Brethren Archive

What to Admire and How to do it

by John Dickie


NOTHING serves to reveal a man's character more clearly than his admiration does. Whenever we discover what it is that a man admires, and what are his reasons for admiring it, we have got most of the information needed to complete a diagnosis of his moral and mental characteristics.

Every one of us admires; and in doing so we yield to a natural and powerful impulse. This impulse has, doubtless, been implanted in us for the wisest purpose; but, like everything else which goes to make up the complex unity called man, this universal tendency to admire may be abused as well as wisely yielded to; and, according to our use or abuse of it, will it help to elevate or to degrade our characters.

Admiration must not be regarded as being merely the gratification of a taste. The most important moral principles are involved in every exercise of it. Whenever we admire a quality in another, our admiration goes to intensify, in its possessor, the quality admired. Besides this, our admiration of any quality helps, in some degree, to form a sort of public feeling in its favour; and in this way each of us exercises his own influence in educating, happily or unhappily, the popular judgment. But however much, or little, our admiration may influence others, it never fails to affect our own characters most seriously. Our moral natures appropriate and assimilate the quality which we admire in others; and, though we may be unconscious of it, the admiration serves to make us like the person whom we admire. In this way, there are few means of moral education which are so potent as admiration; and the judicious Christian parent will take care to keep the minds of his youthful charge well supplied with proper objects.

We need never be in want of objects to admire. God is the One Great Object of our highest worship; and his works are to be sought out that we may delightedly admire them, and worship him through our devout admiration of them. And God's Word is quite as full of marvels as God's world is. If the geologist has not yet exhausted the wonders of the earth, nor the astronomer, the wonders of the sky, as little has Christian research discovered all the priceless secrets of the Bible. And God is also to be traced and admired in his adorable providence. The life of each of us is full of its wonders; and, next to the blessed Bible, the book which may be most profitably admired by the thoughtful Christian is the record of the Lord's dealings with his individual self, as he will find it written on the tablets of his own memory. And, besides all these, there are the wonders of grace, the workings of the divine Spirit in the lives of Christian men. Every holy thought, every loving act, every consecrated life is the fruit of his gracious operation. To the anointed eye, the world everywhere and Christian life in all its phases are full of God; and if he be a God that seems to hide himself, it is to excite our search that we may discover and admire his works; and if our search be honest, however imperfect, it cannot fail to be rewarded.

There are a few who formally, and in so many words, refuse to admire anyone. They profess to think that such admiration is a sort of idolatry of the creature. But for all their grand professions, these apparent exceptions to the rule turn out, when looked at, to be no exceptions at all. They do quite as much in the way of admiration as their neighbours; only, in their case, admiration, like charity in the proverb, always begins at home; while, unlike genuine charity, it always ends at home as well. It is from mere pride and envy that they are so morbidly afraid of the sin of a moderate admiration. Humble love is never afflicted by any of these green-eyed fancies. Of course, it is quite possible that a man, admiring the human instrument, may, like the Jews in the days of our Lord, make an idol of it, while He to whom all the glory is due may be overlooked. This is bad; but is it any better when self-conceit, craving for an idol, cannot travel so far from home to find one, as to go even to John the Baptist? However, these scrupulous tithers of the mint and anise generally relax their favourite rule, when it threatens to hinder anyone from offering to themselves a few grains of the idolatrous incense.

Pride cannot stoop to admire others; it prefers to criticize. How can it admire, when to do so implies generally some inferiority in the admirer? In its right place, the admiration of a good thing is the dutiful homage which a good man pays to a goodness, confessedly superior to his own. But how can pride prefer this lowly place? Not a few, though they lack the candour, seem to be of the opinion of old Kiskanah, a North American Indian, who said, "It is very strange that I never meet with any man so sensible as myself." This remark is paralleled by a similar one from the opposite pole of social life. The late Margaret Fuller Ossoli once said: "I know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own." Whatever might be the profundity of Kiskanah's judgment, or the grandeur of Signora Ossoli's intellect, many would decline the possession of them if it entailed the compensating drawback of the accompanying self-conceit.

