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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : DISCOURSE I. THE LESSONS OF THE STREET.

Humanity In The City by E. H. Chapin

DISCOURSE I. THE LESSONS OF THE STREET.

THE LESSONS OF THE STREET.

Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets. -- PROVERBS, i.20.

The great truths of religion may be communicated to the mind and the heart in two ways -- by abstract treatment, and by illustration. It must be taken up in its absolute connection with God, and with our own souls. In solitary meditation, in self-examination, and in prayer, we shall learn the intrinsic claims which Faith and Duty have upon reason and conscience. But we cannot proceed far before we discover the necessity of some symbol, by which these abstract principles may be made distinct to us. And, looking around for this purpose, we find that all the phases of existence are full of spiritual illustration -- full of religious suggestion and argument. Thus our Saviour pronounced his great doctrines of Eternal Life, and of Personal Religion, and then turned to the world for a commentary. Under his teaching nature became an illuminated missal, lettered by the lilies of the field, and pencilled with hues that played through the leaves of Olivet. The wild birds, in their flight, bore upward the beautiful lesson of Providence, and the significance of the Kingdom of Heaven was contained in a mustard-seed. By no abstruse reasoning did he make his instructions so vivid to his disciples, and so fresh to ourselves. But he awoke the conviction of moral need, and repentance, and Divine Love, by drawing from instances with which they had been familiar all their lives -- the procedures of government, the transactions of business, the labors of the husbandman, and the incidents of home. And the result is essentially the same, whether we start with the religious truth to find some illustration in the world around us, or from some aspect of human life, or nature, extract a religious truth. Nor need this always be sharply obvious. It is only necessary that our point of view be sufficiently elevated to throw a spiritual light upon things, and to reveal their moral relations; for, often, our understandings are cleared, and our hearts made better, by the mere scope and tendency of such observations.

With this conviction, I called your attention, last winter, to some of the |Aspects of City Life,| and with the same view, I wish now to address you, for a few Sunday evenings, on the Conditions of Humanity in the City, in which series I shall endeavor not only to present new topics of interest, but to urge more explicitly some points, which, in the afore-mentioned discourses, I merely touched upon.

The essential meaning of the personification in the text is in accordance, I think, with the general tenor of remark which I have just been making. For I understand it to mean, that everything is instructive, that even in the common ways of life the most important truths, and the profoundest moral and religious significance, are contained. And the words before us, also, specifically indicate the subject upon which I wish to speak this evening, for they declare that |Wisdom... uttereth her voice in the streets.|

The street through which you walk every day; with whose sights and sounds you have been familiar, perhaps, all your lives; is it all so common-place that it yields you no deep lessons, -- deep and fresh, it may be, if you would only look around with discerning eyes? Engaged with your own special interests, and busy with monotonous details, you may not heed it; and yet there is something finer than the grandest poetry, even in the mere spectacle of these multitudinous billows of life, rolling down the long, broad, avenue. It is an inspiring lyric, this inexhaustible procession, in the misty perspective ever lost, ever renewed, sweeping onward between its architectural banks to the music of innumerable wheels; the rainbow colors, the silks, the velvets, the jewels, the tatters, the plumes, the faces -- no two alike -- shooting out from unknown depths, and passing away for ever -- perpetually sweeping onward in the fresh air of morning, under the glare of noon, under the fading, flickering light, until the shadow climbs the tallest spire, and night comes with revelations and mysteries of its own.

And yet this changeful tide of activity is no mere lyric. It is an epic, rather, unfolding in its progress the contrasts, the conflicts, the heroisms, the failures, -- in one word, the great and solemn issues of human life. And a few comprehensive lessons from that |Wisdom which uttereth her voice in the streets,| may prove a fitting introduction, from which we can pass to consider more specific conditions of humanity in the city.

