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Ghosts What Ain't

by Ellis Parker Butler
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    Ghosts What Ain't (1923)


  • BOOK: Ghosts What Ain't (1923)   An essay. One of the author's best-received self-improvement essays. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Hardback. 43 pages.  [EPBLIB]

Ghosts What Ain't
by Ellis Parker Butler

I wrote a story once about a little black boy whose name was Mose, and one Halloween he had just about the awfulest time any little black boy ever had in this world. There was a party at the cabin and his mammy sent him to get a pumpkin, to make a jack-o'-lantern. It was a mighty dark night and the little black boy had to go past the graveyard and through the wood and down the hollow, and when he reached the pumpkin patch he was scared almost white. He reached down to grab a pumpkin, and a great big headless ghost shouted at him to drop it -- that it was his head. Little black Mose was so scared the ghost was sorry for him and gave him some sound, comforting advice:

"Don't you ever be afraid of ghosts," the ghost told him, "because there ain't no ghosts."

So little black Mose started home and he picked up a stick.

"Leggo that; that's my leg!" an awful ghost voice said, and then that ghost told little black Mose the same thing:

"Don't you ever be scared of ghosts," that ghost said; "'cause there ain't no ghosts."

And presently, when he was going past the graveyard, he met all the ghosts in the world, holding a convention. There were millions of them, and every one told little black Mose the same thing: "Dey ain't no ghosts!" When little black Mose got back to the cabin, he was so scared he was blue-white, and everybody at the party told him he was a foolish little black Mose to be scared of ghosts, because, they told him: "Dey ain't no ghosts!" Little black Mose allowed they were right, but when it came time to go to bed he just hung around and hung around and didn't want to go up there in the dark.

"Git erlong wid yo!" his mammy said. "What yo skeered ob when dey ain't no ghosts?"

"I ain't skeered ob no ghosts what am," little black Mose allowed.

"Den what am yo skeered ob?" his mammy asked.

"Nuffin'," said little black Mose; "but I jus' feel kinder oneasy about de ghosts what ain't."

Just like white folks! Just like white folks! We don't have any real ghosts to be afraid of, and so we spend half of our time inventing imaginary spooks.

I am as bad as any of you. According to my latest census I have on my staff just about five hundred and sixty-four ghosts what ain't that I have made for myself out of nothing. That is enough for one man, and a few over. Seventy-eight ghosts what ain't are enough to handicap any one. Three or four are enough to make an ordinary man miserable, and any more than that are a nuisance.

Jonah was a good example of a man with a ghost what ain't. I mean the Jonah who had to take a trip in a whale, whether he could get a lower berth or had to take Upper Ten and make the best of it.

By "ghosts what ain't" I mean the hesitations and fears we put on ourselves which prevent us from getting the best out of life and out of ourselves. They are the imaginary whiffenpoofs that make us side-step and hesitate and back away, just as Jonah tried to get out of that trip to Nineveh.

I don't think Jonah has had a fair deal. We call everybody with bad luck a Jonah, and everybody who brings bad luck a Jonah, and it isn't fair. Noah built the ark and, after the flood, got thoroughly and completely intoxicated, but we don't call every drunk a Noah. And then there was Solomon. Solomon built the temple and had one thousand wives, but we don't call every bigamist a Solomon.

But because poor Jonah happened to be a hoodoo once in his life, we can't forget it. As soon as I have time I am going to start a society to be called the Society for Giving Jonah a Fair Deal.

Now the real facts about Jonah are as follows: Jonah was in the prophet business, and his job was to go to wicked municipalities and howl calamity unless they reformed and behaved better. One day word came to Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry against it because its wickedness arose to heaven. Nineveh was actually worse than Greenwich Village pretends to be. By all accounts it was a tough joint and needed a reform administration, and Jonah seemed to be the right man to go there and start the campaign.

When he received his orders, Jonah should have put on his best clothes and mounted to the hurricane deck of a camel and loped to Nineveh in a hurry. Instead of doing that, he began to conjure up ghosts what ain't to frighten himself and make him afraid of the job.

"Now, what do I know about the camel?" he probably said to himself. "I may get a camel I never saw before -- a perfect stranger of a camel -- and it may slew its head around and bite a chunk out of my thigh and give me blood poisoning. Or it may shy at a jack-rabbit and throw me off and break my femur and tibia. Or it may stumble into a gopher hole and roll over on top of me and dislocate one of my spinal vertebrae, and then I would be in a nice fix, wouldn't I, with no chiropractics nearer than the twentieth century, A.D."

