Bruce Barton, writer, businessman, public servant, and all-around genius once wrote an interesting little article about the business of being consistent, and he wrote that he expects to be entirely consistent – after he reaches the age of ninety.
A reader wrote to him saying that he ought to be more consistent in his writing. It seems that he had written something which disagreed with an editorial he had written a year before.
And Barton replied that inconsistency should not be too much cause for alarm. As he put it:
“For it is the business of men, whether writers or not, to see truth and to express it in their lives. That a man should see more truth this year than he saw last and should hope to see even more in the year to come, is a perfectly normal expectation. And inevitably the larger vision of this year will reveal the shortcomings of the past.”
I talked the other day with the president of one of the nation’s greatest businesses and he said:
“I go down to my office these days with my mind absolutely open; I am prepared at a moment’s notice to reverse our entire business practice if the conditions demand it. With the world in tumult as it is today, the concern which says, ‘We have always done it this way,’ or, ‘Such and such a course is not in line with our previous policy,’ is riding for a fall.”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” according to Emerson. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. If you would be a man, speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon-balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a fool’s word. Is it bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
“The butterfly is not consistent with the chrysalis: nobody expects a frog to conform to the standards of the tadpole. Nature is herself the great parent of contradictions; and nothing in her universe is perfectly consistent but the eternal hills, and old dogs who lie all day in the sunshine, and men whose brains have hardened into shells.”
A man owes this obligation to himself – that he should keep his vision high and his footsteps fixed in the path that leads toward the stars. Sometimes that path will lie straight and clear; sometimes it will bend to the left or right; and sometimes he may have to retrace his steps in order to fix his feet firmly upon it.
I like to remember Dr. David Swing who was for many years pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church on Fifth avenue. Through a long lifetime he expounded the truth to his people as his spirit revealed it to him. And at the very end of his days new truth came to him, and he rose in his pulpit and confessed frankly that all of his previous preaching had been in large measure mistaken.
St. Augustine, toward the end of his career, published a good-sized book called RETRACTIONS. Only a big man could have written such a book; for only a big man continues to grow straight up to the very last.
Be not too fearful of inconsistencies; for if you are growing as you should be growing, consistency, which is the hardening of the mental and spiritual arteries, ought not to set in – until you are ninety, at least.