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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 24
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 24 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2041

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 24


One meets a great many people of various kinds, old and young, kind and severe, amiable and harsh, gentle and dry, rude and polite, tiresome and interesting. One meets men who are, one recognises, virtuous, honourable, conscientious, and able; one meets women of character, and ingenuousness, and charm, and beauty. But the thing that really interests me is to meet a person--and it is not a common experience--who has made something of himself or herself; who began with one set of qualities, and who has achieved another set of qualities, by desiring them and patiently practising them; who, one is sure, has a peculiar sympathy drawn from experience, and a wisdom matured by conflict and effort.

As a rule, one feels that people are very much the same as they began by being. They are awkward and have not learned to be easy; they are dull and have not learned to be interesting; or they are clever and have not learned to be sympathetic; or charming and have not learned to be loyal; who are satisfied, in fact, with being what they are. But what a delightful and reviving thing it is to meet one whose glance betrays a sort of tenderness, a gentleness, a desire to establish a relationship; who means to like one, if he can; whose face bears signs of the conflict of spirit, in which selfishness and complacency have been somehow eradicated; who understands one's clumsy hints and interprets one's unexpressed feelings; who goes about, one knows, looking out for beautiful qualities and for subtle relationships; who evokes the best of people, their confidence, their true and natural selves; who is not in the least concerned with making an impression or being thought wise or clever or brilliant, but who just hopes for companionship and equality of soul.

Sometimes, indeed, one does not discern this largeness and wisdom of spirit quite at first sight, though it is generally revealed by aspect even more than by words. Sometimes these brotherly and sisterly persons have a fence of shyness which cannot be instantly overleapt; but one generally can discern the beautiful creature waiting gently within. But as a rule these gracious people have nothing that is formidable or daunting about them; they are quiet and simple; and having no cards to play and no game to win, they are at leisure to make the best of other people.

I have met both men and women of this apostolic kind, and one feels that they understand; that in their tranquil maturity they can make allowances for crude immaturity; that they do not at once dismiss one as being foolishly young or tiresomely elderly: they have no subjects of their own which they are vexed at finding misunderstood or not comprehended. They do not think the worse of a person for having preferences or prejudices; though when one has uttered a raw preference or an unreasonable prejudice in their presence one is ashamed, as one is for hurling a stone into a sleeping pool. One comes away from them desiring to appreciate rather than to contemn, with horizons and vistas of true and beautiful things opening up on all sides, with a wish to know more and to understand more, and to believe more; with the sense of a desirable secret of which they have the possession.

One meets sometimes exactly the opposite of all this, a lively, brilliant, contemptuous specialist, who talks briskly and lucidly about his own subject, and makes one feel humble and clumsy and drowsy. One sees that he is pleased to talk, and when the ball rolls to one's feet, one makes a feeble effort to toss it back, whereupon he makes a fine stroke, with an ill-concealed contempt for a person who is so ill-informed. Perhaps it is good to be humiliated thus; but it is not pleasant, and the worst of it is that one confuses the subject with the personality behind it, and thinks that the subject is dreary when it is only the personality that is repellent.

Such a man is repellent, because he is self-absorbed, conceited, contemptuous. He has grown up inside a sort of walled fortress, and he thinks that everyone outside is a knave or a fool. He has not _changed_. It is this change, this progress of the soul that is adorable.

The question for most of us--a sad question too--is whether this change, this progress, is attainable, or whether a power of growth is given to some people and denied to others. I am afraid that this is partially true. A good many people seem to be born inside a hard carapace which cannot expand; and it protects them from the sensitive apprehension of injury and hurt, which is in reality the only condition of growth. If we feel our failures, if we see, every now and then, how unjustly, unkindly, perversely we have behaved, we try to be different next time. Perhaps the motive is not a very high one, because it is to avoid similar suffering; but we improve a little and a little.

Of course, occasionally, one meets people who have not changed much, because they started on so high a plane--it is commoner to find this among women than among men; they have begun life tender, loyal, unselfish; it has always been a greater happiness to see that people round them are pleased than to find their own satisfaction. Such people are often what the world calls ineffective, because they have no selfish object to attain. I have a friend who is like that. He is what would be called an unsuccessful man; he has never had time to do his own talents justice, because his energies have always been at the service of other people; if you ask him to do something for you, he does it as exactly, as punctually, as faithfully as if his own reputation depended upon it. He is now a middle-aged man with hundreds of friends and a small income. He lives in a poky house in a suburb, and works harder than anyone I know. If one meets him he has always the same beautiful, tired smile; and he has fifty things to ask one, all about oneself. I can't describe what good it does one to meet him. The other day I met a cousin of his, a prosperous man of business. "Yes," he said, "poor Harry goes on in his feckless way. I gave him a bit of my mind the other day. I said, 'Oh, it's all very well to be always at everyone's beck and call, and ready to give up your time to anyone who asks you--it is very pleasant, of course, and everyone speaks well of you--but it doesn't pay, my dear fellow; and you really ought to be thinking about making a position for yourself, though I am very much afraid it is too late.'"

The prosperous cousin did not tell me how Harry received his advice; but I have no doubt that he thought his cousin very kind to interest himself in his position, and went away absurdly grateful. But I would rather, for all that, be in Harry's poky lodgings, with a treasure of love and service in my heart, than in his cousin's fine house in the country, the centre of a respectful and indifferent circle.

Of course there is one sad reflection that rises in one's mind at the thought of such a life as my friend lives. When one sees what a difference he makes to so many people, and what a beautiful thing his life is, one wonders vaguely why, if God makes men as he wills, he does not make more of such natures. They are rare; they are the salt of the world; and I suppose that if the world were all salt, it would not be so rich and beautiful a place. If everyone were like Harry there would be no one left to help; and I suppose that God has some reason for leaving the world imperfect, which even we, in our infinite wisdom, cannot precisely detect.

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