Self-denial is the essence of heroism.--Emerson
True self-denial involves personal sacrifice for the good of others.
To give up interest for duty is the alphabet of morals.--James Hinton
A man of self-denial has the true ring which distinguishes the genuine
from the counterfeit.--Prof. Seeley
The worst education which teaches self-denial is better than the best
which teaches everything else, and not that.--John Sterling
It is a mistake to imagine that self-sacrifice and self-denial are
precisely the same. Many persons seem to think that because
self-sacrifice is a noble thing, everything in which self is given up
must be noble. Self may sometimes be sacrificed when it ought to be
maintained; and sometimes we sacrifice our interest to save ourselves a
little trouble, or to get rid of some petty annoyance. We say, "Well, I
have a right to do this, but, let it go;" and then we fancy that we have
performed a noble deed, whereas, we have really been serving our own
selfishness and love of ease.
True self-denial is the result of a calm and deliberate attachment to
the highest good, and consists in the giving up of everything which
stands in the way of its attainment, no matter what it may cost us
either in suffering or loss.
In our earliest years we must train ourselves to forego little things
for the sake of others. If we do so, we shall find it much easier to
bear the heavier disappointments of maturer years. It will greatly help
us if we try to practice at least one distinct act of self-denial every
day; and we must not forget that these acts must be both voluntary and
cheerful if they are to be of real benefit either to ourselves or to
The burdens which boyhood and girlhood must bear in acquiring an
education, learning a trade, resisting temptations, and building
spotless characters, demand the constant exercise of self-denial. Many
people, young and old, know what duty is, but fail to do it for the want
of decision. They know very well what labors and self-denials are
necessary to obtain an education, master a trade, or attain to
excellence in any pursuit; but their ignoble indecision, which is a sort
of mental and moral debility, disqualifies them for the undertaking.
"The will, which is the central force of character, must be trained to
habits of decision; otherwise, it will neither be able to resist evil,
nor to follow good."
Our subject brings to mind many heroes of all kinds, to whose lives we
would gladly refer, if our space permitted. They are found in all
stations of life. There have been railway engineers, who, when they saw
that a collision could not be avoided, have stood at their place to
lighten, if possible, the shock, and have been killed; sea captains, who
have remained at their posts till all others had left, and have gone
down with their ships; physicians and nurses, and sisters of charity,
who have not shrunk from pestilence in order to save life, or to
comfort the dying. There was Father Damien, a Catholic priest, who so
pitied the lepers that were confined to an island, deprived alike of
the comforts of this world and of the consolations of religion, that he
went and lived with them. He knew that when he once joined them he
would probably take their disease, and, in any case, could never leave
them. But he went, shared their lot, lived and died among them; seeking
to do them good.
Historic illustrations of self-denial, still fresh in the memories of
many citizens, are to the point here. General Grant had been for several
months in front of Petersburg, apparently accomplishing nothing, while
General Sherman had captured Atlanta, and completed his grand "march to
the sea." Then arose a strong cry to promote Sherman to Grant's position
as lieutenant-general. Hearing of it, Sherman wrote to Grant:
"I have written to John Sherman [his brother] to stop it. I would rather
have you in command than any one else. I should emphatically decline any
commission calculated to bring us into rivalry."
General Grant replied:
"No one would be more pleased with your advancement than I; and if you
should be placed in my position, and I put subordinate, it would not
change our relations in the least. I would make the same exertions to
support you, that you have done to support me; and I would do all in my
power to make our cause win."
Two great souls striving to be equally magnanimous! Could anything be
more beautiful or noble in public life, where jealousy, and selfishness
and double-dealing appear to rule the hour?
One or two other illustrations must suffice us. The captain of a ship
was absent from it one day, being on board another vessel. While he was
gone, a storm arose, which in a short time made an entire wreck of his
own ship, to which it had not been possible for him to return. He had
left on board two little boys, the one four years old and the other six,
under the care of a young colored servant. The people struggled to get
out of the sinking ship into a large boat; and the poor servant took the
captain's two little children, tied them in a sack, and put them into
the boat, which was by this time quite full. He was stepping into it
himself, but was told by the officer that there was no room forhim,--
that either he or the children must perish, for the weight of all
would sink the boat. The heroic servant did not hesitate a moment.
