As the initials that boys cut in the bark of a sapling become great, ugly scars on the grown tree, so the suggestions of inferiority etched upon the young mind become great ugly scars in the life of the adult.
You may succeed when others do not believe in you, when everybody else denounces you even, but never when you do not believe in yourself.
In olden times criminals, fugitives from justice, and slaves were branded. The words, “I am a fugitive,” “I am a thief,” or others indicating their crime or their inferior status were seared on some part of the body with red hot iron.
In Rome, robbers were branded on the forehead with a degrading letter. Laborers in mines, convicts, and gladiators were also branded. In Greece, slaves were sometimes branded with a favorite poetical passage of their master. In France, the branding iron used on slaves and criminals often took the form of the fleur-de-lis. In England deserters from the army were marked with the letter D, and vagabonds, robbers, and brawlers were branded in some way to advertise their disgrace.
The barbarous custom of branding human beings with the badge of crime or inferiority persisted in America even after it had been discontinued in the mother country. Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” gives us a vivid picture of the suffering inflicted on the moral delinquent by Puritan moralists in the Colonial days. The tragic heroine, Hester Prynn, is never allowed to forget her sin. The sinister scarlet letter with which she is branded proclaims her shame to everyone she meets. While long after the Colonial period, up to the time of their emancipation, slaves were branded in Christian America with the initials of their owners as they were in Pagan Greece and Rome.
The mere idea of this stamping human beings with an indelible badge of disgrace, of inferiority, shocks us moderns. Yet we do not hesitate to mark people to-day with the scarlet letter of outlawry, the brand of ostracism. We put the criminal badge on our prisoners by shaving their heads and clothing them in stripes, thus perpetually keeping before them the suggestion that they are criminals, outlaws, apart from their kind.
We even carry our branding into our homes. To satisfy our cheap vanity, we force our domestic workers to wear a mark of inferiority, a distinctive livery to remind them that they are menials, a lower grade of being than ourselves. If it were not for these branding distinctions, the maid would, in many instances, be taken for the mistress and the valet for the master whom they far outrank both in appearance and character.
There are certain inalienable rights that human beings inherit from their Maker, rights which no fellow being, no human law or authority is justified in taking away. No matter what offense a person may commit against the society we have no right to degrade him below the level of a human being; we have no right so to bombard him with the suggestion of degradation, of inferiority, that we are almost certain to make him less a man; to lower his estimate of himself to such a degree that we rob him of the power even to attempt to regain his self-respect and his position in society. We have no right to insist that those who work for us shall wear a badge of inferiority. We have no right to thrust the suggestion of inferiority perpetually into the mind of any human being.
One of the greatest injuries we can inflict on any one is to convince him that he is a nobody, that he has no possibilities, and will never amount to anything. The suggestion of inferiority is responsible for more blighted ambitions, more stunted lives, more failures, more misery, and unhappiness than almost any other single cause. Just as the constant dripping of water will wear away stone, so the constant iteration of a statement will cause its acceptance by the average person. Even though the facts may be opposed to it, a constant suggestion presented to the mind impresses us despite ourselves and tends to a conviction of its truth.
When the weight of the Civil War was nearly crushing Lincoln, when it was the fashion to denounce and criticize and condemn him, when he was being caricatured as a hideous monster in the jingo press all over the world, one day, walking the floor in the White House, he was overheard saying to himself, “Abe Lincoln, are you a dog or are you a man?” During these dark days, it would appear that Lincoln sometimes doubted whether he was the man his closest friends knew him to be or the one an antagonistic press pictured him.
The curse of the inferiority suggestion not only tends to destroy our faith in ourselves, but it often makes even the innocent take on the appearance of guilt. When Lieutenant Dreyfus, through a foul conspiracy, was convicted of the crime of treason against France, he showed outwardly all the indications of guilt. When stripped, in the presence of a vast multitude, in a public square in Paris, of all his insignia of rank as an officer in the army of France, the epaulets and buttons being cut from his uniform and his sword broken, although conscious of his innocence of the crime imputed to him he looked like the guilty thing he was accused of being. And all but a very few close friends in the vast concourse that witnessed his public disgrace believed that even his appearance corroborated his guilt. The brain of the unfortunate Dreyfus was a wireless receiving station for the hatred, the contempt of millions of people who believed they were looking at a vile traitor who had sold valuable military secrets to Germany.