Admiration, to be truly useful, needs to be both controlled and educated. To receive the full benefit of it, and to exercise all its influence judiciously, we need to be taught both what to admire, and how to do it. Our admiration, at first, is always immature and injudicious. Those of us who have advanced any length through life, can, on looking back over past progress, see that we have passed through stages of admiration, corresponding to our own stages of mental and moral development. When we were children we could do no other than admire as children; but happy are they who, in regard to the highest objects, have reached a stage where as men, they have put away childish things.

Pascal, in his "Thoughts," speaks of three different kinds of glory, each of which has its own circle of devout admirers. There is, first, the outward and visible splendour of this world's glory, the pomp of courts, "the buckram and prunello" which play so prominent a part on the stage of life. There are many who admire glitter of this sort; but their admiration shows them to be in moral and intellectual childhood. Infinitely above this, as Pascal states it, lies the realm of intellectual grandeur, the glories of which are utterly invisible to the thoughtless crowd who admire the tinsel of the other. Infinitely above this second region, again, lies a third world, the realm of divine love; which is as completely hidden from the keen eye of intellect as it is from the idle gaze of sense. Only the pure in heart can behold its glories, for they alone can see God. This is the kingdom of holiness, in which Christ is King; the splendours of which are as much superior to the highest triumphs of intellect, as these are superior to the glitter and parade which are the delight of the foolish. Let the Christian seek to educate himself into an increasing capacity for enjoying the beauties of this loftiest region; and when he is able to find his sweetest pleasures here, he shall have little admiration to waste on things that cannot be admired, without lowering in some degree the character of the admirer.

An incident in the life of Telford sets before us an illustration of two kinds of admiration, the childish and the more judicious; though neither of the two has respect to the highest objects. When Telford undertook to hang his suspension bridge across the Menai Strait, he made one of the most daring attempts which the bloodless heroism of peace had ever proposed. So soon as the first chain had been extended from land to land, a foolhardy cobbler in the neighbourhood crawled along the links to the centre. Perching himself uncomfortably there, at a considerable height over the ocean, he sat on his dangerous seat until he had sewed a pair of shoes; which done, he crawled back along the chain to terra firma. Here was courage too, though of the crudest kind—courage rather in the unsmelted ore than in the metal; and, of course, many of those who witnessed the rash and useless feat applauded it immensely, for they could appreciate heroism like this, infinitely better than they could appreciate that of Telford. The judicious, however, preferred to admire the engineer, and to condemn the cobbler.

In the exercise of admiration, we must not allow ourselves to be carried away by the multitude. There is a danger of this. A somewhat severe censor of human weaknesses says: "Such a goose is man, and cackles over plush-velvet grand monarchs, and woolen galley-slaves; over everything and over nothing;—and will cackle with his whole soul merely if others cackle." Neither should we be carried away by our own feelings, for they will equally mislead us. As little may we allow ourselves to be made the dupes of our own imagination—a very common case, indeed, in the choice of objects to admire. It is because they follow imagination that not a few think so enthusiastically of the distant, while they despise the near. They see the blemishes of the object at hand, but fancy has room for free play when it decorates the distant unknown with every conceivable excellence. Omne ignotum pro magnifico sumitur. All that would be needed to disenchant the idolater, in this case, would be an introduction to his idol. "Tis distance lends enchantment to the view" might serve for a motto to a good many things.

It is because of this undue activity of imagination in the ignorant, and because this activity of imagination is necessarily left without control, from their lack of a well-cultivated judgment, that, in this class, the faculty of wonder invariably exaggerates the wonderful quality possessed by any object of their admiration. Forming, in this way, an increased estimate of the object admired, they go on to offer it a still more admiring homage—to wonder more, to exaggerate more, and to admire more, till the furthest limits in this direction are reached, and the poor heart becomes bankrupt. There is a cave in India which for long enjoyed the reputation of being interminable. Tradition told of an adventurous Rajah, who had set out to explore its unknown depths, and who took with him one hundred thousand torch-bearers and one hundred thousand measures of oil; but he and his company were lost forever in the immense chasm. Now the cavern has been lately explored, and has been found to be smaller than one of our ordinary city churches! Perhaps it is to the working of this principle in rude and ignorant ages that we owe in part the origin of polytheism. The popular hero, first immensely admired, and then as a consequence, having his admirable qualities greatly exaggerated, passed through succeeding stages of admiration and exaggeration, till he who at first was the people's hero, ended by being made the people's god. By all means let us admire; but let our judgments be enlightened, and in strictest accordance with truth.

We read in the earlier chapters of Genesis, that the strong, rude men before the Flood admired the gigantic. The men of renown in that age were all mighty men, men of violence, giants. And neither the giants nor their admirers have yet become quite extinct. The world has still a weakness for giants; and if a man will only be gigantic, though it should be in folly or in wickedness, the world, or at least a large section of it, will put him in her calendar of saints. She despises the small, or the common-place; but she will permit a man to be as bad as he pleases, or even to be as good as he pleases, if he will only be either on a scale which is vast enough to overpower her imagination. The life of the blessed Saviour, the meekest and lowliest of men, is a constant rebuke to the world for its idolatry of the striking; and so too should the lives be, of his disciples.

In according approbation, the judgment of God and that of fallen sinful man never happen to coincide. How could such harmony be expected, when the one dwelleth in the light, and the other loves the darkness rather than the light? That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. On the same brow on which man sets the seal of his highest approval, God never sets his; nay, he not unfrequently places on it the brand-mark of his extreme displeasure. In his inmost heart, man always prefers some Barabbas to Jesus; for, to the fleshly eye, the latter has no beauty of any kind wherefore he should be desired. Set before him a Jacob and an Esau, and he will be almost sure to think the latter the lovelier character of the two. It is remarkable that the Phoenician of Greek literature, so greatly admired, and, in several respects, apparently so admirable, is the very same people of whom the Bible speaks under the name of Canaanites,—that loathed and loathsome race whose enormities were such that their polluted land spued out her filthy inhabitants.

From this extreme divergence of judgment between the holy God and sinful men, as to what is worthy of approval, there continually arises a source of much difficulty, and an occasion of much temptation, to the earnest Christian; while, at the same time, it is of the utmost importance that, in this as well as in other spheres of duty, that the servant of Christ be faithful to his Lord. Since admiration tends to intensify those characteristics which are admired, in the person who possesses them, making him either the better or the worse for the admiration bestowed on him; since it always influences the popular judgment and feeling in favour of the qualities admired; since it invariably affects the moral and spiritual character of the person who admires—it is of unspeakable importance that, in according this admiration, the Christian never cease to feel that he is Christ's witness, Christ's servant, and in some respects Christ's representative. If he be placed in the circumstances of an ordinary Christian, it is probable that in no sphere of life which lies open to him, is his influence for good or evil likely to be so powerful, as in this of giving or withholding his admiration. If silence sanctions, much more does it express approval. To most of us, this may be the chief talent with which we have been entrusted, in order that we might trade with it; but which we may also bury in the earth, or, worse still, may so grievously misuse as actually, by means of it, to comfort the sinner and help the wicked. Admiration, properly looked at, is a lower exercise of precisely the same faculty which, in its highest exercise, becomes worship; and just as a consistent Protestant, in a Romanist country, would not uncover his head before the Host in the streets, even though all around him be kneeling in worship, so neither may the devout Christian admire, though the world around him be worshipping its idol, and be clamouring angrily on him to join it in the homage; unless, indeed, he can offer his admiration in his capacity of a hearty Christian.

Alas! How much forgetfulness of duty and unfaithfulness to trust prevails on this subject. How can two walk together in their appreciation of common objects of admiration, enjoying heartily each other's fellowship, unless they be agreed in their estimate of the thing admired? And how can there be such enjoyable unanimity between earnest Christians and the Christless world? What is it that they have in common to admire? On most leading subjects of interest, they have scarcely a whit more in common than an earnest Protestant and a zealous Romanist have, when they meet the Host in the streets.

If the early saints, in the fervour of their first love, were a little too vehement in the eagerness with which they turned aside from an evil world—a world between which and themselves they felt that God's own hand had planted the impassable barrier of that primeval enmity which for centuries had lain between the two seeds of Genesis iii.—we, on our part, are little tempted to make the same mistake. Our peculiar danger lies in the opposite direction. We fail to declare with sufficient clearness that our sympathies, our expectations, our interests, our admirations, are all necessarily different from those of a world lying hitherto in wickedness. Of course there are many things, even in this evil world which, as Christians, we may approvingly recognize; nay, which we may not refuse to honour. Not to speak of moral virtues of every kind—the "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report"—all of which the Christian will instinctively approve of, there are also those social distinctions which God has been pleased to institute. All these we ought cheerfully to recognize and honour; but those distinctions which are merely worldly and conventional, we may recognize only in so far as we can serve our Lord by our recognition of them. The relationship between parent and child, between the master and his servant, the ruler and his subject, the wise and the ignorant, the aged and the young—these are all divinely appointed; and the inferior honours God when, in a proper spirit, he honours the superior whom God has set over his head. But where, for instance, are we ever charged to give any honour, of any kind or degree, to mere wealth, whether of gold or lands, and this quite independently of the use to which the riches may be put? Where has it been appointed to us to reverence the man who, trusted with gifts of intellect, profanes them to the most mournful uses? If the rich man be a father, by all means let his children honour him; if he be a master, let his servants honour him; if he be a magistrate, let his office be honoured in the honour paid to its occupant; if he be learned, let him be honoured for his learning; if good, for his goodness; but on no account let him receive admiration or reverence because of his mere possession of wealth. The rule is, "Honour all men;" and the rich man is always entitled to his share of the respect which is to be given to every human being; but let no additional reverence be shown to him simply because he happens to be the unfaithful steward over so many bags of money. John the Baptist did not so accord his admiration, nor did Paul, nor did Christ. It is not meant to insinuate by these remarks that a lively Christian will be in any danger whatever of giving honour to mere wealth by itself, say, in the hands of a wealthy scoundrel; but it is more than insinuated that many worthy Christians are in danger of unconsciously according to wealth, a certain amount of consideration, when they measure out the various degrees of respect which fall to be bestowed on honoured brethren. The same good man will not always receive the same regard because of his moral and spiritual worth alone, which he would have received, if, in addition to the moral and spiritual worth, he had also possessed half a million of money.

In so speaking, we do not mean to affirm that the consideration of a man's earthly riches can have no place whatever in helping us to form a proper estimate of the honour which we ought to accord to him. For several reasons it certainly ought to be considered; and perhaps chiefly for this, that the employment to which a man puts his wealth, will affect most materially our view of his moral and spiritual excellence. But let us see that we do not allow ourselves to admire for a wrong reason, even when our admiration may be resting on the right man. Though we may on no account admire mere wealth, we ought to admire heartily the grace which is frequently given to the wealthy Christian, and to praise God for raising up faithful witnesses of this class. Yes, while we give a high place in our inmost hearts to the martyr whom the world crowns with thorns—the courageous man, who, in front of gibbet or of stake, has faithfully confessed his Lord—let us accord at least an equal place to the other, and sometimes the nobler martyr—the martyr whom the world attempts to crown with roses; who, amid all the luxuries of life, finds little sweetness in them compared with what he finds in the manna of the Word; who, while others bow the knee to him, bends his own in lowliest humility before the only King, and who also bows his head meekly before the least of all the little ones, in whom he recognizes the children of that King. It is comparatively an easy thing to forsake the world when it drives us out, but it needs more grace to rebuke the world when it is smiling its sweetest; to condemn the world when it fawns and flatters us; to break with the world, like Moses, when it presents us with its all, and by all our acts to declare plainly that, smitten with the love of another country, the glory of the world has ceased to be glorious in our eyes. Yes, such men we admire with all our powers of admiration; while, beside them, but placed not a hairs-breadth above them, we honour also the other martyr, the heroic man who witnessed for his Saviour in the flames. In these days, and in this land, few of us have opportunity to attain the blessed martyr's death; but God gives every unit of us ample opportunity for living, in one or other of its many forms, the equally noble martyr-life.

It is never to the money itself, therefore, but to the faithful grace displayed in the proper use of it, that the Christian is to accord his admiration. A remark like this seems so very trite, that it is apt to be despised as a mere truism. And yet, alas! though our heads be so well instructed that we can treat such a statement as the stalest of commonplaces, our hearts are so far behind our heads, that practically we often live as if the truism were not really true. When Christ was on the earth, he once sat down over against the Temple treasury, and noted the gifts which were dropped into it. Wealthy donors cast in their wealthy offerings as they passed; but not one of these awoke on that solemn face the faintest sign of gracious approbation. The gentle features retained their expression, as if the face had been cut in marble. At last, a gift was cast into the box which, all at once, kindled the soft eyes with a strange radiance, and covered the sorrowful face with a pleased smile. And what sort of gift was it which had power in this way to stir the soul of the Man of Sorrows? It was the very poorest offering of the very poorest of widows; possibly the paltriest, in its money value, of all the gifts that had been given that day. But a gift of love has quite another value besides that which a banker assigns it, when it lies on his counter; and in its spiritual excellence this poor widow's poor gift, stood quite apart from all its companion-gifts—it was perfectly unique. Her gift included herself and her worldly all; she gave her entire living, and her whole heart. Now, though Christ is no longer on earth, his treasury still is; and his Church is here to represent him in visible presence. Donors are still pouring in their gifts, and many of these are still, as formerly, very handsome. But who now is happy enough to win the Church's commendation? Alas! so imperfectly does she enter into the spirit of her Lord, that she reserves the most of her smiles for that class of gifts which he regarded with perfect apathy—the large gift, which, after all, may be but a small percentage out of a much larger superfluity. As for the poor widow's mite, it is too often overlooked;—no, not quite overlooked; for, unseen, the Lord still sits beside his treasury, still notes, the offerings, and shall by-and-by adjust more righteously the present ill-distributed approval. What comfort may be gathered from this story by the godly poor! What a model does it furnish to the godly rich, who will need generally to multiply their offerings manifold, ere they attain to the same high approval! And what a lesson does it give us all in the proper exercise of this responsible talent of admiration!

Even when the object of admiration is altogether worthy of it—I speak chiefly of mental and moral qualities—the inexperienced are in danger of making a mistake in the drawing of practical inferences, a mistake which is often productive of the most melancholy results. Seeing a man to be possessed of one quality in a very eminent degree, the groundless inference is hastily drawn, that he will equally excel his fellows in other respects; and hence he is rashly entrusted with responsibilities which, it may be, he is more than usually incompetent to discharge. It would, in most cases, be a much safer inference to argue the other way, and to say, Since this man so manifestly excels on one side, he is sure to have some compensating deficiency on another. As the proverb says—"A long tongue and a short hand." The records of statesmanship, of literature, and of general social life, are filled with illustrations of this. Let France admire if she will, and let her profit if she can, by the gushing sentimentalisms of her Lamartine; but let her by no means be tempted to make him her president; let Rome applaud the matchless oratory of her Cicero, or accept instruction from his pen, but let her choose someone with a stiffer tongue to be her consul. It is of immense practical importance to every one of us that we limit our admiration to the actual excellence which the admired man possesses, and that we refrain from crediting him with qualities which he has not, and perhaps could not possibly have.

As one instance of the application of this principle, we may refer to the present unhappy janglings between scientific men and theologians. Several of our leading men of science take up a hostile attitude towards revealed truth; and young inexperienced thinkers are in danger of according a respect to these men's words, when they speak of divine things, somewhat commensurate with the admiration which is universally accorded to them as men of science. Now this is a complete mistake; and to the youthful admirer of these men it may be a fatal one. Masters in their own department of science, these men,—the Tyndalls, and Huxleys, and Owens of the day,—are scarcely even babes in theology; and their utter incompetency to handle successfully the one set of truths arises out of the very qualities which have given them such eminence in the other. They have succeeded so wonderfully in their investigation of natural phenomena, simply because they have so devotedly and so exclusively confined their attention to such subjects; but this same exclusive addictedness to the natural, with its consequent neglect of the supernatural, has so narrowed their mental range that their minds cannot work at all out of the familiar groove. The methods of ascertaining spiritual and scientific truth are so entirely distinct, that exclusive devotedness to either for a lifetime will render any man unfit to deal with the other. So far, then, from receiving the dicta of purely scientific men on questions connected with theology, with that reverent regard which one would accord to the scientific statements of the same men; I should look upon their ability to investigate such extra-professional questions as being greatly less than that of an average intelligent working-man. The absurd proposal recently made by some of them, to subject supernatural phenomena to scientific tests smells most rankly of the shop, and indicates how completely their all-engrossing devotedness to physical science has mis-educated them, has unfitted them for handling in a proper spirit alien and loftier subjects.

We admire the patient research of scientific men, and accept their guidance in their own peculiar walk; we admire still more heartily the spiritual attainments of the lowly and gracious Christian, familiar with his Bible, nowhere so much at home as in his closet, and ever walking Enoch-like with God; but, just as we would assign no value whatever to the opinion of this latter, on questions which fail to be solved, not by the Bible, but by the spectroscope, so we would assign no value to the opinion of the purely scientific man on questions which are to be satisfactorily solved, not by a self-reliant science, but by a reverent faith. The two regions of truth are quite distinct, let them be kept distinct; and let the evidence for any alleged fact be examined in accordance with its own principles. This modest course, however, is what the savants referred to, scorn to take. They are the people, and wisdom shall die with them. As haughtily as ever, the religious fanatic refused to examine with care the proper evidence for a scientific finding, they on their part refuse to examine in a becoming spirit the peculiar evidence for the supernatural. They are in their own way as bigoted as a Paul Cullen, as one-sided, as self-conceited; and with all their boast of reason, they are quite as unreasonable.

Admiration may seem to the thoughtless to be a very slight thing; and the influence which it may have in forming the popular judgment, and thereby in giving ultimate shape to the conduct of a whole people, is very apt to be overlooked; but it is nevertheless of tremendous importance. What a noble and stirring episode in Jewish history is the story of the Maccabees! There is scarcely a grander narrative of courageous devotedness to be found in the preceding annals of that remarkable people; and we can easily understand that this story of Judas and his fellows could have been told only of men whose prior national history had been such as that of Israel. Had it not been for the predecessors of Judas, and had it not been for the national admiration accorded to them for centuries, Judas himself would scarcely have been possible. And how many must have had their zeal quickened in after ages by the narrative of these courageous men; so that in this way they continued to live for centuries in their influence upon their people. But this popular admiration had an unfavourable as well as a favourable aspect. It must have gone far to form, and to foster, the popular ideal which the Jews came to cherish of the character and work of their expected Messiah. It led them to think of the promised Deliverer as being similar in character, though operating on a grander scale—to think of the coming Christ, in short, as being just another Maccabee, only more gigantic. And thus the national admiration of Judas and his fellows came to be one of the elements which worked together to produce this dreadful issue,—that when Christ came to his own, his own received him not, but rejected him with scorn, and nailed him to the cross. It awakens the gravest reflections, when one connects in this way the national admiration of a hero with the nation's greatest crime; and remembering that we too are as fallible as they, we feel that we need to put our admiration, and all else, under the guidance of a wisdom that is higher than our own.

We have not time to dwell on the way in which we ought to express our admiration. By all means let us manifest our high approval of the good, not in loud and windy sentimentalisms, but, so far as is possible, by patient imitation of it. This is the highest style of praise. Every noble act, every devoted worker, calls to us through our very approval of him, "Go thou and do likewise." If we yield to the appeal, our admiration of the good shall not only go to encourage the good man, but shall help to make us partakers of his goodness; while, if we content ourselves with idle words of praise, the unfruitful admiration will become sentimental and insincere; it will tend to slacken the whole of our own moral machinery, and to cast it out of gear.

It is bad policy, as well as culpable vanity, to lay traps in order to catch admiration for ourselves. If we strive rather to cultivate goodness, content with the honour which cometh from God alone; man's approval shall be sure to follow us sooner or later. But this morbid craving for admiration will, if indulged, unspeakably debase ourselves; and the more we strive to win it, the less likely shall we be to succeed. Indeed, if a man be eager enough, his very eagerness will secure him, not admiration, but contempt. Even though the vanity which prompts these efforts should not be discovered—a very improbable contingency, indeed—his efforts to procure admiration will scarcely fail to secure the opposite. For, in proportion to the expectations of excellence which he leads his fellows to cherish will be the unavoidable recoil, when, on fuller knowledge, they discover that he lacks the excellences which he led them to expect. In this case they will naturally avenge themselves for the disappointment; and he has himself to blame, if he now receive a degree of respect as much below his real merits as the respect which he desired to receive was above these merits. Humility is the surest way to honour, though it does not always seem to be the shortest; while pride as certainly leads to contempt and to utter destruction. "Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

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