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The Silent Isle - Chapter 3 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1687

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 3


People often talk as if human beings were crushed by sorrows and misfortunes and tragic events. It is not so! We are crushed by temperament. Just as Dr. Johnson said about writing, that no man was ever written down but by himself, so we are the victims not of circumstances but of disposition. Those who succumb to tragic events are those who, like Mrs. Gummidge, feel them more than other people. The characters that break down under brutalising influences, evil surroundings, monotonous toil, are those neurotic temperaments which under favourable circumstances would have been what is called artistic, who depend upon stimulus and excitement, upon sunshine and pleasure. Of course, a good deal of what, in our ignorance of the working of psychological laws, we are accustomed to call chance or luck, enters into the question. Ill-health, dull surroundings, loveless lives cause people to break down in the race, who in averagely prosperous circumstances might have lived pleasantly and reputably. But the deeper we plunge into nature, the deeper we explore life, the more immutable we find the grip of law. What could appear to be a more fortuitous spectacle of collision and confusion than a great ocean breaker thundering landwards, with a wrack of flying spray and tossing crests? Yet every smallest motion of every particle is the working put of laws which go far back into the dark aeons of creation. Given the precise conditions of wind and mass and gravitation, a mathematician could work out and predict the exact motion of every liquid atom. Just so and not otherwise could it move. It is as certain that every minute psychological process, all the phenomena that we attribute to will and purpose and motive, are just as inevitable and immutable.

The other day I went by appointment to call on an elderly lady of my acquaintance, the widow of a country squire, who has settled in London on a small jointure, in an inconspicuous house in a dull street. She has always been a very active woman. As the wife of a country gentleman she was a cordial hostess, loving to fill the house with visitors; and in her own village she was a Lady Bountiful of the best kind, the eager friend and adviser of every family in the place. Now she is old and to a great extent invalided. But she is vigorous, upright, dignified, imperative, affectionate, with a stately carriage and a sanguine complexion. She is always full to the brim of interest and liveliness. She carries on a dozen small enterprises; she is at daggers drawn with some of her relations, and the keen partisan of others. Everything is "astonishing" and "wonderful" and "extraordinary" that happens to her; and it is an unceasing delight to hear her describe the smallest things, her troubles with her servants, her family differences, the meetings of the societies she attends, the places she visits. Her talk is always full of anecdotes about mysterious people whose names are familiar to me from her talk but with whom I have never come into contact. It is impossible to forecast what circumstances may fill her with excitement and delight. She will give you a dramatic account of a skirmish with her Vicar about some incredibly trifling matter, or describe with zest how she unveiled the pretentious machinations of some undesirable relative. She is full of malice, anger, uncharitableness, indignation; but, on the other hand, she is just as full of compassion, goodwill, admiration, and enthusiasm. Everyone she knows is either perfectly delightful or else entirely intolerable; and thus she converts what would seem to many people a confined and narrow sphere of action into a stormy and generous clash of great forces.

On this particular occasion she kept me waiting for a few minutes, and then darted into the room with an eager apology. She had just had, she said, very bad news. Her second son, a soldier in India, had died suddenly of fever, and the news had reached her only that morning. She is a devoted mother, and she wept frankly and unashamedly as she told me the sad details. Her grief was evidently deep and profound; and yet, strange to say, I found myself realising that this event, entailing peculiarly tragic consequences which I need not here define, was to the gallant old lady, in spite of, or rather in consequence of, her grief, a thing which heightened the values of existence, put a fire into her pulses, and quickened the sense of living. It was not that she did not feel the loss; she suffered acutely; but for all that, it was an experience of a stirring kind, and her indomitable appetite for sensation was fed and sustained by it. She was full of schemes for the widow and children; she was melted with heart-felt grief for them; but I perceived that she was in no way dejected by the experience; it called all her powers, even the power of bearing grief, into play; and the draining of the bitter cup was more congenial to her than inactive monotony. It gave me a strong sense of her vitality, and I felt that it was a really splendid thing to be able to approach a grief with this fiery zest, rather than to collapse into a dreary and hysterical depression. There were fifty things she could do, and she meant to do them every one, and secretly exulted in the task. It was even, I felt, a distinct pleasure to her to describe the melancholy circumstances of the event in the fullest detail. It was not a pensive or luxurious emotion, but a tumult of vehement feeling, bearing the bark of the soul triumphantly along. She would have been distressed and even indignant if I had revealed my thoughts; but the fact was there for all that; instead of brooding or fretting over small affairs, she was face to face with one of the great unanswerable, unfathomable facts of life, and her spirit drank in the solemnity, the greatness of it, as a flower after a drought drinks in the steady plunging rain.

I will not say that this is the secret of life; for it is a faculty of temperament, and cannot be acquired. But I reflected how much finer and stronger it was than my own tendency to be bewildered and cowed beneath a robust stroke of fate. I felt that the thing one ought to aim at doing was to look experience steadily in the face, whether sweet or bitter, to interrogate it firmly, to grasp its significance. If one cowers away from it, if one tries to distract and beguile the soul, to forget the grief in feverish activity, well, one may succeed in dulling the pain as by some drug or anodyne; but the lesson of life is thereby deferred. Why should one so faint-heartedly persist in making choice of experiences, in welcoming what is pleasant, what feeds our vanity and self-satisfaction, what gives one, like the rich fool, the sense of false security of goods stored up for the years? We are set in life to feel insecure, or at all events to gain stability and security of soul, not to prop up our failing and timid senses upon the pillows of wealth and ease and circumstance. The man whom I entirely envy is the man who walks into the dark valley of misfortune or sickness or grief, or the shadow of death, with a curious and inexpressible zest for facing and interrogating the presences that haunt the place. For a man who does this, his memory is not like a land where he loves to linger upon the sunlit ridges of happy recollection, but a land where in reflection he threads in backward thought the dark vale, the miry road, the craggy rift up which he painfully climbed; the optimism that hurries with averted glance past the shadow is as false as the pessimism that hurries timidly across the bright and flowery meadow. The more we realise the immutability of our lot, the more grateful we become for our pains as well as for our delights. If we have still lives to live and regions to traverse, after our eyes close upon the world, those lives and those regions may be, as we love to think, tracts of serener happiness and more equable tranquillity. But if they be still a mixture, such as we here endure, of pain and pleasure, then our aim ought to be at all costs to learn the lesson of endurance; or rather, if we hold firmly to the sense of law, minute, pervading, unalterable law, to welcome every step we make in the direction of courage and hopefulness. In the midst of atrocious sorrow and suffering there is no sense so blessed as the sense that dawns upon the suffering heart that it can indeed endure what it had represented to itself as unendurable, and that however sharply it suffers, there is still an inalienable residue of force and vitality which cannot be exhausted.

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