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Fears Of Age Post by :7thsound Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2011 Read :3532

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Fears Of Age

And then age creeps on; and that brings fears of its own, and fears that are all the more intolerable because they are not definite fears at all, merely a loss of nervous vigour, which attaches itself to the most trivial detail and magnifies it into an insuperable difficulty. A friend of mine who was growing old once confided to me that foreign travel, which used to be such a delight to him, was now getting burdensome. "It is all right when I have once started," he said, "but for days before I am the prey of all kinds of apprehensions." "What sort of apprehensions?" I said. He laughed, and replied, "Well, it is almost too absurd to mention, but I find myself oppressed with anxiety for weeks beforehand as to whether, when we get to Calais, we shall find places in the train." And I remember, too, how a woman friend of mine once told me that she called at the house of an elderly couple in London, people of rank and wealth. Their daughter met her in the drawing-room and said, "I am glad you are come--you may be able to cheer my mother up. We are going down to-morrow to our place in the country; the servants and the luggage went this morning, and my mother and father are to drive down this afternoon--my mother is very low about it." "What is the matter?" said my friend. The daughter replied, "She is afraid that they will not get there in time!" "In time for what?" said my friend, thinking that there was some important engagement. "In time for tea!" said the daughter gravely.

It is all very well to laugh at such fears, but they are not natural fears at all, they just indicate a low vitality; they are the symptoms and not the causes of a disease. It is the frame of mind of the sluggard in the Bible who says, "There is a lion in the way." Younger people are apt to be irritated by what seems a wilful creating of apprehensions. They ought rather to be patient and reassuring, and compassionate to the weakness of nerve for which it stands.

With such fears as these may be classed all the unreal but none the less distressing fears about health which beset people all their lives, in some cases; it is extremely annoying to healthy people to find a man reduced to depression and silence at the possibility of taking cold, or at the fear of having eaten something unwholesome. I remember an elderly gentleman who had lived a vigorous and unselfish life, and was indeed a man of force and character, whose activity was entirely suspended in later years by his fear of catching cold or of over-tiring himself. He was a country clergyman, and used to spend the whole of Sunday between his services, in solitary seclusion, "resting," and retire to bed the moment the evening service was over; moreover his dread of taking cold was such that he invariably wore a hat in the winter months to go from the drawing-room to the dining-room for dinner, even if there were guests in his house. He used to jest about it, and say that it no doubt must look curious; but he added that he had found it a wise precaution, and that we had no idea how disabling his colds were. Even a very healthy friend of my own standing has told me that if he ever lies awake at night he is apt to exaggerate the smallest and most trifling sense of discomfort into the symptom of some dangerous disease. Let me quote the well-known case of Hans Andersen, whose imagination was morbidly strong. He found one morning when he awoke that he had a small pimple under his left eyebrow. He reflected with distress upon the circumstance, and soon came to the rueful conclusion that the pimple would probably increase in size, and deprive him of the sight of his left eye. A friend calling upon him in the course of the morning found him writing, in a mood of solemn resignation, with one hand over the eye in question, "practising," as he said, "how to read and write with the only eye that would soon be left him."

One's first impulse is to treat these self-inflicted sufferings as ridiculous and almost idiotic. But they are quite apt to beset people of effectiveness and ability. To call them irrational does not cure them, because they lie deeper than any rational process, and are in fact the superficial symptoms of some deep-seated weakness of nerve, while their very absurdity, and the fact that the mind cannot throw them off, only proves how strong they are. They are in fact signs of some profound uneasiness of mind; and the rational brain of such people, casting about for some reason to explain the fear with which they are haunted, fixes on some detail which is not worthy of serious notice. It is of course a species of local insanity and monomania, but it does not imply any general obscuration of faculties at all. Some of the most intellectual people are most at the mercy of such trials, and indeed they are rather characteristic of men and women whose brain is apt to work at high pressure. One recollects in the life of Shelley, how he used to be haunted by these insupportable fears. He was at one time persuaded that he had contracted leprosy, and he used to disconcert his acquaintances by examining solicitously their wrists and necks to see if he could detect symptoms of the same disease.

There is very little doubt that as medical knowledge progresses we shall know more about the cause of such hallucinations. To call them unreal is mere stupidity. Sensible people who suffer from them are often perfectly well aware of their unreality, and are profoundly humiliated by them. They are some disease or weakness of the imaginative faculty; and a friend of mine who suffered from such things told me that it was extraordinary to him to perceive the incredible ingenuity with which his brain under such circumstances used to find confirmation for his fears from all sorts of trivial incidents which at other times passed quite unnoticed. It is generally quite useless to think of removing the fear by combating the particular fancy; the affected centre, whatever it is, only turns feverishly to some other similar anxiety. Occupation of a quiet kind, exercise, rest, are the best medicine.

