Successward: Sowing His Wild Oats (Chapter 5)

Successward is the 1895 book written by Edward Bok.

It is a common saying, and a belief equally as general, that it is not only essential, but it is assumed as right, that a young man should, at some time in his life, “sow his wild oats.” This sowing of one’s wild oats means, in plainer words, that a young man should have his “fling,” as it is called; that is, he must “see the world.”

Now, it has always seemed to me a great misfortune that the man who framed that sentence of “sowing wild oats” did not die before he constructed it. From the way some people talk one would imagine that every man had instilled into him at his birth a certain amount of deviltry, which he must get rid of before he can become a man of honor. For what is called “sowing wild oats” is nothing more nor less than self-degradation to any young man. It does not make a man one particle more of a man because he has passed through a siege of riotous living and indiscretion when he was nineteen, twenty, or twenty-five; it makes him just so much less of a man. It dwarfs his views of life far more than it broadens them. And he realizes this afterward. He does not know one iota more of “life,” except a certain phase of it, which, if it has glitter for him in youth, becomes a repellent remembrance to him when he is matured. The reputation and power that comes of right living and good character are what the man from forty to seventy covets, and nothing but the well-spent years of early life can secure these. There is no such thing as an investigation period in a man’s life; at one period it is as important for him to be honorable and true to the teachings of his mother as at another.

To my mind no young man need seek this “darker side of life” which the sowing of wild oats means. The good Lord knows that it forces itself upon our attention soon enough. It does not wait to be sought. A young man need not be afraid that he will fail to see it. He will see plenty of it, and without any seeking on his part, either. And even if he does fail to become conversant with it, he is the gainer in the end. There are a great many things which we can accept by inference as existing in this world. It is not a liberal education to see them. Too many young men have a burning itch to see wickedness—not to indulge in it, as they are quick to explain, but simply to see it. But the thousands of men who have never seen it have never felt themselves the losers. If anything, they are glad of it. It does not raise a man’s ideal to come into contact with certain types of manhood or womanhood which are only removed from the lowest types of the animal kingdom by virtue of the fact that the Creator chose to have them get through the world on two legs instead of four. The loftiest ideal of womanhood that a young man can form in his impressionable days will prove none too high for him in his years of maturity. To be true to the best that is within a man means, above all, to be an earnest believer in the very best qualities of womanhood. Let him accept by inference that there are two types of woman, the good and the bad. But he will be wiser and happier if he associate only with the former. There are hundreds of good women in this world to every one of the contrasting element. No young man has, therefore, a valid excuse for seeking the latter.

Sometimes this “sowing of wild oats” is deemed necessary to insure to a young man what is called “a broader view of life”; whereas, in reality, no means that could be devised gives him such a contracted, narrow, and unsatisfactory standard. A broad view of life means the cultivation of a mind that can take in every part of the horizon of the truest living; that can see good in everything; that accepts the good, and rejects, not investigates, the bad. We can always leave that for some one else to do. The outlook from the wheel-house of an ocean steamer is far better than it is from the stoke-hole. Curiosity may lead some people to go down and look into the stoke-holes of life; but take my word for it, you will find the atmosphere purer and the vision clearer if you stay in the wheel-house. To see “the wheels go round” is a very instructive thing to do in directions where the motive is a good one, prompted by lofty ideas. But some “wheels” are far better unseen. Satisfy a healthy curiosity always, but shun the other kind. There is no satisfaction to be had, and a man whose curiosity overcomes him is always disgusted with the poor return he receives for his trouble.

The young man who reaches manhood without a knowledge of the dark and vicious side of human nature is far better off than the one who has seen it. He will lose nothing by not having seen it; not an ounce less of respect will be meted out to him. But he will feel prouder of himself, and men will respect him infinitely more for the strength of his will-power.

Not long since a young fellow wrote to me in this connection, and said in his letter: “What’s the use of leading a straight life? Nobody gives you credit for it. Society expects a more or less diverting life from a young fellow; it accepts him as such. Practically, it calls him a ‘ninny’ if he doesn’t diverge from the straight path once in a while. It only asks of him that he shall not be caught.”

I can scarcely imagine a view of life so entirely wrong in its personal application. The real “use” of leading a “straight life” is apparently absolutely overlooked by this young man, who seems to think that his life is lived for others rather than for himself. The “use” of leading an honorable life concerns itself with the young man himself. He is accountable to himself—to his own conscience, to his own heart. Of what possible satisfaction is it to get credit from others for doing what is best for one’s self? Men do not lead honorable lives for the sake of getting credit for it—to win the hand of applause. They do it for themselves; for their own inner satisfaction, that they may be true to themselves and to the best that is within them.

Aside from this paramount fact, however, people do give a young man credit for the life that he leads, and they are far more often aware of it than the young man supposes. But it depends upon the people whose favor the young man values. If he seeks the recognition of what is so wrongly called and known as “society,” a righteous life, an upright life, an honorable life—in other words, a manly life—may not count for so much. But the aimless men and silly women who constitute that body called “society” figure for nothing in the life of an earnest young man. If, however, he associates with men who in his developing days can mean much to him, and whose acquaintance in later years will be a pride and a joy to him, if he finds company in women who arouse his best thoughts and truest motives, he will find that his life, free from blemish, is appreciated, is understood, is recognized, and is known. There is an indefinable chord which always draws the right men to the young man of pure life. They are the men who give credit to a young fellow who tries to live aright, and they are the only men worth his knowing. These men may not openly applaud him, but they will give him their confidence, their good will, their friendship; and in later years he will more fully understand what these elements mean to him. These men do not call a young man a “ninny” when he leads an upright life; they call him a manly fellow, and they take him into their hearts and into their homes. By the best part of mankind a young man is always known by his true color. Of that he need never fear. An adherence to high principles shows itself in every thought and every action of a young man, and it always counts for something and much. And as he progresses in life, and a clearer understanding of the right kind of living comes to him, he will see with his own eyes that the men who hold the true respect of the world are the men who were pure-lived and who can fearlessly and honestly look every man and woman in the eye.

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