Life

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XXVI: LIFE

But in all this, and indeed beyond all this, we must not dare to forget one thing; that it is life with which we are confronted, and that our business is to live it, and to live it in our own way; and here we may thankfully rejoice that there is less and less tendency in the world for people to dictate modes of life to us; the tyrant and the despot are not only out of date-they are out of fashion, which is a far more disabling thing!There is of course a type of person in the world who loves to call himself robust and even virile-heaven help us to break down that bestial ideal of manhood!-who is of the stuff that all bullies have been made since the world began, a compound of courage, stupidity, and complacency; to whom the word ‘living’ has no meaning,unless it implies the disturbing and disquieting of other people. We are gradually putting him in his right place, and the kindlier future will have little need of him; because a sense is gradually shaping itself in the world that life is best lived on peaceful and orderly lines.

But if the robust viveur is on the wrong tack, so long as he grabs and uses, and neither gives nor is used, so too the more peaceable and poetical nature makes a very similar mistake, if his whole heart is bent upon receiving and enjoying; for he too is filching and conveying away pleasure out of life, though he may do it more timidly and unobtrusively. Such a man or woman is apt to make too much out of the occasions and excitements of life, to over-value the aesthetic kind of success, which is the delicate impressing of other people, claiming their admiration and applause, and being ill-content if one is not noticed and praised. Such an one is apt to overlook the common stuff and use of life-the toil, the endurance, the discipline of it; to flutter abroad only on sunshiny days, and to sit sullenly with folded wing when the sky breaks into rain and chilly winds are blowing. The man who lives thus, is in danger of over-valuing the raptures and thrills of life, of being fitful and moody and fretful; what he has to do is to spread serenity over his days, and above all to be ready to combine, to minister, to sympathise, to serve. Joyous Gard is a very perilous place, if we grow too indolent to leave it; the essence of it is refreshment and not continuance. There are two conditions attached to the use of it; one is that we should have our own wholesome work in the world, and the second that we should not grow too wholly absorbed in labour.

No great moral leaders and inspirers of men have ever laid stress on excessive labour. They have accepted work as one of the normal conditions of life, but their whole effort has been to teach men to look away from work, to find leisure to be happy and good. There is no essential merit in work, apart from its necessity. Of course men may find themselves in positions where it seems hard to avoid a fierce absorption in work. It is said by legislators that the House of Commons, for instance, is a place where one can neither work nor rest! And I have heard busy men in high administrative office, deplore rhetorically the fact that they have no time to read or think. It is almost as unwholesome never to read or think as it is to be always reading and thinking, because the light and the inspiration fade out of life, and leave one a gaunt and wolfish lobbyist, who goes about seeking whom he may indoctrinate. But I have little doubt that when the world is organised on simpler lines, we shall look back to this era, as an era when men’s heads were turned by work, and when more unnecessary things were made and done and said than has ever been the case since the world began.

The essence of happy living is never to find life dull, never to feel the ugly weariness which comes of overstrain; to be fresh, cheerful, leisurely, sociable, unhurried, well-balanced. It seems to me that it is impossible to be these things unless we have time to consider life a little, to deliberate, to select, to abstain. We must not help ourselves either to work or to joy as if we were helping ourselves to potatoes! If life ought not to be perpetual drudgery, neither can it be a perpetual feast. What I believe we ought to aim at is to put interest and zest into the simplest acts, words, and relations of life, to discern the quality of work and people alike. We must not turn our whole minds and hearts to literature or art or work, or even to religion; but we must go deeper, and look close at life itself, which these interpret and out of which they flow. For indeed life is nobler and richer than any one interpretation of it. Let us take for a moment one of the great interpreters of life, Robert Browning, who was so intensely interested above all things in personality. The charm of his writing is that he contrives, by some fine instinct, to get behind and within the people of whom he writes, sees with their eyes, hears with their ears, though he speaks with his own lips. But one must observe that the judgment of none of his characters is a final judgment; the artist, the lover, the cynic, the charlatan, the sage, the priest-they none of them provide a solution to life; they set out on their quest, they make their guesses, they reveal their aims, but they never penetrate the inner secret. It is all inference and hope; Browning himself seems to believe in life, not because of the reasons which his characters give for believing in it, but in spite of all their reasons. Like little boats, the reasons seem to strand, one by one, some sooner, some later, on the sands beneath the shallow sea; and then the great serene large faith of the poet comes flooding in, and bears them on their way.

It is somewhat thus that we must deal with life; it is no good making up a philosophy which just keeps us gay when all is serene and prosperous. Unpleasant, tedious, vexing, humiliating, painful, shattering things befall us all by the way. That is the test of our belief in life, if nothing daunts us, if nothing really mars our serenity of mood.

And so what this little book of mine tries to recommend is that we should bestir ourselves to design, plan, use, practise life; not drift helplessly on its current, shouting for joy when all is bright, helplessly bemoaning ourselves when all is dark; and that we should do this byguarding ourselves from impulse and whim, by feeding our minds and hearts on all the great words, high examples, patient endurances, splendid acts, of those whom we recognise to have been the finer sort of men. One of the greatest blessings of our time is that we can do that so easily. In the dullest, most monotonous life we can stay ourselves upon this heavenly manna, if we have the mind. We need not feel alone or misunderstood or unappreciated, even if we are surrounded by harsh, foolish, dry, discontented, mournful persons. The world is fuller now than it ever was of brave and kindly people who will help us if we ask for help. Of course if we choose to perish without a struggle, we can do that. And my last word of advice to people into whose hands this book may fall, who are suffering from a sense of dim failure, timid bewilderment, with a vague desire in the background to make something finer and stronger out of life, is to turn to some one whom they can trust-not intending to depend constantly and helplessly upon them-and to get set in the right road.

Of course, as I have said, care and sorrow, heaviness and sadness-even disillusionment-must come; but the reason of that is because we must not settle too close to the sweet and kindly earth, but be ready to unfurl our wings for the passage over sea; and to what new country of God, what unknown troops and societies of human spirits, what gracious reality of dwelling-place, of which our beloved fields and woods and streams are nothing but the gentle and sweet symbols, our flight may bear us, I cannot tell; but that we are all in the mind of God, and that we cannot wander beyond the reach of His hand or the love of His heart, of this I am more sure than I am of anything else in this world where familiarity and mystery are so strangely entwined.

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