The chances were that, when Jonah went to hire a camel, he would find all the camels gone from the livery stable and have to ride a small tan-colored donkey; but a man with the ghost-what-ain't habit does not look on the hopeful side of things.

"Pshaw!" Jonah doubtless said; "I would never get to Nineveh anyway. Just look how a camel rolls and tosses its passengers. I'd be seasick before I went a mile. And even if I got to Nineveh, I bet the first man I spoke to would hit me on the head with a beer bottle."

In that way Jonah let his ghosts what ain't loom bigger and bigger until he was afraid to tackle the job, and he side-stepped to Joppa and got on a ship that was going to Tarshish -- which was a miserable place to go to, any way you look at it -- and, as I understand it, reading between the lines, Jonah was soon the seasickest man that ever turned pea-green around the gills. He was so seasick that he went down into the innermost part of the ship and entered a comatose condition and remained dead to the world until the sailors came down and poked him up. He was so sick he did not care what happened, and when the sailors suggested that he was a foreigner and a hoodoo and the cause of the storm he said:

"All right; take me up and throw me overboard." A man as seasick as Jonah would say that. So they took him up on deck and swung him three times and sang out "Heave ho!" and chucked him overboard, and a whale swallowed him.

Jonah was in the steerage of that whale three days and three nights, and according to all accounts the E-deck of a whale is a miserable place to be. There are almost no accommodations whatever -- no electric lights, no hot or cold water, no bathtubs, not even a boy selling salted peanuts and magazines.

Very few of us have ever been inside of a live whale, even for a few minutes and when it was moored at the dock, but I am inclined to believe it is like being wrapped in a large piece of tripe on a dark midsummer night in a steam laundry. When at sea it is worse. The whale, while less eccentric than the flying fish and the porpoise, is a rough navigator, occasionally making three-mile nose-dives and wallowing like a pig in a creek. For three days and three nights Jonah stood all this, with nothing to read and no one to talk to, and no meals served in his room or out of it. He could not even sit with his feet on the window sill and watch the people go by. All he could do was to lie there and hope the whale did not get thirsty enough to drink eight barrels of ocean and drown him, and wonder when the gastric juices were going to begin to dissolve him. And then what happened? After three days and nights of it the whale "vomited Jonah out upon the dry land." I think being vomited by a fish is about as near the lowest limit of ignominy as a man can get; it is worse than being bit by a rabbit. And the end of it was that Jonah "arose, and went up to Nineveh, according to the word of Jehovah," just as he had been told to go in the first place. Because Jonah allowed a ghost what ain't to scare him, he wasted three days and nights, was seasick, chucked overboard, whaled and vomited, lost the fare from Joppa to Tarshish, and could not even sell the motion-picture rights of the episode or collect damages from the whale.

I wish, when you have finished reading the books you feel you simply must read if you are going to be able to talk your share at the Fireside Club, you would take time some day to read the Book of Jonah.

It is one of the shortest books in the Bible, and full of nature study about whales and gourd vines and worms. It has adventure by sea and by land, and a wicked city and a king in sackcloth, and a whole lot of things. But the moral in it is that Jonah side-stepped a job because he let a ghost what ain't scare him; and then, when he did do the job, it was too late, and Jehovah went back on Jonah and even created a worm to bite Jonah's gourd vine on the ankle and kill it.

The world is full of Jonahs. No man has a hoodoo thrust upon him or is a hoodoo by nature; but plenty of us create ghosts what ain't for ourselves and let them scare us out of happiness and success.

I met a young man a few days ago who is now one of the most successful, hard-hitting, direct-action sales managers in New York. He told me that a few years ago he was a failure. He was a will-coward; he was afraid of ghosts what ain't, and the ghost what ain't that he was afraid of was The Man He Had to See. Every possible customer was a ghost what ain't to him.

He said that one day his employer gave him a list of six or eight prospects to see, and he went down to Fourteenth Street and University Place to call on the first one. As he neared the place he thought, "What if the man is rude to me? What if he says, 'Get out of here, and get out quick!'? What if he won't even see me, and the office boy grins? That will hurt my feelings."

By the time he reached Fourteenth Street he had made a ghost what ain't out of that prospect and he was afraid of it. He stood on the opposite side of the street and hesitated, and his blood got more watery, and then he decided he might feel better after lunch.