We are all influenced for good or ill by suggestion, but children and young people are peculiarly susceptible to it. The constant suggestion of stupidity, badness, and dullness by teachers or parents, filling a child’s mind with the idea that he is a blockhead, always blundering, making mistakes, that he is no good, and never will amount to anything, makes an indelible impression on his plastic mind.
The child naturally looks up to its parents and teachers and accepts what they say as truth. He has implicit faith in their superior knowledge and experience, which seem wonderful to him, and when they tell him he is stupid, dull, slow, or bad, he takes what they say for granted. He makes up his mind that, since they say so, he must be a blockhead, and that they are right in thinking he is no good and will never amount to anything.
It is criminal for a parent or teacher to brand a child as dull, stupid, bad; to tell him that there is nothing in him and that he will never be anybody or amount to anything in life. The effect on a sensitive child is disastrous. Thousands of boys and girls have been stunted mentally, their careers handicapped, and in some instances completely ruined by such cruel suggestions of inferiority.
I have known men who kept taunting their sons with what they called their imbecility and stupidity until the lads came to believe that they were partial idiots and could not possibly make anything of themselves. Many of them never did, because they were unable to overcome the conviction of inferiority impressed upon them by their fathers.
I remember one quite pathetic instance of a sensitive boy whose slightest mistake evoked a volley of abuse from his father. He would tell him that he was not “half baked,” that he was “an imbecile,” “a blockhead,” “a blunderer,” and “a hopeless good-for-nothing.” The little fellow so completely lost faith in himself and became so cowed that he hardly dared look people in the face. He could not be induced to enter his home when there were callers or guests present. He would slink away and hide in the shed or barn until they had gone. He became so morbid that he shrank from association even with other boys and the neighbors whom he had known from babyhood. The boy had a fine mind, and when the death of his father threw him on his resources, he managed, by sheer will force, and dogged persistence, to succeed in making an honorable place in life. But he has never been able to get away from the early conviction of his inferiority, of his lack of ability compared with others around him. All his later life has been handicapped by those pernicious suggestions. Whenever he is asked to assume any responsibility, to take a place on a committee or a board, to speak in public, or make himself prominent in any way, these boyhood mental pictures of his “good-for-nothingness” rise before him like terrifying ghosts and seriously cripple or paralyze his efforts. He has always felt that there is some grave defect in his nature and that, try as he may, he can not entirely overcome his handicap. This crippling, cramping defective image of himself impressed on this man in childhood and youth has robbed him of much of the best of life, of all the joy and exhilaration that come from spontaneity, from the free, unshackled expression of oneself, of all one’s faculties.
Children are affected by praise or blame just as animals are. It is easy to kill the spirit of a dog by abuse and ill-treatment so that in a short time he will slink about with his tail between his legs, and look guilty and self-depreciatory. In short, he will take on all the appearance of a “whipped cur.” Thoroughbred horse trainers say that after a horse has been beaten or abused a few times he loses confidence in himself. His spirit is broken and when he sees the other horses getting neck and neck with him, or perhaps gaining on him a little, he is likely to give up the race. The destruction of self-confidence has caused many a youth with the latent qualities of a thoroughbred to fail in life’s great race.
There are thousands and thousands of boys who do not develop quickly. Their brains are strong and capable, but they work slowly, and as a consequence, the boys are misjudged and misunderstood by parents and teachers alike. In other instances, the stupidity and dullness for which children are berated are only apparent. They are often the result of timidity, shyness, and excessive self-consciousness. The youngsters do not dare to assert themselves. Especially is this true in families where the parental rule is stern and repressive. The children are afraid to speak aloud or to express themselves in any way.
The suggestion of inferiority deepens this defect till it becomes a mania. Many of the tragedies of the pernicious “ranking system” by examinations in our public schools and colleges are the result of an acute sense of inferiority. Every year quite several public school pupils and students in academies and colleges suffer nervous breakdowns, become insane or commit suicide because they fail to pass their examinations. Chagrin and humiliation at the sense of inferiority suggested by their failure unbalance them. In most of those cases lack of confidence, not lack of ability, is the cause of failure.
