Why I Quit Being So Accommodating
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of my retirement from the business of being a Good Fellow. I use the word “business” advisedly. Until five years ago, if the city directory had told the truth, it would have listed after my name, as my real occupation, something like, “General Attender to Things,” or “Pinch Hitter,” or “Fine Old Scout.” I hope I am entitled in some measure to these designations even to-day. But I have quit being an accommodator and nothing else.
Five years ago yesterday it was, at two o’clock in the morning; I am not likely to forget the place or the hour. From four-thirty, when the president of our company and I faced each other across his desk, until eleven-thirty, when I left him at his door, we fought the thing back and forth. From eleven-thirty until two o’clock I spent in a bitter ordeal of self-examination.
“You are thirty-five years old,” I said to myself. “More than half of your life has already been spent. Who is living your life, anyway? Is it actually yours? Or is it a kind of public storehouse of odd jobs? A pile of days and hours put on the counter of the world with a sign inviting every Tom, Dick, and Harry to take one?”
It was in that solemn morning hour, as I have said, that I formally retired from the business of being Everybody’s Friend. For weeks I had to school myself in the hard business of saying “No.” But five years have made the cure almost complete.
Surely, if life means anything at all, it means that each of us is entrusted with a certain irreplaceable fund of hours and weeks and years. To let anybody and everybody fritter that fund away is as if the trustee of an estate were to deposit the estate’s funds in a bank and issue check books to whoever applied.
Some of us are born good-natured, some acquire good-nature, and some have good-nature thrust upon us. I belong to the third class. My father ran a small-town drug store. A bald, worried little man, perpetually tired but perpetually smiling — nodding his head and murmuring, “Right away, Mrs. Jones; we’ll have it up right away!’ And, “No trouble! not the slightest trouble in the world!”
Why is it that everybody imposes upon the hapless proprietor of a drug store? No one ever runs into a butcher shop, and asks, “Would you mind watching Willie until I come back?” No one, expects a hardware merchant to carry two-cent stamps, or grumbles at him, because he happens to be out of postal cards on Sunday afternoons. No one rings excitedly at the front door of the feed merchant and pulls him out of bed at two o’clock for some trivial purchase that might just as easily have been made before the store closed in the evening.
But there is absolutely nothing that people will not ask and expect a druggist to do. My father had a competitor across the street and one block down. Our whole lives were passed in fear of what that competitor was doing or might do. Lest he should gain some advantage, it was impressed upon us that we must go the limit in being accommodating.
It goes without saying that Father belonged to every lodge and society in town. His name was on every subscription list. With all his twelve or fifteen hours of work a day, our family finances were never a nickel ahead. And yet, in all the years, I can remember my mother protesting only once.
It was a warm June evening when I was about nine years old. We were waiting for Father to come home from the store, and Mother had been thrilling us with plans for the journey we were going to take to my grandmother’s farm in Iowa — the only vacation trip we had ever dared to plan. For months she had been saving up for it, slipping an odd bit of change into the little bank in her bureau drawer. We were to start the following Monday — and it was Thursday night that Father came home, a little more nervous and apologetic than usual.
I was too young to understand the conversation, which had to do with a note he had endorsed for some “friend.” In jerky, disconnected sentences he poured out his confession, while my mother listened in silence. When he finished she rose, and walking into her room lifted the little bank, carried it out, and fairly flung it into Father’s lap. Then, turning swiftly, she locked herself in her room and we heard her sobbing as if her heart would break.
It was, as I have said, her only protest. Generally speaking, we were a contented family. But always there hung over us the heavy hand of the community’s unreasonable demands; and the fear of the advantage that might accrue to the rival drug store down the street if we failed, in any way, to meet the requests that came to us. We did everything for everybody, and were always in debt. Our rival, gruff old “Doc” Meadows, did nothing except to keep a clean store, fill prescriptions accurately, and charge fair prices and insist on prompt payments. Yet he managed to own a house and have all the other comforts that we yearned for but never enjoyed.
