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The Writings of Webster Edgerly

The Floating Leaf

I first encountered Webster Edgerly's work when I found a copy of Sex Magnetism (or to give its full title Private Lessons in the Cultivation of the Magnetism of Sexes, Teaching the Development and Wonderful Enlargement of Those Powers and Influences that Nature has Invented to Aid Every Human Life) by 'Edmund Shaftesbury' in a local charity bookshop. It is a substantial volume of crankish advice and opinion, and it intrigued me. Who wrote it, and when?

I consulted the Library of Congress online catalogue, which revealed Edgerly as the author, gave his dates (1852-1926) and provided a list of fifty-something different titles on such subjects as diet, hygiene, exercise, punctuation, longevity, telepathy and voice training. The next step was to track down more of his books, which was easy enough using the Internet. So far I have acquired a further six of them, enough I think to qualify me to reveal some of his true ghastliness to the world.

Edgerly was a man who believed himself to be always RIGHT, in emphatic capitals. Knowing as he did the secrets of Nature, it was his role to pass them on through the movement he called 'Ralstonism'.

"We believe that Ralstonism, since it is becoming universal, is as necessary as food, light or water. This movement is the grandest, noblest, and already the most far-reaching power that has originated in the present age.

"Ralstonism is the grandest movement that man is capable of establishing".

These resistible claims of his come from the Book of Star Ralstonism, the Book of General Membership of the Ralston Health Club, a sort of instruction book for novice Ralstonites. Ralstonism is mainly concerned with matters of diet, health and longevity; but - not content to limit himself to these areas - at the same time Edgerly was also promoting his teachings on psychological self-improvement through 'The Magnetism Club of America', whose key text Instantaneous Personal Magnetism is still in print today.

The high point of Edgerly's career was reached in about 1900, when the founder of the Purina Wholefood Company, William Danforth, observing that Ralstonism was gaining popularity and that its teachings on diet were largely compatible with his own views, invited Edgerly to participate in his enterprise. Despite Edgerly's pompous avowal in the Book of Star Ralstonism that

"It is our intention to hereafter endorse no goods or enterprises bearing the name 'RALSTON' in any form, but to reserve the word solely for the Club and its educational interests",

the company took a new name, Ralston Purina, under which it still flourishes today - though the brand is nowadays mainly associated with pet foods. With further zealous enthusiasm, in 1905 Edgerly attempted to put his ideas into practice when he founded "Ralston Heights", a house built to his own design to contain a community of Ralstonites. Like all such Utopian endeavours, it was not a success.

Given the scale of Edgerly's output and the fact that his books still sell, it would seem odd that he is so little-known - until you actually try to read his books. His style is so long-winded and sententious that any normal discriminating reader is likely to abandon any of them after a few chapters. For the connoissseur of kookery, though, there are plenty of delights. For a start there is the grandiosity of his claims, as instanced by the quotes at the head of this article, or this, from Operations of the Other Mind:

"Against the growing errors, vagaries, morbid theories, occult teachings, and wild beliefs that are darkening present-day life, depressing the mind, weakening the nerves, preying on the health and creating gloomy forebodings, this work comes as an inspiring guide and a practical instructor.

"It has been our wish and purpose to make this course of training one of the most important and valuable ever published. So, into the book we have put the great study, 'HOW TO EMPTY THE MIND.' Recall the countless times you have been mentally upset, worried, bothered with troubles. Think of what it would have meant-and will know mean - to know how to cast all such mental torture out of your mind. The relief and peace of mind this one study alone can bring you can be worth thousands of dollars."

(Certainly, an empty mind helps when reading this stuff). His titles, too are remarkable: I already mentioned Sex Magnetism, but I also like Brain Tests: A New System to Determine the Place of Every Human Being in the Scale of Civilization: A Study in Practical Psychology Which Takes Minds That Are Wrong and Makes Them Right. No half-heartedness about that, is there? Many of his works have likewise an impressive organisational scheme: not divided into anything as mundane as chapters but for example 'cycles' or 'departments'. Within this framework what you typically find is some sound if unexciting advice - such as suggesting that it is a good idea to clean your teeth, or not to eat indigestible food before giving a lecture (I would second this one, having once haplessly burped my way through an after-lunch presentation), mixed with slightly stranger stuff, like his recommendation in Sex Magnetism that every young man should engage with a form of probationary marriage with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, and the infamous quote in Star Ralstonism that:

"Watermelons are poisonous to most Caucasians".

Edgerly liked to claim a scientific basis for his beliefs, but actually he was remarkably ill-informed, even for his time. For instance, we learn in Instananeous Personal Magnetism that:

"All growth in the kingdom of plants, flowers and trees is due to the magnetism of the sun in drawing the material from the earth. If this were lacking, nothing could have life."

And in Mental Magnetism:

"The brain, when very shallow, is round and smooth, comparatively speaking. It is never perfectly round, nor is it perfectly smooth. Even the brain of an idiot has some indentations and convolutions."

Some of Edgerly's propositions are hard to refute because impossible to understand:

"... diffused atomic magnetism when brought into a collective condition becomes the magnetic power of life"

or otherwise bizarre:

"The eye has been described by scientists as a small-sized volcano"

(Both these last from Instantaneous Personal Magnetism).

To locate such little gems as these one has to dig into deep and unpromising seams: Edgerly was a master of padding, in which respect one of his favourite techniques was to pile anecdote upon anecdote in support of his argument. For example in the just two chapters - sorry, 'cycles' - of Operations of the Other Mind, there are no less than 43 anecdotes, of which this is a typical if short example:

"A man who had also carried in his mind a secret that he would not have known under any condition, began to think too much about it. The result was that his sister caught the impression and began to think at times of the very same thing. At length she sought information concerning it, and pursued the matter until she had ascertained the whole secret".

I have not counted how many there are in the whole book, but it has 27 'cycles', so there are probably hundreds of them. Imagine if you can the deadening effect they have when read in bulk. In general they are either completely anonymous, concerning 'a banker', 'a doctor', 'a lawyer' or 'a clergyman'; or else they feature one of Edgerly's favourite famous folk, such as Daniel Webster, Edison, or:

... Gladstone, the great Prime Minister, whose personal magnetism won him the highest honours in the gift of the nation. He not only possessed the Shaftesbury works but, at the solicitation of Queen Victoria, presented her with one of them that she admired. These facts were published at the time.

- this from the introduction to the British edition of Instantaneous Personal Magnetism. Although it refers to 'Shaftesbury' in the third person it is unmistakeably in Edgerly's turgid style. (Which book did Queen Victoria admire? Where were the facts 'published at the time'? It couldn't be that Edgerly just made this stuff up, surely?).

When I wanted to know the numbers of anecdotes referred to above, there was no need to count since Edgerly had thoughtfully numbered them. He must have liked numbered lists, since his books are filled with them: lists of rules, of foods, of personality types and traits, of exercises, of things to avoid ... In a chapter entitled 'Wreckage' of Sex Magnetism, he enumerates 62 'great truths', of which this is typical:

"Every woman should have a man. If she has no husband let her cling to her father, son or brother. If these are lacking, let her entertain in a social way, and have men and women call to see her, and call upon men and women. It is not good for women to see only women, for they soon become gossips."

Finally, I want to mention one of the most revealing of Edgerly's books, Brain Tests. In his introduction he asserts that it

"... should be made a part of every school and college training; for it surpasses in importance the whole fabric of knowledge taught by the greatest universities."

Its title would suggest that the provision of some set of criteria by which the merits of different brains can be judged, but in fact it is actually a series of written lectures - rants really - which are justified on the unconvincing premise that ones brain is tested by reading and attempting to understand them. If you follow, and presumably agree with, Edgerly's arguments, you have a fit brain. What these 'tests' actually demonstrate is Edgerly's darker side, those views that are only hinted at in most of his other books, such as his racism:

"The yellow race are seeping in very rapidly, despite efforts to keep them out"

And his totalitarianism:

"Tramps, idlers, loafers and the whole slum crowd should be deported."

"Make cordons round the pest sections of the cities; move these cordons forward month by month, year by year, closing in on the criminals, narrowing their zone, and eventually ending their worthless careers."

He also believed that taxation was far too high - a familiar refrain from his end of the political spectrum - and that political parties and the jury system should be abolished. "Weak-minded" people should be sterilised. Heavy smoking was a sign of inherited syphilis:

"It is wholly impossible to coax, induce, flatter or shame a woman into smoking cigarettes if her blood is pure and free from syphilis".

Which illustrates I hope what a warm and gifted man Edgerly was, and how tragic it is that his name has become so obscure, though he does have at least one living devotee.


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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on 08 Aug 2008 - 23:21 Permalink

Alfred, Thank you for taking the time to write this piece. I am a bit of a self-help book junkie and came across The Cultivation of Personal Magnetism in a four book series (they are in excellent condition and have large type). I have at this time just scanned this series and found some nuggets of insights, but I am happy to hear that I am not the only one that is having a difficult time plowing through the hyperbole. It is unfortunate that his views of race were so extreme because he did have a vision of the Law of Attraction and an understanding of energy and, had his racial views been more moderate, I feel his works may have more relevance today.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 - 04:05 Permalink

Thanks for such an insight into the builder of the home, that is Ralston Castle, which I now occupy as caretaker. Since early May 2008 I have been the only person to live here on a fulltime basis. My dog, reiley, and a black cat , cassidy, hang here with me while I maintain it just enough to make it attractive for the next owners. Major restoration, minor renovation of the kitchen occured around 2003. Current owners would entertain any offers regarding the remaining 4.4 acre estate . Reading over this response, it sounds as though I may be infected with the Edgerly bullshit factor! Actually, I'm just a semi-retired restoration carpenter who could not pass up the opportunity to consider assisting potential new owners bring back what is left of a substantial effort in house, not home, building. Now much more suitable as a bed and breakfast/private occasion setting. At about 13,800 sq.ft. w/13 foot ceilings 1st. floor 12ft.ceilings onthe second and 10 footers in the basement and on the third floors the 32 gals. of fuel oil per day seem just about right eh? May post pictures at some point, but as this is my 2nd. week on a computer, (yes, age 48) I'll quit while I'm ahead, and hope to hear from any interested folks at Peace to all, Michael
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Apr 2009 - 16:05 Permalink

I've owned a 1930 edition of Mental Magnetism from Ralston University Press for a number of years. I like to purchase the older books on mind/body science. Every so often I pick up this book and attempt to read it, hoping to find some kernel of helpful insight or truth. Last night after another attempt, I was turning the closed book over repeatedly in my hand assessing its size and volume. My wife noticed and inquired as to what I was doing. My comment was on my amazement that a book of this size could hold nothing useful to the search of understanding the mind. Now, I'm sure that there are some useful insights for some people and perhaps I will find one for myself, but so far I haven't. I'm sure Mr Shaftesbury/Edgerly has a category of mind that these statements reveal about me, I just can't stay interested or awake long enough to determine which one it is.
Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 22 Apr 2009 - 14:42 Permalink

As a collector of Edgerly's work, I'm delighted to be able to tell you that he displays an amazing consistency: no matter what he writes about he has very little to say - apart from vacuous boasts about the brilliance of his books - at great length. Some of his titles have quite astonishingly brazen amounts of padding: a recent purchase of mine, "Lessons in the Art of Extemporaneous Speaking", is almost entirely made up of lists of words and quotes from other sources.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 - 02:19 Permalink

Is this connected in any way to the issues of "Classic of the Ralston Clan?" Thank you if you direct your answer to my email. Jerry
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 - 18:44 Permalink

Excellent review! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another crackpot of the same era you might like is a bigot by the name of John L. Stoddard. I have a copy of 'Glimpses of the World'. Of course, that's not the complete name. It rambles on about being blah, blah, blah, blah by the noted traveler author, lecturer blah, blah, blah, blah Stoddard. Yes, the laughs start right on the title page. It must have been popular in 1900 because there are a lot of copies on offer for what I think is a very reasonable price. It is a huge book and the photography and printing is first rate. The comedy comes about every thirty pages or so when he describes the indigenous peoples. Then it becomes one funny slam after another. It is hard to believe that that kind of rubbish was ever acceptable. I recall him finding the Lapps, the Maoris, Mexican indians and the Chinese in San Francisco's China Town particularly repulsive. Thanks again!
Submitted by MMC (not verified) on 05 Feb 2011 - 18:03 Permalink

I don't what drives a person to puruse in such detail old books to trash the efforts of a man to improve the world. I am tempted to ask why you don't write your own positive creations to bless humanity rather than trying to trash another man's life works? You make negative karma by your stance and you neglect your own better possibilities, methinks. I myself find Mr. Shaftesbury to be very inspiring and interesting, as well as having innumerable ideas for self improvement worth trying.
Submitted by D.S. Cronson (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 - 20:06 Permalink

Actually I quite agree with MMC. While I agree, there is a surprising level of racism, and a moderate level of scientific fabrication, Mr. Shaftesbury clearly outlines a modus operandi unachievable due to social breeding and force feeding of humanoid behavioral complexes put into place by our modern media. Having only read Instantaneous Personal Magnetism, and dabbling with Mental Magnetism, I can't say I am an expert. Upon reading both, it would become obvious to anyone that every page of every volume isn't a must read, or accurate/relevant to modern times. I can say it is clearly apparent that these works illustrate a major loss in modern etiquette and what it means to be a true gentleman today. Many of the regimes, when put into motion, actually produce noticeable results. Most people can't describe or put a finger on the differences they see in the behavior of one who has taken up personal magnetism. I do know for certain it works, and I wouldn't give up what I have learned for a hundred-million dollars. -D.S. Cronson Portland, OR
Submitted by master number eleven (not verified) on 26 Oct 2011 - 08:58 Permalink

i myself have just finished reading mental magnetism and thought transference and can tell you i have read an average of 2-3 books a week on all various self help topics. My viewpoint is how amazing and what insight he had way back in the 1800's to 1900's. so what if a man is a little off in some ways, you have to remember in some ways they were ahead of there times and in other they are in the stone age with their racist beliefs, but that does not negate the truths of what is being said. He who has ears let him hear, he has eyes , let him see... You glen what you desire when you have made up your mind in one direction or another. I'm coming from a total no opinionated viewpoint on this and can tell you that when i read some of the things that people have said about him, it made me pause and think for a moment maybe this guys was a cook, but then i realized there were definite truths to some of the things he writes about. This i know first hand since i have experienced some of these things myself. so take what is true, just and right from it and discard the rest as nonsense, but its a persons sole loss to just toss the whole thing out and never see for themselves what could be possibly learned from material of some of the worlds craziest people, or at least deemed crazy by those that would seem to be in the know. Stop and think for a moment if all you do is make decisions based on what others tell you, then you have given up your most basic of faculties, TO THINK for oneself!. I for one know that this type of information is not meant for everyone and there are those that would do what they can to keep information that would potentially empower people away from them by any means possible. The hardest work know to man is to think, many people have given that job away to the powers to be.. tell me who to vote for , who to follow, who to believe.. anyway i better stop here before i really get going..... My opinion is there was some insight this man had and i have ordered every book written by hime to see what else there is to learn, maybe the rest will be a lot of rehash , but at least i know i got some good stuff from it already. i think others could too. i never post to sites by the way, but this just was one of those times i had to say something.
Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 26 Oct 2011 - 10:51 Permalink

I for one know that this type of information is not meant for everyone and there are those that would do what they can to keep information that would potentially empower people away from them by any means possible.

Do you seriously believe that there are people who don't want you to read the works of Webster Edgerly? Who are these weirdos?

I came to the conclusion that Edgerly was a crank because I read him. If you come to a different conclusion, that's fine.

Submitted by hamish (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 - 20:33 Permalink

edgerly webster does have a nice writing style . and i for one would be more than happy to read his books . i have read two of them . i think you can do a lot worse than him . it is interesting to think that there is more possibilities in life than to just read the cultural diarrhea of the human race . if anyone also knows where i can get such copies of works that would be appreciated . i need to do some more reading as it very cold this winter . all the best . cheerio hamish
Submitted by Alzon (not verified) on 11 Jun 2012 - 08:18 Permalink

I have only read one of Mr Webster Edgerly books, being Instanteous Personal Magnetism “I read it as a school boy. I found some of the guidelines and regimens in it helpful to develop self-confidence and cultivating calmness, in which both traits I was solely deficient. Mr. Shaftesbury’s style may well be turgid, but nevertheless it is readable if not entertaining. As to the accusation of racism, I cannot recall any such in IPM, but I may have missed it. Mr. Armstrong has read more of Shaftesbury works and provides some disturbing quotes. However Shaftesbury’s views are not unusual for a western man of the later 19th to early 20th century. For instance. , Lincoln made anti-black comments. The liberal democracies had ambivalent attitudes to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, prior to World War Two. Australia and South Africa had overt racist policies well into the late 20th century. But do I need to multiply examples? Why judge Shaftesbury by the standards of a later age? IPM is available online if anyone wishes to read it:
Submitted by Buckaroo Banzai (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 - 05:05 Permalink

Hahaha, this mans life's work is the quackery stuff of legend. I love it! Thanks for the background!

Submitted by Marcy Young (not verified) on 04 Jun 2013 - 20:41 Permalink

That was so funny, it made me laugh. I had a full set of the "Personal Magnetism" series that belonged to my grandfather, who I never met. I have several of his books. I too found it a bit offputting in places, so I didn't keep any of the set except Universal Magentism, Vol. 1. The rest I either gave to someone, or gave to a library. I do like his ideas on meditation, which he called "reverie".

Submitted by Rickey Joyce (not verified) on 19 Oct 2013 - 17:14 Permalink

I came across the Shaftesbury books in 1976. The first books I bought by him were Instantanous Personal Magnetism, Advanced Magnetism, Mental Magnetism, and Sex Magnetism. I was determine to read all of his books just for research purposes. But thr futher I read into his books a found him to be a white supremacist. Not being from Europe I found his racist comments silly and childish. But I was looking for information about human nature and the mind and other self- improvement ideas. So to make this short I ended up reading all 17 books on the reading list second page. Of the many wacky comments Shafesbury came out with was that the Caucasion came out of the ground like a plant and was in no way a child of the African. All top notch DNA science says all human life came out of East Africa. But I wanted to find out for myself what was thise man teaching his followers. Coudl hid information have any harmful effect on me because I am not aware of it. Being that I have love to study mass movement I had to read as many of his books as I could. Over the past 35 years I have read 18 of his books before 1978. I am very well informed about this man. In spite of his long winded style I read his over and over again and I have learned quite a bit from this man. Many of his ideas are out of date. But many of ideas were ahead of the times. I did not blow him off as I fraud. But as someone I had to defend myself against. So I read his 18 of his books as a way of going into enemy territiory and doing intell to bring back what was useful. White Supremacist like him had quite a bit of influence by then and in his. From reading this man in detail for over 35 years he mixed truth with falsehood and talk out both sides og his mouth but I think he was a genius. I did not blow him off. But I took his work very serious. It is good for people of color to know and study the minds of white supremacists like him. He complied information from many different cultures and said they were lower than him. In spite of his racist views I found many things in his books that were a source of empowerment. Him seemed to be taking these ideas from yogis and mystics from the East and re-formulating in a different system to it to Europeans. He took things from Islam, Hindo, Christ, all over and book them in his books to improve his race. I think he had a very hard time when the Sufi mystic Inayat Khan made that big splash in the 1920's. Here is this Black Indian spiritual genius came to America married to a white woman sitting down talking with Henry Ford. They had to counter the Sufi Movement with him.
I must say I did learn a lot from reading those Shaftesbury booksin spite of some his misinformed positions on race. I have to buy and read just one more and I would have all of the ones posted in his Advanced Magnetism book. To be aware I had to do intell on this man. What a trip it was reading all of his books. In spite of some of his sometimes silly and childish scapegoating of Black for the faults of whites I found his work very deep. His books teach you all about life this is what I found scares many people who I exposed his less racial books to. He does expose people to many ideas that people try to come close to today but cannot. Thank you this post it was good to read these many comments about this man.

Submitted by Stephen (not verified) on 21 Feb 2016 - 19:33 Permalink

I too, as a person of color, find his work interesting. I have an original "Be Your Own Doctor" published in 1928 by the Ralston University Press. The subtitle is "...a drugless system of special and private treatments"... including "...THE GREAT TRIPLE METHOD OF HEALTH AND CURE" As a public health professional some of his teachings are consistent with contemporary admonitions for healthy lifestyles and prevention of chronic diseases such as CVD and Type2 Diabetes.

Something old can become new again...


Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 17 Apr 2014 - 10:13 Permalink

I doubt it, though who knows?

The joy of trolling is in the creation of outrage. Here, there's only me, pretty much, and while I will answer back I don't get riled enough for there to be much fun in it. From my experience of nuts on the net, since there are genuinely still people who believe the earth is flat, the idea that some would think Webster Edgerly an original writer is not much of a stretch.

Submitted by David Bates (not verified) on 13 Aug 2014 - 00:20 Permalink

Tell me if I'm wrong but you seem to have deleted my comments. As his great-grandson I am in possession of hundreds of pictures (including him in Civil War uniform.) I also have a majority of first editions of the books plus many rare pieces that were issued only to subscribers. I have similar feelings about much of his terrible talks on genocide and the place of women in life. Instead of deleting my views you might find information you don't already know. I hope you are really interested in this man I might be able to add something you don't already know.

I hope you have an open mind to new information. And true that this is your blog and you can delete me but to get a more complete picture you might want to keep an open mind and listen to new information on the subject.

David Bates

Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 13 Aug 2014 - 16:38 Permalink

Hi David,

I don't believe I did delete your comments. It's not my policy to do so. There was a time recently when there were technical issues and people were struggling with the comment form so perhaps they didn't get submitted properly. If you have information about Edgerly please feel free to share it.

As I say it is not my habit to censor, merely to express contrary views when I have them. If you look around the site you may find commenters expressing a wide variety of opinions. Sometimes I will close comments on an article if they are simply repeating the same thing over and over, and I will remove spam and extreme forms of abuse but in general I try to let everyone have their say.

Regards Alfred

In reply to by David Bates (not verified)

Submitted by Arnold (not verified) on 12 Jul 2015 - 08:53 Permalink

Hi David ! Do you have a original copy of your great grandfathers " Lessons in the Art of Acting " ? I have read that this particular work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge based on civilization as we know it. Very rare ! most are in important libraries around the world.

In reply to by David Bates (not verified)

Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 12 Jul 2015 - 12:31 Permalink

Arnold, the words you cite are part of the standard blurb used by a publish on demand publisher and have no relevance to the specific work in question. See here for another example: They just publish anything they can scan, good or bad.

if you like you can buy my edited edition of Lessons in Acting to get a flavour of the original, or you can buy the whole thing from one of these POD people but then you won't get my supposedly humorous commentary,

It's possibly the silliest attempt to teach acting in book form ever written but it's terribly long-winded and not a light read.

Submitted by Agkcrbs (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 - 11:48 Permalink

Knowing almost nothing about Edgerly, I find that this ugly review, designed to "reveal his ghastliness", and attempting to do so with a collection of poorly contexted quotations (for example, the critic seems totally oblivious that "yellow" as a racial description was current at the time, and remains current and non-offensive in some Asian languages) that are so negatively framed as to destroy all confidence in their representativity, leaves me with the sense that I would prefer an old-time Utopianist to an unbearably sardonic modern cynic. The more objective treatment on other parts on this website would probably have better served than the gleefully pretentious denunciations here, as I remain uninformed, and am obliged to continue searching elsewhere for useful commentary on the man.

Submitted by Alfred Armstrong on 04 Dec 2014 - 17:52 Permalink

Oh dear. Good luck finding "useful commentary" on Edgerly. If you do find any, please let me know.

I am interested to learn that "the yellow race seeping ..." isn't racist. In those days, everybody seeped and nobody thought anything about it.

Submitted by mmc (not verified) on 30 Dec 2017 - 23:24 Permalink

"... diffused atomic magnetism when brought into a collective condition becomes the magnetic power of life"

It is easy for us, fans of Shaftesbury to comprehend this.

When diffuse magnetism is collected it becomes a powerful force in life.