Banish Awe And Fear Of Others

( Originally Published 1950 )

THE INDIVIDUAL MUST shed his fears and awe of others if he is to be an effective personality.

So you have blundered and failed! That makes a fine person of you if you gained understanding and sympathy through defeat. That puts you in the very best of company, for there is no one of accomplishment who hasn't stumbled and slipped, not once, but many times. However, the prominent and successful in all walks of life had the positive attitude, refused to be haunted by skeletons in life's closets, declined to be overawed and fearful of others, and so lived to shame their detractors. Furthermore, it is rarely that negative critics make any remembered mark, except perhaps the scar on your ego.

Who were they who considered Sir Walter Scott a dunce at school? Who was the teacher who scolded Hendrik Ibsen for the lowest grades in composition—the Ibsen who became the greatest dramatist of his era? Can you name the tutor who scathingly branded one of the Tolstoy brothers thus: "Sergei wishes to do and can, Dimitry wishes to do but cannot, and Leo neither wishes to nor can."

If the negative critics of history have any niche of remembrance at all, it is chipped in the bases of the statues erected to the positive great. They are remembered only because they touched those lives, perhaps by that very negative touch spurring on the positive growth.

So you blundered! You sipped from the finger bowl, and your face is red? Remember that Mark Twain is credited with having said that man is the only animal that blushes—or needs to. See some of these notable red faces and be comforted.

Margery Wilson, who is author of The New Etiquette and other books and is one of New York's most gracious and well-poised women, admits she is not immune to an occasional faux pas. Her elderly host at a dinner party mentioned that he was leaving soon to visit his mother in Virginia.

"My customary tact deserted me completely," says Miss Wilson, "and I was horrified to hear myself saying: What! Is your mother still living?"

Her host, momentarily nonplussed, rebounded gaily. "Yes, isn't it miraculous, considering that I'm just a little older than God?" He laughed. "Come on, Margery, let's drink a toast to old age—yours, mine, everybody's."

Witnesses are not always limited to a few dinner guests. Dr. John D. Craig of Liverpool was moving to his pulpit one Sunday when the wife of a recently enlisted man handed him an announcement that read, "Timothy Worth having gone to sea, his wife desires the prayers of the congregation for his safety." Dr. Craig glanced at the note and announced solemnly, "Timothy Worth, having gone to see his wife, desires the prayers of the congregation for his safety."

Sometimes such slips that tint faces red reach even larger audiences. Bob Elson, radio announcer to millions, once bobbled a "commercial" with "It's printed in clear tripe, easy to read." Ben Grauer told his radio audience, "Girls, if you are working extra hard in a grimy plant, use Blank lotion after shaving—er, washing." And that usually smooth Raymond Swing reported that a "bill was sent by airplane to the President who is fishing in Florida waters for his signature."

Mention of a President reminds us of a woman who was dining at the White House a few months before election time. She was overawed to be included with a small informal group for cocktails in the study, with Franklin D. Roosevelt stirring and handing a glass to each. The awed woman crossed the room to take her cocktail from the hand of Mr. Big himself. He turned on his famous smile as she took the glass, and her nerves broke. Her hand wobbled and spilled the cocktail all over the gadget-strewn desk of the President.

"I'm terribly sorry . • ." she pleaded. "I was just so overawed. . . ."

The President, himself mopping up as a good bartender should, smiled delightedly at his guest and said,

"I wish I had that effect on some Republicans I know."

Her awe then vanished as she realized that the President was another human being after all.

There is a tendency to see big and little shots on parade and forget that with their elements of greatness—often phony—Mr. John O'Grady and Miss Judy O'Grady and the Colonel as well as the Coloners lady are very much the same under the skin. There is good reason why seasoned newspapermen are awed by no one.

As a young reporter I was in awe of a. well-known banker with a distinguished mane of snow-white hair. I approached his office on assignment. It took me fifteen minutes to muster up the courage to go in. He welcomed me cordially, which I appreciated, told a story that I didn't appreciate, and I soon learned that he was one of that vast horde of avid publicity seekers.

After a few years of seeing big shots with their hair down, the reporter sheds any semblance of awe. And why not? He sees a defeated senator in tears and another one in a rage. He sees a William Jennings Bryan overstuffing himself with food and hears a lusty belch of over-satisfaction as his limit is reached. He sees congressmen picking their teeth with matches. He sees Hollywood stars in their cups and away from the Klieg lights. He encounters a dignified police inspector trying to suppress the story of his bandit son, a minister conniving for headlines, a society woman ravenous for pictures and mention of her bogus lineage, the cold forms from the icebox at morgue autopsies, and even colder forms in politics and business trying to bamboozle the public and often succeeding.

If ever again you should tend to be in awe of someone, just recall the story of Walter Kiernan, international reporter, and how he banished awe of anyone. When he was a cub reporter, he was assigned to interview former President William Howard Taft. And he was overawed. His city editor knew it.

"I'll tell you what to do," said the wise city editor. "Did you ever see your old man in his red flannel underwear?" Kiernan's father went in for gray, not red, but the reporter nodded. "He wasn't a very impressive figure, was he?"

That was true.

"Well," continued the city editor, "your old man and William Howard Taft would look about the same in red flannel underwear—in fact I'll give your old man a shade the better of it. Remember that when you meet Taft. Remember that underneath a fine tailor-made suit and underneath prestige and position, Taft is just a man. Put him in his red flannel underwear—mentally—and you'll both be comfortable."

So Kiernan went to see William Howard Taft. "My knees knocked and my throat was dry, just as I had expected," Kiernan recalls. "And then suddenly William Howard Taft's fine clothes faded away and he was standing there in red flannel underwear and I grinned at the picture he made; and he grinned—although he didn't know what I was smiling at—and the interview went famously."

After that the world parade of famous and infamous passed in review in red flannel underwear in Kiernan's eyes, and he has never again been in awe of anyone.

You build up awe of others in your own mind and ascribe to others qualities that they don't have and forget that we all have feet of clay. The other fellow has his foibles and has had his failures, and in all probability there is a skeleton rattling around in his closet, too. In many years as a drama critic and just plain theatergoer this author has never heard a more spontaneous and sustained roar of laughter than that which greeted a sally by Charles Ruggles in one of his inimitable roles.

His wife was endeavoring to build up something to impress others with her distinguished forebears and her over-all social desirability. Ruggles was refusing to be taken in. He came forth with a simple line that horrified and completely deflated the strutting woman: " . . . don't forget the affair of your Aunt Minnie and the Indian. . . ." The audience response made it pretty obvious that every seat was occupied by someone who had an Aunt Minnie.

In Hollywood there are better paid and more famous players than Edward Everett Horton, but even some of these are in awe of him because he has played the Eastern legitimate theaters while they have been confined to movie sets. There are stage players in awe of Hollywood celebrities because the movie procedure is strange to them.

You might hear of and be in awe of a certain New York professional man because of his business and society connections. Your awe would vanish if you saw him downing his martinis like water. And any awe of his sometimes-dignified wife who prides herself on her inherited background would disappear if you were to see her, tipsy, putting her arm around the shoulders of one of her husband's wealthy clients.

In your mind's eye you may see superiority of person in superiority of bank account. After reading society-page reporting of the activities of what you suppose to be the exclusive set, you assume they are always shining. You overlook the fact that such sets customarily include a choice selection of some of the most ineffectual folk in the land. You forget, or overlook, or don't realize that many of these folks are bored to tears with their own inane and uninspired chatter and that they would be positively frightened and at a complete loss if an idea were to be offered for discussion. And when not on parade you would find many of them playing hearts and pounce and canasta, because they have never been able to master bridge, or indulging in other simple games that bob up in the off hours even at Newport and Oyster Bay and Watch Hill. So why should anyone be in awe of others when all have feet of clay, and why should anyone fear too much what others "think" and "say"?

Much of diffidence toward others is prompted by the ever-recurring thought "What will people say?" or "What will people think?" Of course people will always gossip, sometimes viciously, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred "they" are so busy talking about themselves they can't be bothered about you and what you may have done or failed to do.

Your vague feelings of guilt and inferiority in wondering what "they" say about you are in all probability prompted by childhood admonitions of parents and teachers who were endeavoring to give you a coating of civilization. You were sensitive to criticism and built up fears that haunt you still. But if you think that others are devoting much time to discussion of you and your affairs, you should keep in mind that your own patented ego has a definite tendency to exaggerate the attention paid to you by others and your vague guilt feelings prompt you to think that discussion of you is always detrimental when as a matter of fact it may well be complimentary.

Those haunting feelings that prompt awe of others are often traceable to deep feelings of failure. Yet who ever said you or I should be perfect? Whom do you know who is perfect? Whom do you know who has never made a mistake? "At best," says the notable C. F. Kettering of General Motors Corporation, dean of research and invention, "research is about ninety-nine per cent failure and one per cent success and the one per cent is the only thing that counts." When Edison was asked in 1906 about the possibility of the wireless telephone, he curtly replied, "It doesn't exist." Twenty years later Edison was wrong again when in a birthday interview he expressed the flat opinion that in his judgment experiments with talking pictures should be given up.

You are entitled to make some mistakes. But if you have the positive attitude, you will make your mistakes pay dividends. Many businessmen set aside funds for costly mistakes, but they plan to develop a good batting average of successes. The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, whenever he budgeted his money for a trip, set aside a certain amount "to be robbed of."

One of the most influential ministers of the day, Dr. Roy A. Burkhart, has never forgotten a lesson he learned from two stirring experiences many years ago. These experiences have done much to guide him in his counseling work, in which he has averted disaster in countless marriages and mended many other broken lives.

In the first of those experiences he lost a closely contested football game by a fumble at the wrong time. "I was playing fullback," he recalls, "and had carried the ball across for a touchdown and then fumbled it. An opponent recovered it behind our goal line. I was abashed and disgraced. I didn't want to see anyone.

"After the game I disappeared. I went through an alley rather than walk down the street with the other players. I withdrew to enjoy the fullest measure of my self-pity.

"This went on for several days and it showed up in my practice. Finally the coach came to me, put a hand under my chin, and gave it a strong jerk. Then he said, 'Now get this straight. Of all the fullbacks in Pennsylvania, I'd still take you. A fumble serves only one purpose—to learn all you can from it and then to get in there and play like hell!'

"That should be our attitude toward all our mistakes. We should learn all we can from them and then forget them.

"We need to form the habit of keeping our eyes on the good—of looking for the good even in the heart of our tragedies or mistakes," says Dr. Burkhart.

"On a camping trip which I once took with some young people, a boy was killed. It was a horrible thing. I was responsible. I felt the responsibility. I considered immediately the question of resigning my pastorate. But when I met the parents, they forgave me. I conducted the service of memory for the boy.

"Great as was the tragedy, I have seen endless good come out of it. His parents grew closer together. They became the counselors of parents who lost their sons during the war. Being forgiven by them, I have become more forgiving.

"It makes no difference how great the tragedy or the blunder, if we keep our thoughts positive and our faiths strong, we will always find ultimate good."

Fundamentally you're all right, and you can shed your uneasy awe and fear of others if you will simply school yourself in the positive attitude of thinking that banishes self-consciousness. True, you can't throw off the ingrained attitudes of a lifetime with a shrug of the shoulders. You can't completely remake your background, but you can gain an understanding that you are fundamentally sound and not so different from others; you can understand the little fears that tie your personality in knots; you can leave the past to the past and begin today to look for the good that is in you and what abilities you already have. By so doing you can gain a feeling of ease with others that will mesh with your desire to attain a more positive way of life.

Here are some suggestions that will be of immediate help:

1. Calmly recognize that your feelings of diffidence and awe of others are almost entirely self-imposed by your own imagination.

2. Remember that in all probability you have overestimated the worth and awe-inspiring qualities of your own fundamental values and abilities.

3. Believe that if you had never made a mistake in your life you would be so insufferably perfect you would be shunned by the multitude. Be grateful for the blunders that show you what not to do and so gain personal strength from experience.

4. You don't have to be a superman or superwoman. There is no such animal. You are in all probability reasonably competent and reasonably acceptable to others; so why feel that you must startle the world with your cleverness and blind others with your brilliance? Be satisfied with a reasonable improvement of what you now have, and steady growth will do the rest. Stop knocking your own ego on the jaw.

5. Be your own true self. You don't have to win the regard of everyone. You don't have to surrender your own individuality and agree with everyone you meet. You don't have to impress everyone.

6. Relax. Let the other folk work at impressing you for a change. If you'll relax and center your interest on the other man or woman, you'll get your mind off yourself and feel more at ease. And if the other person doesn't impress you, as will often be the case, don't blame yourself for the lull.

7. Be tolerantly critical. The next time you are inclined to feel in awe of anyone, sit back and look him over with polished lenses; give thought as to just what is prompting Mr. Awesome or Mrs. Awefull to go through those impressive paces. With a bit of cultivated understanding you'll no doubt find that they are hard at work trying to impress you and others. So be tolerant about it, and gain confidence from your own quiet appraisal.

8. Take it easy. Deliberately give the other fellow a chance to turn on the sun first. If he doesn't shine, then you make your effort, and if that fails, don't blame yourself. If you jump the gun, you may leave your companion behind and be sorry; but if you make the effort to stay with him and he lags, it's his own fault. For most of life and conversation is supposed to be on a fifty-fifty basis, and if you do your share, that is all anyone can expect and all you should expect of yourself.

9. Try to learn a lesson from every mistake you make. That is the way the successful folk in life gain the experience and vital education that builds them up.

10. Guard against making the same mistake twice, and try to keep mistakes at a minimum. If you adopt the attitude that you can't win and so mistakes don't matter much, you are really practicing to be a failure.

11. Refuse to be stopped by mistakes. When you have flopped, get up and try a different way. Don't brood about your mistakes. Put in your thought and energy striving for success.

12. So you blundered and failed? Laugh it off if it is unimportant. If it is possible, pick up the pieces and put them together again. If that can't be done, salvage the experience you have gained and pick yourself up and go ahead with the calm knowledge that others, too, have failed but that only the positive-minded folk have the stamina to derive a profit out of losses.

13. Adopt the positive attitude and the reporter's red-flannel viewpoint, and you'll never, or very rarely, be in awe of anyone again.

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