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The Cracker Barrel: True independence

Sydney J. Harris's column, “Keep Control of Your Personality," seems quite fitting fare for this weekend of the Fourth of July, for it is more than anything an essay on true independence.

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Many years ago I had the good fortune to be granted an interview with one of my heroes, Sydney J. Harris.

Readers who are familiar with the writing of Mr. Harris will understand my high regard of him. As a nationally syndicated columnist, Sydney Harris managed to touch the souls of countless readers decade after decade.

In a world of mounting babble, Harris somehow cut through the confusion and communicated with his readers in a remarkably personal way. It seemed as if each column was directed primarily at you.

During the interview, I asked Mr. Harris about his ability to achieve such an intimacy with his readers. By way of answering me, he rummaged about on his desk til he found a piece of paper scrawled full of ideas for future columns.

“Here,” he said. “This is what I’m curious about or interested in or having indigestion over. In other words, write about what concerns you; the rest will take care of itself.”

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By way of proving the soundness of Mr. Harris’s theory, I offer you one of his own columns, originally titled “Keep Control of Your Personality.” It seems to me quite fitting fare for this coming weekend of the Fourth of July, for it is more than anything an essay on true independence.

"Keep Control of Your Personality," by Sydney J. Harris

I walked with my friend, a Quaker, to the newsstand the other night, and he bought a paper, thanking the newsie politely. The newsie didn’t even acknowledge it.

“A sullen fellow, isn’t he?” I commented. “Oh, he’s that way every night,” shrugged my friend. “Then why do you continue being so polite to him?” I asked. “Why not?” inquired my friend. “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?”

As I thought about this little incident later, it occurred to me that the operating word was “act.” My friend acts toward people; most of us react toward them.

He has a sense of inner balance lacking in most of us frail and uncertain creatures; he knows who he is, what he stands for, and how he should behave.

No boor is going to disturb the equilibrium of his nature; he simply refuses to return incivility with incivility, because then he would no longer be in command of his own conduct, but a mere responder to others.

When we are enjoined in the Bible to return good for evil, we look upon this as a moral injunction, which it is; but it is also a psychological prescription for our emotional health.

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Nobody is unhappier than the perpetual reactor. His center of emotional gravity is not rooted within himself, where it belongs, but in the world outside him. His spiritual temperature is always being raised or lowered by the social climate around him, and he is a mere creature at the mercy of these elements.

Only a saint, of course, never reacts. But a serenity of spirit cannot be achieved until we become the masters of our own actions and attitudes, and not merely the passive reactors to other persons’ feelings. To let another determine whether we shall be rude or gracious, elated or depressed, is to relinquish control over our own personalities, which is ultimately all we possess. The only true possession is self-possession.

My friend is a model of balanced conduct, and few of us can hope to attain his kind of sure footedness. But we can at least adjust our weight to lean less heavily on the world’s giddy gyrations.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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