It was not until long afterward that I understood the whole truth of the matter. People never trust an accommodating man with important things. That may sound harsh and cynical, but check it up in your own experience. If you have a severe illness, for example, you turn to the busiest, most exacting doctor in town. The fact that he is busy and can’t be bothered by little things gives you confidence in his ability and judgment.
But this big truth I did not learn until many years afterward. Meanwhile, growing up in such a household, it was inevitable that the habit of being accommodating should have become almost a religion with me. I was the boy who carried the heavy bag of bats home after the ball game. I was the official chaser of foul balls. I brought water from the spring in the meadow, down below the ball field, carrying it up the hill under the burning sun. When any one of the five churches was to have a special celebration, I was invariably one of the boys who stayed up most of Saturday night getting the decorations in place. I think I must have sold a hundred thousand tickets to everything — from an oyster supper at the First Methodist Church to an Elks Carnival at the picnic grounds.
At eighteen I went away to college. Father could contribute nothing to the enterprise, but I had saved enough from a summer’s work to pay the fees of the first term, and I expected somehow to find work by which to pull myself through. I might claim to have been fairly popular in my class. At least, my classmates seemed to like to have me around, and I was especially in demand at dances. Not because I was a perfect dancer — I never had the chance to dance at all — but because I played the piano while the other fellows danced!
Except for one or two good friendships and a little social polish, which I needed badly, I doubt whether my college experience added much to my equipment for success. There was not time to do any real college work, when I had finished making a living and tending to everybody’s odd jobs. The truth is, while they liked me, neither my professors nor my fellow students took me seriously. I was just “Good old Bert.”
Joe, my roommate, was a happy-go-lucky sort of youngster who had an idea that he might become a great artist if only his father would let him spend two or three years in Paris. But his father insisted that the place for him to spend the next two or three years was in the family hardware business. After two years in college, the old man sent for him to come home, and I was taken along in the hope that the parental wrath might be averted by the presence of a third party.
What went on between father and son that evening in the old man’s study I never knew in detail. But Joe came out at the end of an hour and announced:
“I start to work Monday in the darned old store, .Bert. And you’re going to start with me.”
“I start with you?” I protested.
“Now, don’t argue!” he exclaimed. “You don’t suppose I could stand it to be in that dirty old warehouse all alone, do you? There’s no use in your going back to college, anyway; and you’ve got to start in business somewhere. Be a good fellow; come on!”
Whatever vague plans I had for my life had centered around the bank in a Middle-Western city of which my mother’s brother was president. It had been generally understood that as soon as I was through college Uncle Frank would have a job for me. However, my roommate was insistent. And so, to be a good fellow, I drifted into a business to which twenty-four hours before I had never given a thought.
It was a wholesale hardware business. Joe and I began together in the shipping room and were promoted step by step until, within a few months of each other, we were sent out on the road. Both of us were well liked by the merchants with whom we dealt, were reasonably satisfactory from the standpoint of the house, and my six years on the road were on the whole the happiest I had known up to that time. I visited my customers in their homes, played with their youngsters, and I don’t know how their wives had managed to keep house at all before I began my visits.
“When you’re in New York, would you mind matching this piece of goods for me?” one of them would say.
Of course I wouldn’t mind! Anything to oblige the wife of a customer.
Such shopping commissions represented only a small part of the troubles my good nature brought onto my shoulders, however. I arranged reservations on ocean liners; I purchased new books for customers who read; and secured front-row theatre tickets for those who were going to be in New York. I attempted to collect — for friends — bad debts in towns on my route. I trimmed show windows at night for merchants who were up at the club playing poker when they ought to have been down at the store trimming their own show windows.
In short, I was to the people who did business with me what my father had been to the people who traded with him — a good-natured drudge who might be imposed upon without limit.
With it all I seemed to be making progress, for when Joe was appointed general manager, I was brought into the home office as assistant general manager of sales. The promotion was a surprise to me; and with the other good things that followed in the next eighteen months my life seemed to lack for no blessing. I met the loveliest girl in the world; we were engaged, and married, and began the happy process of paying for our own home.
I have heard that tramps have a private code by which they designate the character of households with chalk marks on the front gate posts. One symbol means, “Bad dog here.” Another means the house is inhabited by an old maid from whom no kindness may be expected. Then there is a shining mark of some sort which indicates that the home owner is just that — a shining mark.
Some such code, written or understood, must prevail among folks who want to unload their petty difficulties onto someone else. I have had men, whose names I never had heard, call me up and say: “I am a cousin of John Mifflin. John told me how you fixed him up with a couple of theatre tickets when he was in town last summer. He said he knew you would be glad to take care of me if I would give you a ring. John certainly thinks a lot of you; says you’re the most accommodating fellow in the world.” I have had women, whose husbands were merely casual acquaintances telephone my home at midnight to say that these same husbands had been arrested for speeding, and wouldn’t I please get hold of my friend, Judge Ingersoll, and see what I could do. I have had men who were distant relatives of men whom I had met only once or twice in my life ask me for letters of introduction to business executives whom I hardly knew at all.
Little by little, my office became a kind of rendezvous for people of all sorts who had odd jobs to be attended to or favors to be secured. I never realized to what extent the demands were increasing; it never occurred to me that, in being over-kind to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who applied to me, I was being unkind to the boss who paid my salary and to the wife who waited dinner until the dinner was spoiled.
Such a situation could have but one outcome. Sooner or later there was bound to be a decided crash. It came suddenly, and in a way which I could not possibly have anticipated. Joe’s father, the president, and chief stockholder in the business, died, and Joe became president in his place. That I would succeed him as vice president and general manager seemed a natural expectation. We had been room mates at college. Entering the business together we had come up through the different departments side by side. There was a general assumption that Joe would want me at his right hand.
Just after the funeral, while Joe was still away from the office, I was called West on a trip that was partly business and partly a personal favor to one of my friends. I was delayed for more than two weeks, and when I returned to the office it was evident at once that something had happened. The greeting of the girls at the reception desk, the quizzical glances of one or two men whom I passed in the hall — all these were straws indicating that things were not right. As soon as I reached my own office my secretary told me. The Western manager had been called into headquarters and made vice president and general manager. Joe, my own college mate and friend, had betrayed me while I was away!
She had hardly finished speaking when my telephone rang and Joe’s voice asked if I would see him in his own office. I went down the corridor hurt, angry, and reproachful. As I opened the door Joe stepped forward and took me by the hand, calling me by the old college nickname. I recoiled; the show of affection seemed merely an added blow. Yet his obvious sincerity softened my mood in spite of myself.:. A moment later we sat facing each other across the desk that had been his father’s and now was his.
For the first time in my life, I realized how much he resembled his father — in build, in the lines of his face, and in the swift, sure action of his mind. The discovery startled me. Joe had grown up! He had become a business executive, facing things in a mature business way. While I, carried along on the easy tide of routine and pleasantries, had remained, in a sense, a boy.
He drove straight at the heart of the matter in a way that reminded me of his father even more.
“I have made Daugherty general manager, Bert,” he began. “I wanted to tell you about it before it happened, but you were away and I couldn’t wait. I know you had many reasons to suppose that you would have the place. Until a few weeks ago I never had thought of anyone else for it. But my father thought otherwise. I appointed Daugherty in deference to his wish.”
I straightened up in amazement. His father had been almost like a father to me as well. I had done a thousand personal kindnesses for him. . . .
“Six weeks ago, Father knew from his physicians that there was no hope,” Joe continued quietly. “He sent for me, and we had a frank talk about the business. If I live to be a hundred I shall never forget the calm courage with which he faced the thing. We talked about you, Bert, and I told Father that I had always hoped you could come up to the top of the business with me. When I said that, the old man shook his head.
“‘I love him, Joe,’ he said to me. ‘I love him almost as if he were my own boy. But he’s got something to learn before he is fit for a responsibility such as that. He’s the nicest fellow in the world, and when you have said that you have praised him and condemned him in the same breath. He is everybody’s friend to such an extent that he is a very poor friend to himself. It was written a long time ago that no man can serve two masters. Bert, in his good-natured way, is trying to serve a thousand.’”
I need not report the conversation in detail. It began in Joe’s office, continued over the dinner table at the club, and ended at his front door, after we had walked together for hours up one street and down another, talking with a frankness such as few men ever achieve in their lives. And when at last he gripped my hand and left me, I continued the walk alone until in the cold gray morning I reached my decision to retire from the business of being a Good Fellow. That, as I said at the beginning, was five years ago.
I am afraid some reader may imagine that from being a good-natured friend of humanity I became all at once an unobliging and purely self-centered individual. That, I am sure, is not the case. I am giving away more money to-day in various sorts of charities than at any previous period of my life. I have helped more young men to find positions in the past year than in any previous year. I have added two invalids to my permanent roll of pensioners, and taken on a nephew whose college expenses I am helping to defray. I am not a dried-up, inhuman wretch. But I have made the big important shift in my life, just the same. I control my charities now; they do not control me. I am master of my time; it is not wasted wantonly among a thousand thoughtless folks. And while I find ways to do more than ever for those who really deserve help — the young, the sick, and the bereaved — I no longer allow myself to be sacrificed by the selfish demands of those who are perfectly able to take care of themselves.
Three things were very clear to me in that night of self-examination five years ago. First: A man’s chief loyalty must be to the woman who has joined her life to his; to the children who call him father; and to the business which feeds and clothes and houses them all. In my easy-going willingness to befriend the world at large, I was sacrificing my wife, my children, and my employer far more than I was sacrificing myself. As I look back, I marvel that my wife and the children should have borne with me as uncomplainingly as they did.
What was true of my family was true of the business as well. I thought I was being friendly to the customers of the house. As a matter of fact, I was too often being friendly to the customers at the expenseof the house. It is a common fault in salesmen. They let a thousand trivial demands on the part of the men to whom they sell take their time and energy from the business of the men for whom they sell.
Second: I am convinced that indiscriminate charity, whether one gives money or time — which is life itself — merely pauperizes the recipients. The business and social world are full of respectable panhandlers, who will take and take and take, just as long as they can find anyone to give. I gave to them for years, at the expense of those who had a far better claim upon my generosity. I am still willing to help any man who honestly needs help. But as for the strong, perfectly well, and perfectly capable human beings who have chosen to ride through the world on someone else’s back, they will have to look for another beast of burden. They can buy their own theatre tickets, write their own letters of introduction, make their own hotel reservations, use somebody else’s office instead of mine for their engagements, and borrow money from the banks which are in business to lend.
And, finally, I am persuaded that no one ever achieves anything worth-while in this world unless he has so great a respect for his work that he compels all other men to respect it. Unless, in a word, he commands his time. Read the life of a great scientist like Agassiz. Was he forever at the world’s beck and call? Not for a single day. To letters inviting him to write, or to lecture for money, he replied that he had no time for those things. He was the custodian of a certain number of days — a number far too small for the great task he had laid out for himself — and he would not be diverted even for an instant.
I was explaining this point of view to a good old aunt of mine one afternoon and she exclaimed: “But, Joe, it is so selfish for a man to put his work ahead of everything! It’s unchristian.”
“On the contrary, it is Christian in the very finest sense,” I replied. “What was it that Jesus said when his parents rebuked him for his failure to keep his engagement with them on that first journey down from Jerusalem? ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ He demanded. He had work to do — great work and little time in which to do it. Even He was no exception to the eternal rule that achievement comes only through the subordination of every power to a great ideal; and that no man is really obliging who does not first discharge in full his obligations to his work.”