Taking up the subject in this light, I observe that the first lesson of the street is in the illustration which it affords us of the diversities of human conditions. The most superficial eye recognizes this. A city is, in one respect, like a high mountain; the latter is an epitome of the physical globe; for its sides are belted by products of every zone, from the tropical luxuriance that clusters around its base, to its arctic summit far up in the sky. So is the city an epitome of the social world. All the belts of civilization intersect along its avenues. It contains the products of every moral zone. It is cosmopolitan, not only in a national, but in a spiritual, sense. Here you may find not only the finest Saxon culture, but the grossest barbaric degradation. There you pass a form of Caucasian development, the fine-cut features, the imperial forehead, the intelligent eye, the confident tread, the true port and stature of a man. But who is this that follows in his track; under the same national sky, surrounded by the same institutions, and yet with those pinched features, that stunted form, that villainous look; is it Papuan, Bushman, or Carib? Fitly representing either of these, though born in a Christian city, and bearing about not only the stamp of violated physical law, but of moral neglect and baseness. And no one needs to be told that there are savages in New York, as well as in the islands of the sea. Savages, not in gloomy forests, but under the strength of gas-light, and the eyes of policemen; with war-whoops and clubs very much the same, and garments as fantastic, and souls as brutal, as any of their kindred at the antipodes. China, India, Africa, will you not find their features in some circles of the social world right around you? Idolatry! you cannot find any more gross, any more cruel, on the broad earth, than within the area of a mile around this pulpit. Dark minds from which God is obscured; deluded souls, whose fetish is the dice-box or the bottle; apathetic spirits, steeped in sensual abomination, unmoved by a moral ripple, soaking in the slump of animal vitality. False gods, more hideous, more awful, than Moloch or Baal; worshipped with shrieks, worshipped with curses, with the hearth-stone for the bloody altar, and the drunken husband for the immolating priest, and women and children for the victims. I have no terms of respect too high for the brave and conscientious men who carry the gospel, and their own lives, in their hands to distant shores. But, surely, they need not go thus far to seek for the benighted and the debased. They may find there a wider extent of heathenism, but none more intense than that which prevails close by the school and the church. The richest products of modern progress and Christian culture grow on the verge of barren wastes, and jungles of violence, and |the region of the shadow of death.|

In the street, however, not only do we behold these different degrees of civilization, but those problems of diversity, which the highest form of existing civilization developes -- the diversities of extreme poverty, and extreme wealth, for instance. Here sits the beggar, sick and pinched with cold; and there goes a man of no better flesh and blood, and no more authentic charter of soul, wrapped in comfort, and actually bloated with luxury. There issues the whine of distress, beside the glittering carriage-wheels. There, amidst the rush of gaiety; the busy, selfish whirl; half naked, shivering, with her bare feet on the icy pavement, stands the little girl, with the shadow of an experience upon her that has made her preternaturally old, and it may be, driven the angel from her face. Still, we cannot believe that above that wintry heaven which stretches over her, there is less regard for the poor, neglected child, than for that rosy belt of infant happiness which girdles and gladdens ten thousand hearths.

And here, too, through the brilliant street, and the broad light of day, walks Purity, enshrined in the loveliest form of womanhood. And along that same street by night, attended by fitting shadows, strolls womanhood discrowned, clothed with painted shame, yet, even in the springs of that guilty heart not utterly quenched. We render just homage to the one, we pour scorn upon the other; but, could we trace back the lines of circumstance, and inquire why the one stands guarded with such sweet respect, and why the other has fallen, we might raise problems with which we cannot tax Providence, which we may not lay altogether to the charge of the condemned, but for which we might challenge an answer from society.

And, if we would ascertain the practical purport of this lesson of human diversity which is so conspicuous in the street -- the meaning of these sharp contrasts of refinement and grossness, intelligence and ignorance, respectability and guilt -- we only ask a question that thousands have asked before us. And yet, it is possible to surmise the purpose of these diversities. We know, for one thing, that out of them come some of the noblest instances of character and of achievement. Ignorance and crime and poverty and vice, stand in fearful contrast to knowledge and integrity and wealth and purity; but they likewise constitute the dark background against which the virtues of human life stand out in radiant relief; virtues developed by the struggle which they create; virtues which seem impossible without their co-existence. For, whence issues any such thing as virtue, except out of the temptation and antagonism of vice? How could Charity ever have appeared in the world, were there no dark ways to be trodden by its bright feet, and no suffering and sadness to require its aid? I look at these asylums, these hospitals, these ragged schools -- a zodiac of beautiful charities, girdling all this selfishness and sin -- I look at these monuments which humanity will honor when war shall be but a legend, and laurels have withered to dust; and when I think what they have grown out of, and why they stand here, I regard them as so many sublime way-marks by which Providence unfolds its purposes among men, and by which men trace out the plan of God.