Sometimes these anxieties take a different form, and betray themselves by suspicion of other people's conduct and motives. That is of course allied to insanity. In sane and sound health we realise that we are not, as a rule, the objects of the malignity and spitefulness of others. We are perhaps obstacles to the carrying out of other people's plans; but men and women as a rule mind their own business, and are not much concerned to intervene in the designs and activities of others. Yet a man whose mental equilibrium is unstable is apt to think that if he is disappointed or thwarted it is the result of a deliberate conspiracy on the part of other people. If he is a writer, he thinks that other writers are aware of his merits, but are determined to prevent them being recognised out of sheer ill-will. A man in robust health realises that he gets quite as much credit or even more credit than he deserves, and that his claims to attention are generously recognised; one has exactly as much influence and weight as one can get, and other people as a rule are much too much occupied in their own concerns to have either the time or the inclination to interfere. But as a man grows older, as his work stiffens and weakens, he falls out of the race, and he must be content to do so; and he is well advised if he puts his failure down to his own deficiencies, and not to the malice of others. The world is really very much on the look out for anything which amuses, delights, impresses, moves, or helps it; it is quick and generous in recognition of originality and force; and if a writer, as he gets older, finds his books neglected and his opinions disdained, he may be fairly sure that he has said his say, and that men are preoccupied with new ideas and new personalities. Of course this is a melancholy and disconcerting business, especially if one has been more concerned with personal prominence than with the worth and weight of one's ideas; mortified vanity is a sore trial. I remember once meeting an old author who, some thirty years before the date at which I met him, had produced a book which attracted an extraordinary amount of attention, though it has long since been forgotten. The old man had all the airs of solemn greatness, and I have seldom seen a more rueful spectacle than when a young and rising author was introduced to him, and when it became obvious that the young man had not only never heard of the old writer, but did not know the name of his book.

The question is what we can do to avoid falling under the dominion of these uncanny fears and fancies, as we fall from middle age to age. A dreary, dispirited, unhappy, peevish old man or old woman is a very miserable spectacle; while, at the same time, generous, courteous, patient, modest, tender old age is one of the most beautiful things in the world. We may of course resolve not to carry our dreariness into all circles, and if we find life a poor and dejected business, we can determine that we will not enlarge upon the theme. But the worst of discouragement is that it removes even the desire to play a part, or to make the most and best of ourselves. Like Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield, if we are reminded that other people have their troubles, we are apt to reply that we feel them more. One does not desire that people should unduly indulge themselves in self-dramatisation. There is something very repugnant in an elderly person who is bent on proving his importance and dignity, in laying claim to force and influence, in affecting to play a large part in the world. But there is something even more afflicting in the people who drop all decent pretence of dignity, and pour the product of an acrid and disappointed spirit into all conversations.

Age can establish itself very firmly in the hearts of its circle, if it is kind, sympathetic, appreciative, ready to receive confidences, willing to encourage the fitful despondencies of youth. But here again we are met by the perennial difficulty as to how far we can force ourselves to do things which we do not really want to do, and how far again, if we succeed in forcing ourselves into action, we can give any accent of sincerity and genuineness to our comments and questions.

In this particular matter, that of sympathy, a very little effort does undoubtedly go a long way, because there are a great many people in the world eagerly on the look out for any sign of sympathy, and not apt to scrutinise too closely the character of the sympathy offered. And the best part of having once forced oneself to exhibit sympathy, at whatever cost of strain and effort, is that one is at least ashamed to withdraw it.

I remember a foolish woman who was very anxious to retain the hold upon the active world which she had once possessed. She very seldom spoke of any subject but herself, her performances, her activities, the pressure of the claims which she was forced to try to satisfy. I can recall her now, with her sanguine complexion, her high voice, her anxious and restless eye wandering in search of admiration. "The day's post!" she cried, "that is one of my worst trials--so many duties to fulfil, so many requests for help, so many irresistible claims come before me in the pile of letters--that high," indicating about a foot and a half of linear measurement above the table. "It is the same story every day--a score of people bringing their little mugs of egotism to be filled at my pump of sympathy!"

It was a ridiculous exhibition, because one was practically sure that there was nothing of the kind going on. One was inclined to believe that they were mugs of sympathy filled at the pump of egotism! But if the thing were really being done, it was certainly worth doing!

One of the causes of the failure of nerve-force in age, which lies behind so much of these miseries, is that people who have lived at all active lives cannot bring themselves to realise their loss of vigour, and try to prolong the natural energies of middle age into the twilight of elderliness. Men and women cling to activities, not because they enjoy them, but to delude themselves into believing that they are still young. That terrible inability to resign positions, the duties of which one cannot adequately fulfil, which seems so disgraceful and unconscientious a handling of life to the young, is often a pathetic clinging to youth. Such veterans do not reflect that the only effect of such tenacity is partly that other people do their work, and partly also that the critic observes that if a post can be adequately filled by so old a man it is a proof that such a post ought not to exist. The tendency ought to be met as far as possible by fixing age-limits to all positions. Because even if the old and weary do consult their friends as to the advisability of retirement, it is very hard for the friends cordially to recommend it. A public man once told me that a very aged official consulted him as to the propriety of resignation. He said in his reply something complimentary about the value of the veteran's services. Whereupon the old man replied that as he set so high an estimation upon his work, he would endeavour to hold on a little longer!

