Toward the end of General Robert E. Lee’s historic life, he attended the christening of a friend’s son. The mother asked the aged leader to offer some words that would help guide the child into true manhood. But Lee’s answer probably wasn’t what she wanted to hear. He said simply, “Teach him to deny himself.”
Bruce Catton, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Civil War historian, wrote the following about Lee’s words of wisdom:
To deny himself…..Unexpected words, coming from a great soldier? One wonders how the young mother felt, hearing them. Even more, one wonders how this advice would strike the average parent of today.
We don’t emphasize self-denial very much these days, either for our children or for ourselves. Instead, we concentrate on our wants. We seem to have the notion that the world owes us all manner of good things, and we feel abused when we don’t get them. Self-discipline is a bore; and as a result, we are perilously close to winning an unwelcome fame as a land known for its spoiled children and discontented adults.
To learn to get along without, to realize that what the world is going to demand of us may be a good deal more important than what we are entitled to demand of it – this is a hard lesson. We have not been working very hard at it in recent years. Instead, we have developed a moral and intellectual flabbiness that could be fatal to us as individuals and as a nation.
For the world itself is really no easier now than it was in General Lee’s time. It offers rich opportunities; but above everything else, it offers a struggle, a struggle that will never be won by the self-indulgent. More than anything else, we need to relearn General Lee’s lesson.
To deny ourselves…That we may miss a good many of the nice, easy things that it is so pleasant to have. But we end up serving something bigger than ourselves. We can finish by attaining greatness.
If Catton’s words sound like they have a Biblical scent to them, there’s probably a reason for that. His father was a minister. And I can’t help but suspect that Catton knew the words of Jesus:
…whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28)