And then, again, perhaps this problem of human diversity presses heaviest where civilization is the most advanced, in order that men may be more sharply aroused to seek some practical solution. It is an encouraging sign when an evil begins to be intensely felt, and the demand for relief becomes desperate. The civilization of our time is imperfect; involves many incongruities; perhaps creates some evils; but that it is an improved civilization, is evinced by the fact that it is self-conscious; for perception is the necessary antecedent of endeavor and success. The contrasts of human condition, then, that unfold themselves in the crowded street, may teach us our duty and our responsibility in lessening social inequality and need.

But a solution of this problem, clearer perhaps than any other, appears when we consider another lesson of the street; a lesson which requires us to look a little deeper, but which, when we do look, is no less evident than these diversities. That lesson unfolds the essential unity of humanity. For, we find that the differences between men are formal rather than real; that, with various outward conditions, they pass through the same great trials; and that the scales which seem to hang uneven at the surface, and to be tipped this way and that by the currents of worldly fortune, are very nearly balanced in the depths of the inner life. We are shallow judges of the happiness or the misery of others, if we estimate it by any marks that distinguish them from ourselves; if, for instance, we say that because they have more money they are happier, or because they live more meagrely they are more wretched. For, men are allied by much more than they differ. The rich man, rolling by in his chariot, and the beggar, shivering in his rags, are allied by much more than they differ. It is safer, therefore, to estimate our neighbor's real condition by what we find in our own lot, than by what we do not find there. And now, see into what an essential unity this criterion draws the jostling, divergent masses in yonder street! Each man there, like all the rest, finds life to be a discipline. Each has his separate form of discipline; but it bears upon the kindred spirit that is in every one of us, and strikes upon motives, sympathies, faculties, that run through the common humanity. Surely, you will not calculate any essential difference from mere appearances; for the light laughter that bubbles on the lip often mantles over brackish depths of sadness, and the serious look may be the sober veil that covers a divine peace. You know that the bosom can ache beneath diamond brooches, and how many blithe hearts dance under coarse wool. But I do not allude merely to these accidental contrasts. I mean that about equal measures of trial, equal measures of what men call good and evil, are allotted to all; enough, at least, to prove the identity of our humanity, and to show that we are all subjects of the same great plan. You say that the poor man who passes yonder, carrying his burden, has a hard lot of it, and it may be he has; but the rich man who brushes by him has a hard lot of it too -- just as hard for him, just as well fitted to discipline him for the great ends of life. He has his money to take care of; a pleasant occupation, you may think; but, after all, an occupation, with all the strain and anxiety of labor, making more hard work for him, day and night, perhaps, than his neighbor has who digs ditches or thumps a lapstone. And it is quite likely that he feels poorer than the poor man, and, if he ever becomes self-conscious, has great reason to feel meaner. And then, he has his rivalries, his competitions, his troubles of caste and etiquette, so that the merchant, in his sumptuous apartments, comes to the same essential point, |sweats, and bears fardels,| as well as his brother in the garret; tosses on his bed with surfeit, or perplexity, while the other is wrapped in peaceful slumber; and, if he is one who recognizes the moral ends of life, finds himself called upon to contend with his own heart, and to fight with peculiar temptations. And thus the rich man and the poor man, who seem so unequal in the street, would find but a thin partition between them, could they, as they might, detect one another kneeling on the same platform of spiritual endeavor, and sending up the same prayers to the same eternal throne.