It was only eleven o'clock, but the young man went to a restaurant. He ordered roast beef and mashed potatoes and pie and a cup of coffee. When he had eaten that, he still hated to call on the man, so he ordered another cup of coffee and some crackers and cheese and apple pie. And when he had eaten that, he was still afraid. The ghost what ain't was still with him. So he ordered a cigar and smoked it slowly -- dragged it out as long as he could. He spent two hours there. Then he went back and stood on the walk across the street from his prospect's window and tried to work up his courage, and just when he thought he had it up, the prospect came to the window and looked out. Immediately the young man decided it would be better to call on a prospect on One Hundred and Eighteenth Street first.

The young man went up to One Hundred and Eighteenth Street, but his ghost what ain't was there before him. The young man was just as fearful of that prospect as of the other.

He told me he had it out with his ghost what ain't right there and then. He lined up at his side a genuine ghost -- the fear that if he went back to the office of his employer at the end of the day with nothing done he would be fired -- and he gritted his teeth and doubled up his fist and gave his ghost what ain't a punch in the midriff, and went back to Fourteenth Street and up the elevator and right into the office.

And the prospect he had been so much afraid of practically fell on his neck and kissed him and gave him such a big order it filled his order book and he had to write part of it on his cuff. When I saw the young man, he just loved to call on new prospects, and that ghost what ain't of his was as dead as Adam. This is not fiction; it is fact.

I know a girl who suffered miserably when she was invited to a Sorority reception because she did not know whether to wear a hat at the tea or not to wear one. Her ghost what ain't told her she had better stay at home and not risk being wrong; but she went, and she was the only female there without a hat. But she had a grand time. Whenever I am invited to a tea or reception or dinner or party of any sort, I am miserable for a week. I am afraid I will be bored, or I am afraid every man will be wearing a Tuxedo if I wear full evening dress, or that I will miss the eleven-thirty-four home, or get my feet wet, or something.

"Drat it!" I say to my wife. "Here's another dod-gasted invitation, but I'll be hanged if I go!"

"I wouldn't, either," she says sympathetically, "if I didn't want to."

"Well, I won't!" I say. "I won't go! It is a confounded nuisance to be eternally getting these invitations when I haven't any excuse to send for refusing them. But I won't go --"

And often I don't go. I cook up some excuse, such as that it is the anniversary of the day my great-great-grandfather cut his first tooth and that the family is celebrating it, and I stay at home. And I usually learn, afterward, that the affair was the best fun of anything that has happened in ten years.

I don't want to seem egotistic by dragging in all of my own ghosts what ain't, but I am better acquainted with mine than I am with yours. I always let five or six of them roost around me and fill me with hesitations and reluctances and procrastinations, until Opportunity gets tired waiting and puts on his pajamas and goes to bed.

I admit frankly that I am as sore as a pup that I am not uncomfortably rich and ten times as famous as I am, but I know why I am not. It does not worry me that I am not beautiful; but it does make me peevish with myself -- now that I am fifty-one years old -- to see the same old ghosts what ain't throwing the same old scares into me that have lessened my success ever since Fido was a pup.

My biggest ghost what ain't is a cringing reluctance to hear a harsh word, or to put myself in a position where I'll hear criticism. One of my little ghosts, for example, has always been the wicket window. I have gone up to William Dean Howells and patted him on the back, and I have told a joke to Roosevelt and laughed with him, and I have chatted with princes and princesses and earls and governors and presidents as man to man without turning a hair; but when it comes to facing any kind of clerk through a wicket window, I gasp and turn pale and want to run away and hide in a bale of hay. When I approach a wicket window, I feel like a worm that is going to be squashed, and I look the way I feel. So the being behind the window immediately squashes me.

I might be one of the biggest newspaper men in the world right now but for my wicket-window ghost what ain't. I went down to the "Herald" office, just after I came to New York and while I still had a lot of hair, to ask for a job. But when I went into the lobby, I saw a whole row of wicket windows and I shivered and turned pale and went out and got a piffling little job elsewhere in a place where there were no wicket windows.

When a man feels a reluctance to do something he thinks he ought to do, it is a sign a ghost what ain't is getting the best of him, and he ought to eat a chunk of raw meat and give a war whoop and go and do that thing. If we once let these unreasoned ghosts what ain't get us scared there is no ending them. Before long we hesitate over everything and put things off because they are disagreeable, and we become mushy and flabby in the will. You may think you have no ghosts what ain't, but I dare you to ask your wife. She'll tell you!

If you read Stefansson's experiences in the Far North, and Robert Louis Stevenson and O'Brien on the South Sea Islands, you'll learn that the religions of the native are systems of taboo, or tabu, or tapu -- according to the way they spell it. They are not "thou shalt" religions, but "be afraid to" religions.

