Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Boreham on The Tireless Trudge

Whilst the fire crackled cheerily between them two friends of mine discussed a knotty point. The question under debate was, briefly, this: Which is the most trying part of a long journey? One argued for the initial steps on setting out. The weary road, he said, stretches out interminably before you. Every stick and stone seems to be shouting at you to turn back and to take your ease. His friend, on the other side of the hearth, thought quite differently. He contended stoutly for the final stage of the pilgrimage. He vividly pictured the exhausted pedestrian at the end of his journey, scarcely able to drag one blistered and bleeding foot in front of the other. It is certainly rather a fine point; but, after all, it was really not worth discussing, for nothing is more absolutely clear than that they were both wrong. Which, of course, is the usual fate of controversialists.

Now the worst part of a journey is neither at its beginning nor at its close. There is a certain indescribable exhilaration arising from the making of the effort which imparts elasticity to the muscles and courage to the mind, at starting. The road seems to dare and challenge the pilgrim, and he swings off along the taunting trail with a keen relish and a buoyant stride. And, at the other end, the twinkling lights of the city that he seeks help him to forget that he is footsore and choked with the dust of the road. His blood tingles with the triumph of his achievement and the delight of nearing his goal. But there is another stage concerning which neither of my friends had a word to say. What of the intermediate stage? What of the long and lonely tramp? What of the hours through which no applauding voices from behind can encourage and no familiar fingers from before can beckon? This, surely, is the worst part of the way! There is no intellectual stimulant so intoxicating as the formation of a noble purpose, the conception of a sudden resolve, the making of a great decision. And, in the luxurious revelry of that stimulus the prodigal finds it easy to rise from the degradations of the far country and to fling himself with a will along the great Phoenician road. And at the other end! Surely the most overpowering of all human instincts and emotions is that which holds captive every nerve at the dear sight of home! No; neither the first nor the last steps of that familiar journey were very hard to take. But between the one and the other! What questionings and forebodings! What haltings and backward glances! What doubts and fears! Yes, there can be no doubt about it, both my friends were wrong.

It is the intermediate stage that tests the mettle of the person. It is the long, fatiguing trudge out of sight of both starting-point and destination that puts the heaviest strain on heart and brain. That is precisely what Isaiah meant in the best known and most quoted of all his prophecies. He promises that, on the return from Babylon to Jerusalem, `they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.' Israel is to be released at last from her long captivity. Imagine the departure from Babylon—its fond anticipations, its rapturous ecstasies, its delirious transports! Those first steps of the journey were not trying; they were more like flying. The delighted people walked with winged feet. And the last steps—with Jerusalem actually in sight, the pilgrims actually climbing the mountains that surrounded the holy and beautiful city-what rush of noble and tender emotions would expel and banish all thought of weariness! But Isaiah is thinking of the long, long tramp between-the drag across the desert, and the march all void of music. It is with this terrible test in mind that he utters his heartening promise: 'They shall walk and not faint.' They would fly, as on wings of eagles, out of Babylon at the beginning; they would run, forgetful of fatigue, into Jerusalem at the end; but they should walk and not faint. That is life's crowning comfort. The very climax of divine grace is the grace that nerves us for the least romantic stage of the journey. Farewells and welcomes, departures and arrivals, have adjusting compensations peculiar to themselves; but it is the glory of the gospel that it has something to say to the lonely traveller on the dusty track. Religion draws nearer when romance deserts. Grace holds on when the gilt wears off.

Two cases come to mind. I know a man whose whole delight was in his boy—a little fellow of six or so. Then, suddenly, like lamps blown out by a sudden gust, the lad's eyes failed him, and he was blind. The father was the recipient of scores of touchingly sympathetic letters. All sorts of people called. Kindly references were made in press and pulpit. The man had no idea until that moment that he had so many friends. All the world seethed to bepaying homage to his sorrow. That was the beginning. After many years the boy had been taught to interpret the world again by means of his remaining senses. There was nothing he could not do. He earned his own living, and his sightlessness seemed no real hindrance to him. That was the end. But the father told me that the strain of it all came between these two. There came a time when the postman brought no cheering letters. Friends uttered no heartening words. The world had transferred his boy's blindness into the realm of the normal and the commonplace. Nobody noticed. But in the home the little fellow staggered about, and his parents' hearts ached for him. What was to become of him? It was during those intervening years lying between the first crushing blow and the final relief that the real strain came. That was by far the worst stretch of the road.

I knew a woman. Without a moment's warning she was plunged into widowhood, and left to battle for her five little children and herself. There was an extraordinary outburst of affectionate sympathy on the part of all who knew her. Then came the funeral. After that the world went on its way again as though nothing had happened. That was the beginning. After the years, the battle had been well fought and well run. The children had been clothed, educated, and placed in positions of usefulness and honour. That was the end. But my widowed friend told me that she did not forget when the world forgot. Every morning her grief woke up with her. And every night it followed her to her rest. Every day, as she struggled for her little ones, the haunting question tortured her: What would become of them if sickness or death seized upon her? That was the killing time. That intermediate stretch was the worst part of the desolate way.

As it is with individuals, so it is with great causes. A crusade is launched amidst vituperation, derision, and execration. And there is enough fight in most of us to lend a certain enjoyment to the very bitterness of antagonism. And at last the self-same movement is crowned with triumph. But the real inwardness of the struggle lies midway. William Wilberforce used to say that he was less dismayed by the storm that broke upon him when first he pleaded the cause of the slave than by the `long lull' that followed when the country accepted his principles, but did nothing to hasten their realization. In America the same thing happened. The war against slavery was undertaken with a light heart. Young men sprang to the front in thousands with the refrain of 'John Brown's body' on their lips. But the real struggle was not then, nor towards the close, when victory and emancipation were in sight. But who can forget the long agony of disaster that intervened between those two? It was when the nation was trudging tearfully along that blood-marked track that the real suffering took place. The same experience repeats itself in the history of every great reform. Some one has said that every movement has its bow-wow stage, its pooh-pooh stage, and its hear-hear stage. Of those three phases the central one is infinitely the most difficult to negotiate. Between the howl of execration that greets the suggestion of a reform and the shout of applause that announces its final triumph there is a long and tiresome stretch of steep and stony road that is very hard to tread. They are God's heroes who set a stout heart to that stiff brae, and walk and not faint.

In his Autobiography Mark Rutherford tells of his fierce struggle with the drink fiend. On one never-to-be-forgotten night he resolutely put the glass from him and went to bed having drunk nothing but water! 'But,' he continues, 'the struggle was not felt just then. It came later, when the first enthusiasm of a new purpose had faded away.' And, in his Deliverance he applies the same principle in a more general way. He is telling of the stress of his life as a whole. 'Neither the first nor the last,' he says 'has been the difficult step with me,' but rather what lies between. The first is usually helped by the excitement and promise of new beginnings, and the last by the prospect of triumph. But the intermediate path is unassisted by enthusiasm, and it is here we are so likely to faint.'

I cannot close more fittingly than by setting those two striking sentences over against each other: `It is here we are so likely to faint,' says Mark Rutherford, speaking of the long and tiresome intermediate phase. 'They shall walk and not faint,' says the prophet in reference to precisely the same circumstances and conditions. Wherefore let all those who are feeling the toilsome drudgery of the long and unromantic trail pay good heed to such comfortable words.

F W Boreham, ‘The Tireless Trudge’, The Luggage of Life (London: Charles H Kelly, 1913), 70-77.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “It is the intermediate stage that tests the mettle of the person.”