You may say this is foolishness, but it is true. And if the suggestion of inferiority is powerful enough to drive young people to suicide, certainly the opposite, the suggestion of superiority, would multiply the youth’s ability and work a miracle in his career.
A child should never hear the slightest hint to the effect that it is in any way inferior. Its whole training should tend to develop faith, confidence in himself, in his powers, in his great possibilities. As the twig is bent the tree is inclined. The child who is impressed in its tender formative stage with the idea of its inferiority suffers a wrong for which nothing in the after years can compensate.
Many young employees, especially if they are at all sensitive, are irreparably injured by nagging, fault-finding employers, who are constantly reminding them of their shortcomings, scolding them for every trivial mistake, and never giving them a word of praise or encouragement, no matter how creditable their work, or how well they deserve it.
Enthusiasm is the very soul of success and one cannot be enthusiastic about his work, he cannot take continued pride in it, if he is constantly being told that it is no good, that it is in fact disgracefully bad, that he should be ashamed of himself, and that he ought to quit if he can’t do better. This fault-finding and continual suggestion of inferiority has ruined many a life.
A young writer, for instance, often gets a serious setback in his early efforts because of a severe criticism, an unqualified condemnation of his first book by a reviewer, or the return of his initial manuscript, with an editor’s sneering suggestion that he has made a mistake in his calling. Harsh critics, editors and book reviewers have deterred many young writers from developing their talent. The fear of further criticism or humiliation, of being called foolish, dull or stupid, has blighted in the bud the career of many talented young people who under encouragement might have done splendid work. If he is of a sensitive nature even though he really have great ability such rebuffs often so dishearten him that he never has the confidence to try again.
In the same way, many a possible clergyman or orator has been discouraged by early failure and the humiliation of ridicule. In other words, unless a youth is made of very strong material and has a lot of pluck and indomitable grit, the suggestion of inferiority, perpetual nagging, and discouragement may seriously mar his career.
If instead of carping and harping on the little faults and mistakes of those under their jurisdiction, and prophesying their utter failure and ruin, parents, teachers, employers, and others in responsible positions would recognize and appreciate laudable qualities, there would be less misery and crime in the world, fewer human failures, and wrecks.
The perpetual recommendation of inferiority holds more people back from doing what they are capable of than almost anything else. In the Old World,—China, Japan, India, England, and other European countries, for example,—who can measure the harm it has done in the form of “caste.” Think what superb men and women have been held down all their lives, kept in menial positions because they were reared in the belief that once a servant always a servant; that because their parents were menials they must also be menials!
What splendid brains and fine personalities we see serving in hotels, restaurants, and private households in Europe—often much superior to the proprietors themselves. Saturated with the idea that the son must follow in the father’s footsteps, though they may be infinitely superior in the natural ability to those they serve, these men remain waiters, butlers, coachmen, gardeners, or humble employees of some sort. No matter what talents they possess they are held on a leash by the ingrained conviction of generations that the accident of birth has decided their position in life. They are convinced that the barriers established by heredity and by caste, an outworn feudal system, are insurmountable.
How delightfully the gentle humorist Barrie satirizes this Old World condition in his play, “The Admirable Crichton.” How skillfully he portrays the clever and resourceful butler, Crichton, who in the crucible of a great emergency proves himself a born leader, a man head and shoulders above the noble lord, his master.
When the yacht holding the master and his family, Crichton and some other servants, is wrecked, they escape with their lives to a desert island. In their desperate plight the barriers of caste are broken down, and master and man change places. Removed from an artificial environment, where hereditary rank and wealth determine the status of man, Nature unmistakably asserts herself, and Crichton, by the tacit consent of all, becomes leader. By the force of his inborn ability, he controls the situation. He commands, and the others obey. Yet when they are rescued by a passing ship and brought back to England, old conditions at once resume their sway. Crichton, without a murmur, or thought of change, falls back to his former menial position, and all goes on as before.