First, the poor ignorants create a job lot of gods and then they imagine a couple of million things the gods don't want them to do. Nearly everything is taboo. If a man happens to comb his hair on the third Tuesday after a full moon, he may be breaking a taboo he knows nothing about, but the punishment he has imagined for it is that his right arm will rot off at the shoulder. It must be evident, even to the least thoughtful of us, that this sort of thing cramps a man's style.

We make our own taboos in the same way; they are the mental hazards we create to ruin our game of life, just like the elm tree at the second hole of the old Flushing golf course. So many golfers have said, "I just know I'll hit that elm," and have done it so often in consequence, that now, when a golfer tees up at the second hole, the elm tree dodges -- and gets hit just the same.

Our ghosts what ain't are the things we are afraid to do, or that we hesitate to go after with unafraid confidence. After the late big war the usual Congressional Investigating Committees were appointed, and doubtless they did, or will, stir up quite a lot of signs of left-handedness and error. But if the Government and all concerned had said, when we went into the war, "We'll do nothing, buy nothing, make nothing, and shoot nothing; we're afraid of being laughed at and criticized and investigated," it is probable that the Germans would now be playing pinochle in Paris and packing the Arc de Triomphe in straw to transport to Berlin.

If there are fifty million sane, able-bodied adults in the United States, I should estimate that at least forty-nine million are getting less happiness than they might, and all because they are afraid of from one to twenty ghosts what ain't apiece.

To say that one million men and women are free from ghosts what ain't is putting the figure mighty high. That would mean that there are a million men and women who, when they know what they want and deserve, go straight after it and get it, or try to get it. They are the captains of industry, the big men of the stage, the great pulpiteers, the great of all kinds. They don't say, "Well, I don't know! Maybe I'd better not try it."

How many dinners and parties are we afraid to attend because we might not know a pickle fork from an oyster fork ? How many mothers-in-law need just one plain, straight word of caution ? There are husbands and wives going around for weeks at a time, both sulky and both grouchy, and getting worse every day, because both are afraid to have a plain, common-sense talk. Their ghost what ain't is the fear of quarreling, but a good old-fashioned hair-pulling, plate-throwing household row has more good points than most of us admit. It clears the atmosphere, improves the sale of crockery and, usually, ends in a kiss of reconciliation.

There is one thing sure -- you won't get what you want unless you go after it. And there is another sure thing: if you go after a thing and don't get it, you are apt to get some other thing that is worth as much or more. Columbus went after India and did not get it. But he got America.

Next to wicket windows, my pet ghosts what ain't are editors. I am not afraid of editors, but I am afraid of what editors may say about what I have written for them. I am not much afraid of what an editor may write to me; but when I think I have to go to see an editor, I long to fall down-cellar and break a leg.

I am not afraid of a letter box. I can go up to any letter box and poke it in the ribs and slide a manuscript into it without a qualm; but I quiver like a delicate aspen leaf when I think an editor is going to have a face-to-face chance to tell me how rotten my story really is.

There is no reason for this. I know in my heart that editors are poor fish (because they often turn down manuscripts of mine that I know are superior to anything they ever saw before), but I fear them just as if they had real intelligence.

Take this article, for example. I should have written this six months ago and collected for it, but every time I thought of doing it I said: "No! Sid won't exactly like it; he'll send it back and ask me to change it, and that will hurt my feelings." So I have put it off and thought I would do it and thought I would not do it, and postponed other writing until I did write this, and wasted time doing nothing but feeling bad because I wasn't doing anything but feeling bad.

Now this article is written. Or almost written. Presently the editor will see it, and he will do one of three things: He will accept it as it is; or he will send it back to be improved, and then he will accept it; or he won't take it at all. That is all that can happen. I don't think he will read it and then come around and slay me with an axe. No editor has ever done that. Not yet. Although some may have wanted to. The point is that I might just as well have written this six months ago, had it over with, and gone on to new triumphs.

If I had not let my fear that the article might not be good enough become an oppressive bugaboo, haunting me every time I picked up a pencil or saw my typewriter, I might have been paid for the article six months ago, have bought a small new car five months ago, been killed through running it into a freight train four months ago, and my widow might have collected my insurance three months ago. Two months ago I might have qualified as a Grade-A angel, drawn my harp from the commissary, and be now learning to strum Old Dog Tray on the harp. And any author will tell you that being an angel is better than being an author.

