The Third Period: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 37

The announcement of Edward Bok’s retirement came as a great surprise to his friends. Save for one here and there, who had a clearer vision, the feeling was general that he had made a mistake. He was fifty-six, in the prime of life, never in better health, with “success lying easily upon him”—said one; “at the very summit of his career,” said another—and all agreed it was “queer,” “strange,”—unless, they argued, he was really ill. Even the most acute students of human affairs among his friends wondered. It seemed incomprehensible that any man should want to give up before he was, for some reason, compelled to do so. A man should go on until he “dropped in the harness,” they argued.

Bok agreed that any man had a perfect right to work until he did “drop in the harness.” But, he argued, if he conceded this right to others, why should they not concede to him the privilege of dropping with the blinders off?

“But,” continued the argument, “a man degenerates when he retires from active affairs.” And then, instances were pointed out as notable examples. “A year of retirement and he was through,” was the picture given of one retired man. “In two years, he was glad to come back,” and so the examples ran on. “No big man ever retired from active business and did great work afterwards,” Bok was told.

“No?” he answered. “Not even Cyrus W. Field or Herbert Hoover?”

And all this time Edward Bok’s failure to be entirely Americanized was brought home to his consciousness. After fifty years, he was still not an American! He had deliberately planned, and then had carried out his plan, to retire while he still had the mental and physical capacity to enjoy the fruits of his years of labor! For foreign to the American way of thinking it certainly was: the protestations and arguments of his friends proved that to him. After all, he was still Dutch; he had held on to the lesson which his people had learned years ago; that the people of other European countries had learned; that the English had discovered: that the Great Adventure of Life was something more than material work, and that the time to go is while the going is good!

For it cannot be denied that the pathetic picture we so often see is found in American business life more frequently than in that of any other land: men unable to let go—not only for their own good, but to give the younger men behind them an opportunity. Not that a man should stop work, for man was born to work, and in work he should find his greatest refreshment. But so often it does not occur to the man in a pivotal position to question the possibility that at sixty or seventy he can keep steadily in touch with a generation whose ideas are controlled by men twenty years younger. Unconsciously he hangs on beyond his greatest usefulness and efficiency: he convinces himself that he is indispensable to his business, while, in scores of cases, the business would be distinctly benefited by his retirement and the consequent coming to the front of the younger blood.

Such a man in a position of importance seems often not to see that he has it within his power to advance the fortunes of younger men by stepping out when he has served his time, while by refusing to let go he often works dire injustice and even disaster to his younger associates.

The sad fact is that in all too many instances the average American business man is actually afraid to let go because he realizes that out of business he should not know what to do. For years he has so excluded all other interests that at fifty or sixty or seventy he finds himself a slave to his business, with positively no inner resources. Retirement from the one thing he does know would naturally leave such a man useless to himself and his family, and his community: worse than useless, as a matter of fact, for he would become a burden to himself, a nuisance to his family, and, when he would begin to write “letters” to the newspapers, a bore to the community.

It is significant that a European or English business man rarely reaches middle age devoid of acquaintance with other matters; he always lets the breezes from other worlds of thought blow through his ideas, with the result that when he is ready to retire from business he has other interests to fall back upon. Fortunately it is becoming less uncommon for American men to retire from business and devote themselves to other pursuits; and their number will undoubtedly increase as time goes on, and we learn the lessons of life with a richer background. But one cannot help feeling regretful that the custom is not growing more rapidly.

A man must unquestionably prepare years ahead for his retirement, not alone financially, but mentally as well. Bok noticed as a curious fact that nearly every business man who told him he had made a mistake in his retirement, and that the proper life for a man is to stick to the game and see it through—”hold her nozzle agin the bank” as Jim Bludso would say—was a man with no resources outside his business. Naturally, a retirement is a mistake in the eyes of such a man; but oh, the pathos of such a position: that in a world of so much interest, in an age so fascinatingly full of things worth doing, a man should have allowed himself to become a slave to his business, and should imagine no other man happy without the same claims!

It is this lesson that the American business man has still to learn: that no man can be wholly efficient in his life, that he is not living a four-squared existence, if he concentrates every waking thought on his material affairs. He has still to learn that man cannot live by bread alone. The making of money, the accumulation of material power, is not all there is to living. Life is something more than these, and the man who misses this truth misses the greatest joy and satisfaction that can come into his life-service for others.

Some men argue that they can give this service and be in business, too. But service with such men generally means drawing a check for some worthy cause, and nothing more. Edward Bok never belittled the giving of contributions—he solicited too much money himself for the causes in which he was interested—but it is a poor nature that can satisfy itself that it is serving humanity by merely signing checks. There is no form of service more comfortable or so cheap. Real service, however, demands that a man give himself with his check. And that the average man cannot do if he remains in affairs.

Particularly true is this to-day, when every problem of business is so engrossing, demanding a man’s full time and thought. It is the rare man who can devote himself to business and be fresh for the service of others afterward. No man can, with efficiency, serve two masters so exacting as are these. Besides, if his business has seemed important enough to demand his entire attention, are not the great uplift questions equally worth his exclusive thought? Are they easier of solution than the material problems?

A man can live a life full-square only when he divides it into three periods:

First: that of education, acquiring the fullest and best within his reach and power;

Second: that of achievement: achieving for himself and his family, and discharging the first duty of any man, that in case of his incapacity those who are closest to him are provided for. But such provision does not mean an accumulation that becomes to those he leaves behind him an embarrassment rather than a protection. To prevent this, the next period confronts him:

Third: Service for others. That is the acid test where many a man falls short: to know when he has enough, and to be willing not only to let well enough alone, but to give a helping hand to the other fellow; to recognize, in a practical way, that we are our brother’s keeper; that a brotherhood of man does exist outside after-dinner speeches. Too many men make the mistake, when they reach the point of enough, of going on pursuing the same old game: accumulating more money, grasping for more power until either a nervous breakdown overtakes them and a sad incapacity results, or they drop “in the harness,” which is, of course, only calling an early grave by another name. They cannot seem to get the truth into their heads that as they have been helped by others so should they now help others: as their means have come from the public, so now they owe something in turn to that public.

