The most curious and useful thing to realize is that one never knows the impression one is creating on other people. One may often guess pretty accurately whether it is good, bad, or indifferent—some people render it unnecessary for one to guess, they practically inform one—but that is not what I mean. I mean much more than that. I mean that one has one’s self no mental picture corresponding to the mental picture which one’s personality leaves in the minds of one’s friends. Has it ever struck you that there is a mysterious individual going around, walking the streets, calling at houses for tea, chatting, laughing, grumbling, arguing, and that all your friends know him and have long since added him up and come to a definite conclusion about him—without saying more than a chance, cautious word to you; and that that person is you? Supposing that you came into adrawing-room where you were having tea, do you think you would recognize yourself as an individuality? I think not. You would be apt to say to yourself, as guests do when disturbed in drawing-rooms by other guests: “Who’s this chap? Seems rather queer, I hope he won’t be a bore.” And your first telling would be slightly hostile. Why, even when you meet yourself in an unsuspected mirror in the very clothes that you have put on that very day and that you know by heart, you are almost always shocked by the realization that you are you. And now and then, when you have gone to the glass to arrange your hair in the full sobriety of early morning, have you not looked on an absolute stranger, and has not that stranger piqued your curiosity? And if it is thus with precise external details of form, colour, and movement, what may it not be with the vague complex effect of the mental and moral individuality?
A man honestly tries to make a good impression. What is the result? The result merely is that his friends, in the privacy of their minds, set him down as a man who tries to make a good impression. If much depends on the result of a single interview, or a couple of interviews, a man may conceivably force another to accept an impression of himself which he would like to convey. But if the receiver of the impression is to have time at his disposal, then the giver of the impression may just as well sit down and put his hands in his pockets, for nothing that he can do will modify or influence in any way the impression that he will ultimately give. The real impress is, in the end, given unconsciously, not consciously; and further, it is received unconsciously, not consciously. It depends partly on both persons. And it is immutably fixed beforehand. There can be no final deception. Take the extreme case, that of the mother and her son. One hears that the son hoodwinks his mother. Not he! If he is cruel, neglectful, overbearing, she is perfectly aware of it. He does not deceive her, and she does not deceive herself. I have often thought: If a son could look into a mother’s heart, what an eye-opener he would have! “What!” he would cry. “This cold, impartial judgment, this keen vision for my faults, this implacable memory of little slights, and injustices, and callousnesses committed long ago, in the breast of my mother!” Yes, my friend, in the breast of your mother. The only difference between your mother and another person is that she takes you as you are, and loves you for what you are. She isn’t blind: do not imagine it.
The marvel is, not that people are such bad judges of character, but that they are such good judges, especially of what I may call fundamental character. The wiliest person cannot for ever conceal his fundamental character from the simplest. And people are very stern judges, too. Think of your best friends—are you oblivious of their defects? On the contrary, you are perhaps too conscious of them. When you summon them before your mind’s eye, it is no ideal creation that you see. When you meet them and talk to them you are constantly making reservations in their disfavour—unless, of course, you happen to be a schoolgirl gushing over like a fountain with enthusiasm. It is well, when one is judging a friend, to remember that he is judging you with the same godlike and superior impartiality. It is well to grasp the fact that you are going through life under the scrutiny of a band of acquaintances who are subject to very few illusions about you, whose views of you are, indeed, apt to be harsh and even cruel. Above all it is advisable to comprehend thoroughly that the things in your individuality which annoy your friends most are the things of which you are completely unconscious. It is not until years have passed that one begins to be able to form a dim idea of what one has looked like to one’s friends. At forty one goes back ten years, and one says sadly, but with a certain amusement: “I must have been pretty blatant then. I can see how I must have exasperated ’em. And yet I hadn’t the faintest notion of it at the time. My intentions were of the best. Only I didn’t know enough.” And one recollects some particularly crude action, and kicks one’s self…. Yes, that is all very well; and the enlightenment which has come with increasing age is exceedingly satisfactory. But you are forty now. What shall you be saying of yourself at fifty? Such reflections foster humility, and they foster also a reluctance, which it is impossible to praise too highly, to tread on other people’s toes.
A moment ago I used the phrase “fundamental character.” It is a reminiscence of Stevenson’s phrase “fundamental decency.” And it is the final test by which one judges one’s friends. “After all, he’s a decent fellow.” We must be able to use that formula concerning our friends. Kindliness of heart is not the greatest of human qualities—and its general effect on the progress of the world is not entirely beneficent—but it is the greatest of human qualities in friendship. It is the least dispensable quality. We come back to it with relief from more brilliant qualities. And it has the great advantage of always going with a broad mind. Narrow-minded people are never kind-hearted. You may be inclined to dispute this statement: please think it over; I am inclined to uphold it.
We can forgive the absence of any quality except kindliness of heart. And when a man lacks that, we blame him, we will not forgive him. This is, of course, scandalous. A man is born as he is born. And he can as easily add a cubit to his stature as add kindliness to his heart. The feat never has been done, and never will be done. And yet we blame those who have not kindliness. We have the incredible, insufferable, and odious audacity to blame them. We think of them as though they had nothing to do but go into a shop and buy kindliness. I hear you say that kindliness of heart can be “cultivated.” Well, I hate to have even the appearance of contradicting you, but it can only be cultivated in the botanical sense. You can’t cultivate violets on a nettle. A philosopher has enjoined us to suffer fools gladly. He had more usefully enjoined us to suffer ill-natured persons gladly…. I see that in a fit of absentmindedness I have strayed into the pulpit. I descend.