It is all right to say, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread," but my observations lead me to believe that a better maxim is, "Men of good sense go ahead and get things done, while fools hesitate."

Mrs. Jenny O'Jones is afraid to invite her friends to dinner lest they notice that the butter knives are plated. For years she wants to give a dinner, but at night she dreams of plated butter knives -- a ton of them -- sitting on her chest. She frets and sours, and when her time comes to die she can't even die with any pleasure, because she thinks every one will know, now, that her butter spreaders were plated, and not solid.

On the other hand, Mrs. Susie O'Smith has no butter spreaders at all, but she doesn't let a ghost what ain't worry her.

"I'm going to give a dinner," she says, "butter spreaders or no butter spreaders."

The result is that everybody has a joyous time, and the guests think butter spreaders must be out of date and not used in London or on Fifth Avenue, and Mrs. Susie O'Smith becomes the social queen and can serve the tomatoes in the coal scuttle and get away with it.

Mrs. Timmy O'Toole, of Hoshawock, Ohio, was meaning to give a dinner once, and her grocer would not trust her for another pound of butter. That did not worry her; she gave the dinner without butter, and now the man who wants butter on his bread has to carry a pat in his tobacco can on his hip, when he goes to dinners, or go without butter.

There was a man named Cale J. Jiggers, of East Penrod, Indiana, who worked eighteen years without an increase of salary. Every year he said to himself, "I ought to have a raise; I've earned a raise; the boss can afford me a raise." Then his ghost what ain't loomed up and whispered, "But he might refuse you!" And poor old Jiggers worked eighteen more years and got to be round-shouldered and unhappy and unpleasant; and just before he was fired and sent to the poor-farm, the boss told him: "Cale, I'm sorry you have been such a failure. Eighteen years ago I did think of making you manager, but you always seemed so confounded meek and timid that I gave the job to Hen Hawkins. When Hen wanted anything, he asked for it. He was a blamed nuisance to me, that way, and I made him half partner to hush him up."

Hen Hawkins had no business ghosts what ain't lurking in his head to say, "Boo! boo! bugger-boo!" to him when he had something to do.

So Hen Hawkins was happy? Not a bit of it! He had a society ghost what ain't. He went to a swell dinner once, and when he jerked open his napkin a bread roll cunningly hid in it skidded across the room and torpedoed a bowl of goldfish. Ever after that Hen Hawkins was afraid to dine in any restaurant that charged over five cents for a slice of pie, and he wouldn't visit even his grandmother during the asparagus and sweet corn and green pea seasons. His ghost what ain't was a fear that he would be mistaken for a boob at the table.

I don't have to tell you what your ghosts what ain't are. You know how many times they have handicapped you, these false timidities and hazy reluctances. Do you know the story of the small boy and the castor oil? One day a nice old gentleman met a small boy.

"My mamma gives me a penny every time I take a dose of castor oil," the small boy said proudly.

"That's nice," the old gentleman said. "And what do you do with your pennies?"

"My mamma saves them up to buy some more castor oil with," the intelligent child replied.

A few days later the small boy found a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk. At sight of it he uttered a cry of joy; then he burst in to tears and bawled as hard as he could bawl. He stood there and howled and the tears ran down his face, and while he was giving vent to his sorrow in a tone that could be heard for three blocks, another small boy came up and saw the ten-dollar bill.

"What are you crying for?" he asked him.

"Be-because I d-don't want to find that t-ten dollars," the child blubbered. "T-ten dollars w-will b-buy t-too much castor oil!"

So the other boy took the ten dollars and bought a catcher's mitt and a baseball and a bat and a pocketknife and a quarter's worth of molasses kisses and went to the movies nine times. When he ate the quarter's worth of molasses kisses, he was sick -- awful sick -- but he did not have to take even one spoonful of castor oil. His mother did not believe in medicine. And when the other boy -- the castor-oil boy -- reached home without the ten dollars his mother clasped him in her arms and said:

"Benny, dear! Aren't you glad? You won't ever have to take another drop of that horrid castor oil!

Sammy's mother was here today and she never gives Sammy any, and I'm never going to give you any again!"

If one ten-dollar bill is all you ever lost through letting your ghosts what ain't intimidate you out of doing what you planned to do or knew you ought to do, you are a lucky man. I am not that lucky. When I think how much time I have wasted and how many opportunities I have let slip because the Jonah strain in my ancestors crops up and kowtows to ghosts what ain't, I could go out behind the woodshed and weep -- if I had a woodshed; but I haven't.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:05:26am USA Central
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