The conscientious thing to do, as we get older and find ourselves slower, more timid, more inactive, more anxious, is to consult a candid friend, and to follow his advice rather than our own inclination; a certain fearfulness, an avoidance of unpleasant duty, a dreary foreboding, is apt to be characteristic of age. But we must meet it philosophically. We must reflect that we have done our work, and that an attempt to galvanise ourselves into activity is sure to result in depression. So we must condense our energies, be content to play a little, to drowse a little, to watch with interest the game of life in which we cannot take a hand, until death falls as naturally upon our wearied eyes as sleep falls upon the eyes of a child tired with a long summer day of eager pleasure and delight.

But there is one practical counsel that may here be given to all who find a tendency to dread and anxiety creeping upon them as life advances. I have known very truly and deeply religious people who have been thus beset, and who make their fears the subject of earnest prayer, asking that this particular terror may be spared them, that this cup may be withdrawn from their shuddering lips. I do not believe that this is the right way of meeting the situation. One may pray as whole-heartedly as one will against the tendency to fear; but it is a great help to realise that the very experiences which seem now so overwhelming had little or no effect upon one in youthful and high-hearted days. It is not really that the quality of events alter; it is merely that one is losing vitality, and parting with the irresponsible hopefulness that did not allow one to brood, simply because there were so many other interesting and delightful things going on.

One must attack the disease, for it is a disease, at the root; and it is of little use to shrink timidly from the particular evil, because when it is gone, another will take its place. We may pray for courage, but we must practise it; and the best way of meeting particular fears is to cultivate interests, distractions, amusements, which may serve to dispel them. We cannot begin to do that while we are under the dominion of a particular fear, for the strength of fear lies in its dominating and nauseating quality, so that it gives us a dreary disrelish for life; but if we really wish to combat it, we must beware of inactivity; it may be comfortable, as life goes on, to cultivate a habit of mild contemplation, but it is this very habit of mind which predisposes us to anxiety when anxiety comes. Dr. Johnson pointed out how comparatively rare it was for people who had manual labour to perform, and whose work lay in the open air, to suffer from hypochondriacal terrors. The truth is that we are made for labour, and we have by no means got rid of the necessity for it. We have to pay a price for the comforts of civilisation, and above all for the pleasures of inactivity. It is astonishing how quickly a definite task which one has to perform, whether one likes it or not, draws off a cloud of anxiety from one's spirit. I am myself liable to attacks of depression, not causeless depression, but a despondent exaggeration of small troubles. Yet in times of full work, when meetings have to be attended, papers tackled, engagements kept, I seldom find myself suffering from vague anxieties. It is simply astonishing that one cannot learn more common sense! I suppose that all people of anxious minds tend to find the waking hour a trying one. The mind, refreshed by sleep, turns sorrowfully to the task of surveying the difficulties which lie before it. And yet a hundred times have I discovered that life, which seemed at dawn nothing but a tangle of intolerable problems, has become at noon a very bearable and even interesting affair; and one should thus learn to appreciate the tonic value of occupation, and set oneself to discern some pursuit, if we have no compulsory duties, which may set the holy mill revolving, as Dante says; for it is the homely grumble of the gear which distracts us from the other sort of grumbling, the self- pitying frame of mind, which is the most fertile seed-plot of fear.

"How happy I was long ago; how little I guessed my happiness; how little I knew all that lay before me; how sadly and strangely afflicted I am!" These are the whispers of the evil demon of fearfulness; and they can only be checked by the murmur of wholesome and homely voices.

The old motto says, "Orare est laborare," "prayer is work"--and it is no less true that "laborare est orare," "work is prayer." The truth is that we cannot do without both; and when we have prayed for courage, and tried to rejoice in our beds, as the saints who are joyful in glory do, we had better spend no time in begging that money may be sent us to meet our particular need, or that health may return to us, or that this and that person may behave more kindly and considerately, but go our way to some perfectly commonplace bit of work, do it as thoroughly as we can, and simply turn our back upon the hobgoblin whose grimaces fill us with such uneasiness. He melts away in the blessed daylight over the volume or the account-book, in the simple talk about arrangements or affairs, and above all perhaps in trying to disentangle and relieve another's troubles and anxieties. We cannot get rid of fear by drugs or charms; we have to turn to the work which is the appointed solace of man, and which is the reward rather than the penalty of life.


(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Fears Of Age

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