I have always thought very highly of him, but not so highly as he deserves. I have admired his readiness to relieve the distressed, to succour the fallen, and to befriend all who need a helping hand. But I never realized till to-day that he only does all this after a desperate struggle. I have taken it for granted that he enjoys a complete immunity from the attacks of second thoughts. But I see now that I have been mistaken. When he paused in the lane, as the Levite paused before him, a gang of second thoughts sprang upon him, and attempted to strangle the kindly thought which had been born within him. But he fought for his purpose so bravely, so tenaciously, and so successfully, that the second thoughts were scattered, the generous purpose preserved, and the heroic deed actually accomplished. When I meet the Good Samaritan in our suburban streets, I shall raise my hat to him more reverently than ever. I always thought that he was good; I see now that he is even better than he seemed.

Second thoughts were designed to be the peers of the intellectual realm. They constitute a House of Lords, a chamber of review. It was intended that they should be a check upon any hasty and injudicious legislation that my first thoughts might introduce. And, to do them justice, they often serve me excellently in that very way. My first thoughts are often moved by sentiment, by caprice, by anger, or by some gust of passion; and it is a happy circumstance for me that the project has to run the gauntlet of the Upper House. My second thoughts make short work of such rash and ill-considered devices.

Many a rash scheme, unanimously and enthusiastically approved by my first thoughts, has been contemptuously rejected in the chamber of review. But, unfortunately, that higher chamber has, in a marked degree, the weakness of all such legislative institutions. It is too cautious. It tends to conservatism. It is not sufficiently progressive. It fails to distinguish between a gust of vapid emotion and a wave of magnanimous determination. And so it comes to pass that it scornfully rejects some of the most splendid enactments that my first thoughts produce. The question of the abolition of the Upper House is always a knotty one. It is particularly so in this connexion. Would I, if I could, abolish the chamber of my second thoughts? It is very difficult to say. When I recall the wild and senseless projects from which they have saved me, I shudder at the thought of removing from my life so substantial a safeguard. Yet when I remember how often they have stood between me and moral grandeur, I feel resigned to their destruction. The finer feelings invariably express themselves through the medium of first thoughts; it is the more sordid and selfish sides of my nature that reveal themselves when the second thoughts arrive. In reality, the lightning and the thunder occur simultaneously. But the flash of the one is seen immediately, whilst the rumble of the other is only heard after an appreciable interval.

Conscience expresses itself like the lightning, instantaneously; the mutterings of reason and self-interest, like the thunder, come lumbering along later. It has been said that the men who, in the great war-days, won the Victoria Cross, won it by yielding to the impulses of the moment. Thousands of others were similarly situated, and felt that same sudden and sublime inspiration. But, unfortunately, they hesitated. During that momentary spasm of uncertainty a multitude of second thoughts surged in upon their minds; those second thoughts were, without exception, thoughts of caution, of safety, and of self-interest; and, as a result, the splendid deed was never done and the coveted distinction never won. I really believe that the heroic, the chivalrous, the sacrificial would become commonplace but for the excessive caution of that Upper House.

If ever I become a king, or a dictator, or a president, or anything of that kind, I shall establish a special Order of Merit, to be conferred upon men and women who contrive to conquer their second thoughts whenever their second thoughts threaten the realization of their best selves. The badge of the Order will consist of a representation of the Good Samaritan. And its membership will include some very knightly spirits. I shall confer the ribbon of my Order on men of the stamp of William Law. William Law—who afterwards wrote a book that changed the face of the world—was once a poor young tutor in the household of the Gibbons of Putney—the household that afterwards gave to the world its greatest historian. In those days Mr. Law used to think a great deal about the widows and orphans whom he had known so well, and helped so often, at his old home at King’s Cliffe. ‘If,’ he used to say to his new friends at Putney, ‘if only I were a rich man, those poor women and children should never again have need to beg for bread! But it was no good saying ‘if.’ He was not rich; he was scarcely less poor than the people he pitied. One day, however, he had occasion to visit the city. Standing in the doorway of a bookshop in Paternoster Row, looking at the passing crowd, a strange experience befell him. ‘A young man, in the dress and with the manners of a gentleman's servant, stepped out of the crowd and asked him if he was Mr. Law. On receiving an affirmative reply, he put a letter into his hand. When Law opened the letter, he found inside it a bank-note for a thousand pounds. No name accompanied the note, and, by the time that Law looked up from the letter, the messenger had vanished. Before Law stepped from that doorway he made his resolution. He took the first coach to King’s Cliffe, and, before he returned to Putney, had made arrangements for the erection and endowment of a residential school for fourteen poor girls.’ William Law knew that the whole pack of second thoughts were on his track. He determined at any cost to keep ahead of them; and he succeeded so well that upon him I shall certainly confer the ribbon of my Order.

It will be said, I know, that I am too severe. I am indulging, I shall be told, not in a criticism, but in a diatribe. In my fierce reprobation of second thoughts I have almost stooped to invective. I know; I know! But let it be remembered, in extenuation of my offence, that I am a minister of the everlasting gospel. And no man is so harassed and cheated and victimized by second thoughts as a minister of the gospel. Every Sunday of my life I preach a story that might move a statue to tears. It is the story of the Cross; the story of redeeming love; the greatest, sublimest love-story ever told. And I can see, as I watch the play of emotion on the faces of my hearers, that I have swayed their reasons, touched their consciences, and almost won their hearts. But it all comes to nothing. They pause for just a moment, as the Levite paused in the middle of the road. Their hearts are almost won—almost, almost, almost! But, whilst they hesitate, the second thoughts come surging in. I see the millions of them—swarming into the building whilst the congregation is singing the closing hymn. They get to work without a second’s delay. The heavenly aspiration that I marked upon the people's faces is stifled at its birth. The doors open and the crowd melts away. I have been robbed by second thoughts of the fruit of all my labours. If the people had only acted as the Good Samaritan acted, as the hero of the battlefield acted, and as William Law acted, they would have flocked to the Cross like doves to their windows. The man, I say again, who can keep ahead of his second thoughts is sure of the kingdom of God.

F W Boreham

Image: ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell.