Chapter XVII. Thought And Reserve Power
Providence is always on the side of the last reserve.
- Napoleon Bonaparte
So mightiest powers by deepest calms are fed, And sleep, how oft, in things that gentlest be!
- Barry Cornwall, The Sea in Calm.
What would happen if you should overdraw your bank account? As a rule the check would be protested; but if you were on friendly terms with the bank, your check might be honored, and you would be called upon to make good the overdraft.
Nature has no such favorites, therefore extends no credits. She is as relentless as a gasoline tank - when the "gas" is all used the machine stops. It is as reckless for a speaker to risk going before an audience without having something in reserve as it is for the motorist to essay a long journey in the wilds without enough gasoline in sight.
But in what does a speaker's reserve power consist? In a well-founded reliance on his general and particular grasp of his subject; in the quality of being alert and resourceful in thought - particularly in the ability to think while on his feet; and in that self-possession which makes one the captain of all his own forces, bodily and mental.
The first of these elements, adequate preparation, and the last, self-reliance, were discussed fully in the chapters on "Self-Confidence" and "Fluency," so they will be touched only incidentally here; besides, the next chapter will take up specific methods of preparation for public speaking. Therefore the central theme of this chapter is the second of the elements of reserve power - Thought.
The Mental Storehouse
An empty mind, like an empty larder, may be a serious matter or not - all will depend on the available resources. If there is no food in the cupboard the housewife does not nervously rattle the empty dishes; she telephones the grocer. If you have no ideas, do not rattle your empty ers and ahs, but get some ideas, and don't speak until you do get them.
This, however, is not being what the old New England housekeeper used to call "forehanded." The real solution of the problem of what to do with an empty head is never to let it become empty. In the artesian wells of Dakota the water rushes to the surface and leaps a score of feet above the ground. The secret of this exuberant flow is of course the great supply below, crowding to get out.
What is the use of stopping to prime a mental pump when you can fill your life with the resources for an artesian well? It is not enough to have merely enough; you must have more than enough. Then the pressure of your mass of thought and feeling will maintain your flow of speech and give you the confidence and poise that denote reserve power. To be away from home with only the exact return fare leaves a great deal to circumstances! Reserve power is magnetic. It does not consist in giving the idea that you are holding something in reserve, but rather in the suggestion that the audience is getting the cream of your observation, reading, experience, feeling, thought. To have reserve power, therefore, you must have enough milk of material on hand to supply sufficient cream.
But how shall we get the milk? There are two ways: the one is first-hand - from the cow; the other is secondhand - from the milkman.
The Seeing Eye
Some sage has said: "For a thousand men who can speak, there is only one who can think; for a thousand men who can think, there is only one who can see." To see and to think is to get your milk from your own cow.
When the one man in a million who can see comes along, we call him Master. Old Mr. Holbrook, of "Cranford," asked his guest what color ash-buds were in March; she confessed she did not know, to which the old gentleman answered: "I knew you didn't. No more did I - an old fool that I am! - till this young man comes and tells me. 'Black as ash-buds in March.' And I've lived all my life in the country. More shame for me not to know. Black; they are jet-black, madam."
"This young man" referred to by Mr. Holbrook was Tennyson.
Henry Ward Beecher said: "I do not believe that I have ever met a man on the street that I did not get from him some element for a sermon. I never see anything in nature which does not work towards that for which I give the strength of my life. The material for my sermons is all the time following me and swarming up around me."
Instead of saying only one man in a million can see, it would strike nearer the truth to say that none of us sees with perfect understanding more than a fraction of what passes before our eyes, yet this faculty of acute and accurate observation is so important that no man ambitious to lead can neglect it. The next time you are in a car, look at those who sit opposite you and see what you can discover of their habits, occupations, ideals, nationalities, environments, education, and so on. You may not see a great deal the first time, but practise will reveal astonishing results. Transmute every incident of your day into a subject for a speech or an illustration. Translate all that you see into terms of speech. When you can describe all that you have seen in definite words, you are seeing clearly. You are becoming the millionth man.
De Maupassant's description of an author should also fit the public-speaker: "His eye is like a suction pump, absorbing everything; like a pickpocket's hand, always at work. Nothing escapes him. He is constantly collecting material, gathering-up glances, gestures, intentions, everything that goes on in his presence - the slightest look, the least act, the merest trifle." De Maupassant was himself a millionth man, a Master.
"Ruskin took a common rock-crystal and saw hidden within its stolid heart lessons which have not yet ceased to move men's lives. Beecher stood for hours before the window of a jewelry store thinking out analogies between jewels and the souls of men. Gough saw in a single drop of water enough truth wherewith to quench the thirst of five thousand souls. Thoreau sat so still in the shadowy woods that birds and insects came and opened up their secret lives to his eye. Emerson observed the soul of a man so long that at length he could say, 'I cannot hear what you say, for seeing what you are.' Preyer for three years studied the life of his babe and so became an authority upon the child mind. Observation! Most men are blind. There are a thousand times as many hidden truths and undiscovered facts about us to-day as have made discoverers famous - facts waiting for some one to 'pluck out the heart of their mystery.' But so long as men go about the search with eyes that see not, so long will these hidden pearls lie in their shells. Not an orator but who could more effectively point and feather his shafts were he to search nature rather than libraries. Too few can see 'sermons in stones' and 'books in the running brooks,' because they are so used to seeing merely sermons in books and only stones in running brooks. Sir Philip Sidney had a saying, 'Look in thy heart and write;' Massillon explained his astute knowledge of the human heart by saying, 'I learned it by studying myself;' Byron says of John Locke that 'all his knowledge of the human understanding was derived from studying his own mind.' Since multiform nature is all about us, originality ought not to be so rare."1