But, say you, |here is one who is returning to a home of destitution, of misery; where the light of the natural day is almost shut out, but in which brood the deeper shadows of despair.| And yet, in many a splendid mansion you will find a more fearful destitution, a dearth of affections, killed by envy, jealousy, distrust; stifled by glittering formalities; a brood of evil passions that mock the splendor, and darken the magnificent walls. The measure of joy, too, is distributed with the same impartiality as the measure of woe. The child's grief throbs against the round of its little heart as heavily as the man's sorrow; and the one finds as much delight in his kite or drum, as the other in striking the springs of enterprise or soaring on the wings of fame. After all, happiness is the rule, not the exception, even in the hearts that beat in the crowded city; and its great elements are as common as the air, and the sunshine, and free movement, and good health. And what the fortunate may seem to gain in variety of methods, may only be unconscious devices to simulate or recover that natural relish which others have never lost. And no one doubts that the great dispensations of life, the events that make epochs in our fleeting years, cleave through all the strata of outward difference, and lay bare the core of our one humanity. Sickness! does it not make Dives look very much like Lazarus, and show our common weakness, and reveal the common marvel of this |harp of thousand strings?| And sorrow! it veils all faces, and bows all forms alike, and sends the same shudder through the frame, and casts the same darkness upon the walls, and peals forth in the same dirge of maternal agony by the dead boy's cradle in the sumptuous chamber, and the baby's last sleep on its bed of straw. And Death! how wonderfully it makes them all alike who in the street wore such various garments, and had such distinct aims, and were whirled apart in such different orbits! Ah! our essential humanity comes out in those composed forms and still features. Those divergent currents have carried them out upon the same placid sea at last; and the same solemn light streams upon the clasped hands and the uplifted faces. We don't mind the drapery so much then. It seems a very superficial matter beside the silent and starless mystery that enfolds them all.

In what I have thus said I do not mean to maintain that outward conditions are nothing. I think they are a great deal; and we do right in striving to improve them; in escaping the evil, and seeking to secure the good that pertains to them. But, I repeat, when we come to the essential humanity, to the real discipline and substance of life, we find the same great features; and so this lesson of the street may help explain the problem suggested by the other; may reconcile each of us to our condition in the crowd, and direct our attention to substantial results.

But, again, the street, with its processions and activities, teaches us that much in human life is merely phenomenal, merely appears. We enter into this truth by a very common train of observation. We know how much is put on purposely for the public gaze, and has no other intention than to be seen; how hollow are many of the smiles, and gay looks, and smooth decencies. And even the complexion of some, with its red and white, is more unsubstantial than all the rest; for it is in danger of being washed away by the first shower. It is strange to meet people whose personal significance in life is that of a shop window exhibiting lace and jewelry; strange to encounter men in whose place we might substitute a well-dressed effigy, and they would hardly be missed. Of course appearances should be attended to, and are good in their place. It is right that we should honor society by our best looks and ways. But it is not merely ridiculous, it is sad, to think how much in the street, where humanity exhibits all its phases, is appearance and but little else.

But dress and manners are not all that is phenomenal in human life. These men and women themselves, this streaming crowd, these brick walls and stately pinnacles, those that pursue and the things that are pursued, are only appearances. It may be profitable for us to stand apart from this multitude, this river of living forms, and think in how short a time it all will have passed away; how short a time since, and it was not! A little while ago, and this rich and populous city was a green island, and our beautiful bay clasped it in its silver arms like an emerald. The wilderness stood here, and the child of the forest thought of it as a prepared abiding place for himself and for his people for ever. The red man has gone; the wild woods have vanished; and these structures, and vehicles, and busy crowds, have come into their places magically, like the new picture in a dissolving view. But are these forms of life, is your presence here or mine, any more substantial than those that have sunk away? Nay, all this splendid civilization, what is it but a sparkling ripple in the calm eternity of God? Dwellings, stores, banks, churches, streets, and the restless multitudes, are but forms of life, -- as it were a rack of cloud drifting across the mirror of absolute being. That which seems to you substantial is only spectral. And as the dress of the fop, and the smile of the coquette, is merely an appearance; so the wealth for which men strain in eager chase, and the fabrics which pride builds up, the anvils on which labor strikes its mighty blows, and the body to which so much is devoted, and which absorbs so much care, are but appearances also. While that which may seem to you as a shadow -- the spiritual substratum of life, the basis of those spiritual laws which run through all our conditions -- is the only abiding substance.

