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The Power of Personal Influence

Source: The Majesty of Calmness

The only responsibility that a man cannot evade in this life is the one
he thinks of least,--his personal influence. Man's conscious influence,
when he is on dress-parade, when he is posing to impress those around
him,--is woefully small. But his unconscious influence, the silent,
subtle radiation of his personality, the effect of his words and acts,
the trifles he never considers,--is tremendous. Every moment of life he
is changing to a degree the life of the whole world. Every man has an
atmosphere which is affecting every other. So silent and unconsciously
is this influence working, that man may forget that it exists.

All the forces of Nature,--heat, light, electricity and gravitation,--
are silent and invisible. We never _see_ them; we only know that
they exist by seeing the effects they produce. In all Nature the
wonders of the "seen" are dwarfed into insignificance when compared
with the majesty and glory of the "unseen." The great sun itself does
not supply enough heat and light to sustain animal and vegetable life
on the earth. We are dependent for nearly half of our light and heat
upon the stars, and the greater part of this supply of life-giving
energy comes from _invisible_ stars, millions of miles from the
earth. In a thousand ways Nature constantly seeks to lead men to a
keener and deeper realization of the power and the wonder of the

Into the hands of every individual is given a marvellous power for good
or for evil,--the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life.
This is simply the constant radiation of what a man really _is_,
not what he pretends to be. Every man, by his mere living, is radiating
sympathy, or sorrow, or morbidness, or cynicism, or happiness, or hope,
or any of a hundred other qualities. Life is a state of constant
radiation and absorption; to exist is to radiate; to exist is to be the
recipient of radiations.

There are men and women whose presence seems to radiate sunshine, cheer
and optimism. You feel calmed and rested and restored in a moment to a
new and stronger faith in humanity. There are others who focus in an
instant all your latent distrust, morbidness and rebellion against
life. Without knowing why, you chafe and fret in their presence. You
lose your bearings on life and its problems. Your moral compass is
disturbed and unsatisfactory. It is made untrue in an instant, as the
magnetic needle of a ship is deflected when it passes near great
mountains of iron ore.

There are men who float down the stream of life like icebergs,--cold,
reserved, unapproachable and self-contained. In their presence you
involuntarily draw your wraps closer around you, as you wonder who left
the door open. These refrigerated human beings have a most depressing
influence on all those who fall under the spell of their radiated
chilliness. But there are other natures, warm, helpful, genial, who are
like the Gulf Stream, following their own course, flowing undaunted and
undismayed in the ocean of colder waters. Their presence brings warmth
and life and the glow of sunshine, the joyous, stimulating breath of
spring. There are men who are like malarious swamps,--poisonous,
depressing and weakening by their very presence. They make heavy,
oppressive and gloomy the atmosphere of their own homes; the sound of
the children's play is stilled, the ripples of laughter are frozen by
their presence. They go through life as if each day were a new big
funeral, and they were always chief mourners. There are other men who
seem like the ocean; they are constantly bracing, stimulating, giving
new draughts of tonic life and strength by their very presence.

There are men who are insincere in heart, and that insincerity is
radiated by their presence. They have a wondrous interest in your
welfare,--when they need you. They put on a "property" smile so
suddenly, when it serves their purpose, that it seems the smile must be
connected with some electric button concealed in their clothes. Their
voice has a simulated cordiality that long training may have made
almost natural. But they never play their part absolutely true, the
mask _will_ slip down sometimes; their cleverness cannot teach
their eyes the look of sterling honesty; they may deceive some people,
but they cannot deceive all. There is a subtle power of revelation
which makes us say: "Well, I cannot explain how it is, but I know that
man is not honest."

Man cannot escape for one moment from this radiation of his character,
this constantly weakening or strengthening of others. He cannot evade
the responsibility by saying it is an unconscious influence. He can
_select_ the qualities that he will permit to be radiated. He can
cultivate sweetness, calmness, trust, generosity, truth, justice,
loyalty, nobility,--make them vitally active in his character,--and by
these qualities he will constantly affect the world.

Discouragement often comes to honest souls trying to live the best they
can, in the thought that they are doing so little good in the world.
Trifles unnoted by us may be links in the chain of some great purpose.
In 1797, William Godwin wrote The Inquirer, a collection of
revolutionary essays on morals and politics. This book influenced
Thomas Malthus to write his Essay on Population, published in 1798.
Malthus' book suggested to Charles Darwin a point of view upon which he
devoted many years of his life, resulting, in 1859, in the publication
of The Origin of Species,--the most influential book of the nineteenth
century, a book that has revolutionized all science. These were but
three links of influence extending over sixty years. It might be
possible to trace this genealogy of influence back from Godwin, through
generation and generation, to the word or act of some shepherd in early
Britain, watching his flock upon the hills, living his quiet life, and
dying with the thought that he had done nothing to help the world.

Men and women have duties to others,--and duties to themselves. In
justice to ourselves we should refuse to live in an atmosphere that
keeps us from living our best. If the fault be in us, we should master
it. If it be the personal influence of others that, like a noxious
vapor, kills our best impulses, we should remove from that influence,--
if we can _possibly_ move without forsaking duties. If it be wrong
to move, then we should take strong doses of moral quinine to counteract
the malaria of influence. It is not what those around us _do_ for
us that counts,--it is what they _are_ to us. We carry our house-
plants from one window to another to give them the proper heat, light,
air and moisture. Should we not be at least as careful of ourselves?

To make our influence felt we must live our faith, we must practice
what we believe. A magnet does not attract iron, as iron. It must first
convert the iron into another magnet before it can attract it. It is
useless for a parent to try to teach gentleness to her children when
she herself is cross and irritable. The child who is told to be
truthful and who hears a parent lie cleverly to escape some little
social unpleasantness is not going to cling very zealously to truth.
The parent's words say "don't lie," the influence of the parent's life
says "do lie."

No man can ever isolate himself to evade this constant power of
influence, as no single corpuscle can rebel and escape from the general
course of the blood. No individual is so insignificant as to be without
influence. The changes in our varying moods are all recorded in the
delicate barometers of the lives of others. We should ever let our
influence filter through human love and sympathy. We should not be
merely an influence,--we should be an inspiration. By our very presence
we should be a tower of strength to the hungering human souls around

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