No man has a right to leave the world no better than he found it. He must add something to it: either he must make its people better and happier, or he must make the face of the world fairer to look at. And the one really means the other.

“Idealism,” immediately say some. Of course, it is. But what is the matter with idealism? What really is idealism? Do one-tenth of those who use the phrase so glibly know its true meaning, the part it has played in the world? The worthy interpretation of an ideal is that it embodies an idea—a conception of the imagination. All ideas are at first ideals. They must be. The producer brings forth an idea, but some dreamer has dreamed it before him either in whole or in part.

Where would the human race be were it not for the ideals of men? It is idealists, in a large sense, that this old world needs to-day. Its soil is sadly in need of new seed. Washington, in his day, was decried as an idealist. So was Jefferson. It was commonly remarked of Lincoln that he was a “rank idealist.” Morse, Watt, Marconi, Edison—all were, at first, adjudged idealists. We say of the League of Nations that it is ideal, and we use the term in a derogatory sense. But that was exactly what was said of the Constitution of the United States. “Insanely ideal” was the term used of it.

The idealist, particularly to-day when there is so great need of him, is not to be scoffed at. It is through him and only through him that the world will see a new and clear vision of what is right. It is he who has the power of going out of himself—that self in which too many are nowadays so deeply imbedded; it is he who, in seeking the ideal, will, through his own clearer perception or that of others, transform the ideal into the real. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

It was his remark that he retired because he wanted “to play” that Edward Bok’s friends most completely misunderstood. “Play” in their minds meant tennis, golf, horseback, polo, travel, etc.—(curious that scarcely one mentioned reading!). It so happens that no one enjoys some of these play-forms more than Bok; but “God forbid,” he said, “that I should spend the rest of my days in a bunker or in the saddle. In moderation,” he added, “yes; most decidedly.” But the phrase of “play” meant more to him than all this. Play is diversion: exertion of the mind as well as of the body. There is such a thing as mental play as well as physical play. We ask of play that it shall rest, refresh, exhilarate. Is there any form of mental activity that secures all these ends so thoroughly and so directly as doing something that a man really likes to do, doing it with all his heart, all the time conscious that he is helping to make the world better for some one else?

A man’s “play” can take many forms. If his life has been barren of books or travel, let him read or see the world. But he reaches his high estate by either of these roads only when he reads or travels to enrich himself in order to give out what he gets to enrich the lives of others. He owes it to himself to get his own refreshment, his own pleasure, but he need not make that pure self-indulgence.

Other men, more active in body and mind, feel drawn to the modern arena of the great questions that puzzle. It matters not in which direction a man goes in these matters any more than the length of a step matters so much as does the direction in which the step is taken. He should seek those questions which engross his deepest interest, whether literary, musical, artistic, civic, economic, or what not.

Our cities, towns, communities of all sizes and kinds, urban and rural, cry out for men to solve their problems. There is room and to spare for the man of any bent. The old Romans looked forward, on coming to the age or retirement, which was definitely fixed by rule, to a rural life, when they hied themselves to a little home in the country, had open house for their friends, and “kept bees.” While bee-keeping is unquestionably interesting, there are to-day other and more vital occupations awaiting the retired American.

The main thing is to secure that freedom of movement that lets a man go where he will and do what he thinks he can do best, and prove to himself and to others that the acquirement of the dollar is not all there is to life. No man can realize, until on awakening some morning he feels the exhilaration, the sense of freedom that comes from knowing he can choose his own doings and control his own goings. Time is of more value than money, and it is that which the man who retires feels that he possesses. Hamilton Mabie once said, after his retirement from an active editorial position: “I am so happy that the time has come when I elect what I shall do,” which is true; but then he added: “I have rubbed out the word ‘must’ from my vocabulary,” which was not true. No man ever reaches that point. Duty of some sort confronts a man in business or out of business, and duty spells “must.” But there is less “must” in the vocabulary of the retired man; and it is this lessened quantity that gives the tang of joy to the new day.

It is a wonderful inner personal satisfaction to reach the point when a man can say: “I have enough.” His soul and character are refreshed by it: he is made over by it. He begins a new life! he gets a sense of a new joy; he feels, for the first time, what a priceless possession is that thing that he never knew before, freedom. And if he seeks that freedom at the right time, when he is at the summit of his years and powers and at the most opportune moment in his affairs, he has that supreme satisfaction denied to so many men, the opposite of which comes home with such cruel force to them: that they have overstayed their time: they have worn out their welcome.

There is no satisfaction that so thoroughly satisfies as that of going while the going is good.


The friends of Edward Bok may be right when they said he made a mistake in his retirement.


As Mr. Dooley says: “It’s a good thing, sometimes, to have people size ye up wrong, Hinnessey: it’s whin they’ve got ye’er measure ye’re in danger.”

Edward Bok’s friends have failed to get his measure—yet!

They still have to learn what he has learned and is learning every day: “the joy,” as Charles Lamb so aptly put it upon his retirement, “of walking about and around instead of to and fro.”

The question now naturally arises, having read this record thus far: To what extent, with his unusual opportunities of fifty years, has the Americanization of Edward Bok gone? How far is he, to-day, an American? These questions, so direct and personal in their nature, are perhaps best answered in a way more direct and personal than the method thus far adopted in this chronicle. We will, therefore, let Edward Bok answer these questions for himself, in closing this record of his Americanization.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 36

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