"Very well," said he; "give my love to my master, and tell him I beg
pardon for all my faults;" and then he went to the bottom, never to rise
again till the sea shall give up its dead.
The power and influence of self-denial are well set forth in the
At a time of great scarcity in Germany, a certain rich man invited
twenty poor children to his house, and said to them, "In this basket
there is a loaf of bread for each of you; take it, and come again every
day at this hour until the coming of better times."
The children seized upon the basket, wrangled and fought for the bread,
as each wished to get the best and largest loaf; and at last they went
away without even thanking him.
Frances alone, a poor but neatly dressed child, stood modestly at a
distance, took the smallest loaf that was left in the basket, thanked
the gentleman, and went home in a quiet and orderly manner.
On the following day the children were just as ill-behaved; and poor
Frances this time received a loaf which was scarcely half the size of
the rest; but when she came home, and her mother began to cut the bread,
there fell out of it a number of bright new silver coins.
Her mother was perplexed and said, "Take back the money this instant;
for it has no doubt, got into the bread through some mistake."
Frances carried it back. But the benevolent man said, "No, no! it was no
mistake. I had the money baked in the smallest loaf in order to reward
you, my dear child. Remember that the person who is contented with the
smallest loaf, rather than quarrel for the largest one, will find
blessings still more valuable than money baked in bread."
All these incidents reveal the value of this trait in real life; and
also serve to show how it is regarded by others than ourselves. It will
more than repay us for its cultivation, both by the increase of our own
happiness, and in the large amount of enjoyment it will put into the
lives of those about us.
Charles Lamb was a writer of charming essays, full of wit and fancy.
He seemed to the world as far as possible from a hero; yet his life
washeroic in an unusual degree.
He was the son of a clerk in the London Law Courts, and the youngest
child in a family of three. He had a brother, John, who was twelve
years, and a sister Mary, ten years older than himself. At the age of
seventeen he became a clerk in the Accountant's Office of the East
India Company. There was a kind of insanity in the family, and in
September, 1796, Charles Lamb came home from his office-work to find
that his sister had wounded her father in the forehead and had stabbed
her mother to the heart. The inquest on the mother, held next day, was
closed with a verdict of insanity, and Mary Lamb was placed in a
John Lamb, the elder brother, offered no aid to the family. Charles
loved his sister, and cared for her with a beautiful devotion. The
combined earnings of Charles and his father were less than two hundred
pounds a year, but Charles so arranged matters that sixty pounds a year
was devoted to her support. Others of the family, especially her brother
John, opposed Mary's discharge from the asylum; but Charles obtained her
release by solemnly promising that he would take care of her.
Although he was engaged to be married to a woman whom he tenderly loved,
he gave up all for Mary's sake, and literally filled her life with his
love. First he placed her in a lodging at Hackney, and spent all his
Sundays and holidays with her. Then they lived together; he watching the
moods that foreshadowed a mad fit, and taking her when needful, a
willing patient, to the Hoxton asylum till the fit was over. It was a
sad sight to see the brother and sister walking across the fields to
the hospital together, when she felt that the trouble was coming on;
but through the long period of forty years his love never once failed,
and his devotion increased to the very end.
His whole life developed into one of singular kindness and
self-sacrifice. He is known to have worn a coat six months longer than
he otherwise would have done, in order that he might spare a little
money to help some one less fortunate than himself. One of his many
friends, speaking of him said, "Of all the men of genius I ever knew,
the one most intensely and universally to be loved was Charles Lamb."
[Footnote: See Hazlitt's "Mary and Charles Lamb" (1874); "Biography of
Charles Lamb," T. N. Talfourd (1840); and "Final Memoirs," T. N.