If we only look in this light, my friends, upon the continuous spectacle of human movement and human change, we shall find that |Wisdom... uttereth her voice in the streets.| Old as the thought may be, in the rush of the great crowd it will come to us fresh and impressively, that all this is but a form of spiritual and eternal being. A day in the city is like life itself. Out of unconscious slumber into the brilliant morning and the thick activity we come. But, by-and-by, the heaving mass breaks into units, and one by one dissolves into the shadow of the night. Two cities grow up side by side -- the city in which men appear, the city into which they vanish; the city whose houses and goods they possess for a little while and then leave behind them, and the city whose white monuments just show us the pinnacles of their estates in the eternal world. The busy, diversified crowd that rolls through the streets -- it is only an appearance! It is a ceaseless march of emigration. In a little while, the names in this year's Directory may be read in Greenwood.

But we must not rest with this as the final lesson of the street. It is only the form of Life that is transient and phenomenal; but the Life itself is here, also -- here, in these flashing eyes, and heaving breasts, and active limbs. These conditions, however transient, involve the great interest of Humanity; and that lends the deepest significance to these conditions. The interest of Humanity! which gives importance to all it touches, and transforms nature into history; which imparts dignity to the rudest workshop, and the most barren shore, and the humblest grave -- this permits us to draw no mean or discouraging conclusions from the achievements and the changes of the multitudes around us. It may do for the skeptic, who sees nothing in existence but these forms of things; who sees nothing but the limited phenomena of our present state, and thinks that includes all; it may do for him to croak over the transitoriness of life, and call it a trivial game. But it is not trivial; and there is no spot where man acts, there is nothing that he does, that is insignificant. Perhaps you have a quick eye for the foibles of people, and can detect their vanities, and meannesses, and laughable conceits. If you employ this gift to correct a bad habit, or expose a falsehood, it is well enough. But if it induces you to look upon things merely with the skill of a satirist, then let me say, there is no |ludicrous side| to life; there is nothing in human conduct that is simply absurd. The least transaction has a moral cast, and every word and act reveals spiritual relations. The interest of man can never be thrown into insignificance by his conditions; these draw interest from him. And, whatever his post in the world, however limited or broad his sphere of observation, for him life is real, and has intense relations. We must not stand so far apart from the crowd as to occupy the position of mere spectators, and regard these men and women as so many mechanical figures in a panorama. We must look through the depths of their experience into their own souls, and through the depths of that experience again upon the world, beholding it as it appears to the beggar, and the lonely woman, and the child of vice and crime, and the hero, and the saint, and as it falls with intense yet diverse refractions upon all these multiform angles of personality. So shall we learn to cherish a solemn and tender interest in the dear humanity around us, and feel the arteries of sympathy which connect it, in all its conditions, with our own hearts. And, as we return homeward from our study of the street, it may be with our irritation, and prejudice, and selfishness softened down; with a larger love flowing out towards the least, and even the worst; realizing the spiritual ties that make us one, and the Infinite Fatherhood that encircles us all; perhaps suggestions will come to us that have been best expressed in the words of the poet --

|Let us move slowly through the street,
Filled with an ever-shifting train,
Amid the sound of steps that beat
The murmuring walks like autumn rain.

|How fast the flitting figures come!
The mild, the fierce, the stony face;
Some bright with thoughtless smiles, and some
Where secret tears have left their trace.

* * * * *

|Each, where his tasks or pleasures call
They pass, and heed each other not.
There is, Who heeds, Who holds them all,
In His large love and boundless thought.

|These struggling tides of life that seem,
In wayward, aimless course to tend,
Are eddies of the mighty stream
That rolls to its appointed end.|

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