While we Americans laugh at, or severely criticize and denounce, the snobbishness of class distinctions in other countries, we are guilty of similar snobbishness, especially regarding one section of our fellow Americans—the Negro race. No matter how highly educated, how able, how refined or charming a man or a woman is, if he or she has but a drop of Negro blood, we brand him or her with the stigma of race inferiority.
I always feel sympathy for the colored people, especially for the better educated and more refined men and women of this class who must suffer keenly from the discrimination against their race. They see white people avoiding them everywhere; refusing to sit down beside them in public places, in churches, on trains and cars, everywhere they can avoid it. In the South, they are not permitted to ride in the same cars as whites, and in other parts of the country, while they may travel on the ordinary day coaches, they are not allowed on the Pullman cars, except as waiters and porters. Our hotels, private schools, public places, and even many of our churches, practice similar discrimination. The churches pretend to draw no color lines, but by their attitude, most of them practically do so.
Everywhere they turn in this land of ours, where we boast that every man is “born free and equal,” Negroes are embarrassed, and placed at a disadvantage. In all sorts of ways, white people are constantly humiliating them, reminding them that they belong to an inferior race, and they take their places according to the valuation of those born to additional favorable conditions. This constant suggestion of inferiority has done much to keep the colored race back because it has added tremendously to their sense of real or fancied inferiority and has been a discouragement to their efforts to make themselves the equals of those who look down upon them.
We can not help being influenced by other people’s opinions of us. It makes us, according to its nature, think more or less of ourselves, of our ability. We are similarly affected by our environment. We unconsciously take on the superiority or inferiority of our surroundings. Employees who work in cheap, shoddy stores or factories soon become tagged all over with the marks of inferiority, the cheap John methods employed in the establishments in which they work and spend their days.
If the employees in a store like Tiffany’s or Altman’s, for example, were to be mixed up with those of some of the cheap, shoddy New York stores, it would not take much discernment to pick out the worker in the superior environment from the one in the inferior. To spend one’s best years selling cheap, shoddy merchandise will inevitably leave its mark on those who do so. Even though we may struggle against it, we are unconsciously dyed by the quality of our occupation and the character of the concerns for which we work.
In making your life choice, avoid as you would poison shoddy, fakey concerns which have no standing in their community. Keep away from occupations that have a demoralizing tendency. Every suggestion of inferiority is contagious and helps to swerve life from its possibilities.
Every influence in our environment is a suggestion which becomes a part of us. If we live with people who lack ambition, who are slovenly, slipshod, or with people of loose morals, of low flying ideals, we tend to reflect their qualities. If we mingle much with those who use slangy, vulgar, incorrect English, people who are not careful about their manners or their expression, these things will reappear in our own conversation and manners. If we read inferior books, or associate with perpetual failures, with people who botch their work and botch their lives our own standards will suffer from the contagion.
It does not matter whether inferiority relates to the manner, work, conversation, companions, to thought habits—wherever it occurs, it tends to pull down all standards and cut down the average of achievement. We are all living sensitive plates on which the example, the thoughts, and suggestions of others, our thoughts, and habits, our associations and surroundings indelibly etch themselves.
I wish I could burn it into the consciousness of every person who wants to make a success of life that he cannot do so while he associates himself with inferiority and harbors a low estimate of himself. Get away from both. Have nothing to do with them. If you are a victim of the inferiority suggestion, deny the suggestion, and drive it from your mind as the greatest enemy of your welfare.
You can only do what you think you can. If you hold in mind a cheap, discreditable picture of yourself; if you doubt your efficiency you are shackled, you are not free to express yourself. You erect a barrier between yourself and the power that achieves.
The mere mental acknowledgment or feeling that you are weak and inefficient, is contagious. It is sensed by other people and their thought is added to yours undermining your self-confidence, which is the bulwark of achievement. No matter what others say or think of you, always hold in mind a lofty ideal of yourself, a picture of your efficiency. Never allow yourself to doubt your ability to do what you undertake. You can not be inferior, because you are made in God’s image. You can, if you will, make a masterpiece of your life, because it is part of His plan that you should.
Life is like a bunch of roses. Some sparkle like raindrops. Some fade when there's no sun. Some just fade away in time. Some dance in many colors. Some drop with hanging wings. Some make you fall in love. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 🫂