Life is a great gift, and as we reach years of discretion, we most of us naturally ask ourselves what should be the main object of our existence. Even those who do not accept “the greatest good of the greatest number” as an absolute rule, will yet admit that we should all endeavor to contribute as far as we may to the happiness of our fellow-creatures. There are many, however, who seem to doubt whether it is right that we should try to be happy ourselves. Our own happiness ought not, of course, to be our main object, nor indeed will it ever be secured if selfishly sought. We may have many pleasures in life, but must not let them have rule over us, or they will soon hand us over to sorrow.
If we separate ourselves so much from the interests of those around us that we do not sympathize with them in their sufferings, we shut ourselves out from sharing their happiness, and lose far more than we gain. If we avoid sympathy and wrap ourselves round in a cold chain armor of selfishness, we exclude ourselves from many of the greatest and purest joys of life. To render ourselves insensible to pain we must forfeit also the possibility of happiness.
People sometimes think how delightful it would be to be quite free. But a fish, as Ruskin says, is freer than a man, and as for a fly, it is “a black incarnation of freedom.” A life of so-called pleasure and self-indulgence is not a life of real happiness or true freedom. Far from it, if we once begin to give way to ourselves, we fall under a most intolerable tyranny. Other temptations are in some respects like that of drink. At first, perhaps, it seems delightful, but there is bitterness at the bottom of the cup. Men drink to satisfy the desire created by previous indulgence. So it is in other things. Repetition soon becomes a craving, not a pleasure. Resistance grows more and more painful; yielding, which at first, perhaps, afforded some slight and temporary gratification, soon ceases to give pleasure, and even if for a time it procures relief, were long becomes odious itself.
“As to the value of other things,” says Cicero, “most men differ; concerning friendship all have the same opinion. What can be more foolish than, when men are possessed of great influence by their wealth, power, and resources, to procure other things which are bought by money—horses, slaves, rich apparel, costly vases—and not to procure friends, the most valuable and fairest furniture of life?” And yet, he continues, “every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends.” In the choice, moreover, of a dog or of a horse, we exercise the greatest care: we inquire into its pedigree, its training and character, and yet we too often leave the selection of our friends, which is of infinitely greater importance—by whom our whole life will be more or less influenced either for good or evil—almost to chance.
Much certainly of the happiness and purity of our lives depends on our making a wise choice of our companions and friends. If our friends are badly chosen they will inevitably drag us down; if well they will raise us up. Yet many people seem to trust in this matter to the chapter of accident. It is well and right, indeed, to be courteous and considerate to everyone with whom we are brought into contact, but to choose them as real friends is another matter. Some seem to make a man a friend, or try to do so, because he lives near, because he is in the same business, travels on the same line of railway, or for some other trivial reason. There cannot be a greater mistake. These are only, in the words of Plutarch, “the idols and images of friendship.”
To be friendly with everyone is another matter; we must remember that there is no little enemy, and those who have ever really loved any one will have some tenderness for all. There is indeed some good in most men. “I have heard much,” says Mr. Nasmyth in his charming autobiography, “about the ingratitude and selfishness of the world. It may have been my good fortune, but I have never experienced either of these unfeeling conditions.”
We must, moreover, be as careful to keep friends as to make them. If everyone knew what one said of the other, Pascal assures us that “there would not be four friends in the world.” At any rate tries to be one of the four. And when you have made a friend, keep him. Hast thou a friend, says an Eastern proverb, “visit him often, for thorns and brushwood obstruct the road which no one treads.” The affections should not be mere “tents of a night.”
Time is often said to fly; but it is not so much the time that flies; as we that waste it, and wasted time is worse than no time at all; “I wasted time,” Shakespeare makes Richard II say, “and now doth time waste me.” The life of man is seventy years, but how little of this is actually our own. We must deduct the time required for sleep, for meals, for dressing and undressing, for exercise, etc., and then how little remains really at our own disposal! “I have lived,” said Lamb, “nominally fifty years, but deduct from them the hours I have lived for other people, and not for myself, and you will find me still a young fellow.” The hours we live for other people, however, are not those that should be deducted, but rather those which benefit neither oneself nor anyone else; and these, alas! are often very numerous. “There are some hours which are taken from us, some which are stolen from us, and some which slip from us.” But however we may lose them; we can never get them back. It is wonderful, indeed, how much innocent happiness we thoughtlessly throw away.
Suffering may be unavoidable, but no one has any excuse for being dull. And yet some people are dull. They talk of a better world to come, while whatever dullness there may be here is all their own. Sir Arthur Helps has well said: “What! dull, when you do not know what gives its loveliness of form to the lily, its depth of color to the violet, its fragrance to the rose; when you do not know in what consists the venom of the adder, any more than you can imitate the glad movements of the dove. What! dull, when earth, air, and water are all alike mysteries to you, and when as you stretch out your hand you do not touch anything the properties of which you have mastered; while all the time Nature is inviting you to talk earnestly with her, to understand her, to subdue her, and to be blessed by her! Go away, man; learn something, do something, understand something, and let me hear no more of your dullness.”
Every day gives us a succession of glorious pictures in never-ending variety. It is remarkable how few people seem to derive any pleasure from the beauty of the sky. Gray, after describing a sunrise—how it began with a slight whitening, just tinged with gold and blue, lit up all at once by a little line of insufferable brightness which rapidly grew to half an orb, and so to a whole one too glorious to be distinctly seen—adds, “I wonder whether anyone ever saw it before. I hardly believe it.”
According to the old proverb, “the fool wanders, the wise man travels.” So far is a thorough love and enjoyment of travel from interfering with the love of home, that perhaps no one can thoroughly enjoy his home who does not sometimes wander away. They are like exertion and rest, each the complement of the other; so that, though it may seem paradoxical, one of the greatest pleasures of travel is the return; and no one who has not roamed abroad, can realize the devotion which the wanderer feels for home.
In few respects has mankind made a greater advance than in the relations of men and women? It is terrible to think how women suffer in savage life; and even among the intellectual Greeks, with rare exceptions, they seem to have been treated rather as housekeepers or playthings than as the Angels who make a Heaven of home. The Hindu proverb that you should “never strike a wife, even with a flower,” though a considerable advance, tells a melancholy tale of what must previously have been. What a life, and what a language, without love. Yet in marriage even the rough passion of a savage may contrast favorably with any cold calculation, which, like the enchanted hoard of the Nibelungs, is almost sure to bring misfortune. In the Kalevala, the Finnish epic, the divine smith, Ilmarinnen, forges a bride of gold and silver for Wainamoinen, who was pleased at first to have so rich a wife, but soon found her intolerably cold, for, in spite of fires and furs, whenever he touched her she froze him.
Moreover, apart from mere coldness, how much we suffer from foolish quarrels about trifles; from mere misunderstandings; from hasty words thoughtlessly repeated, sometimes without the context or tone which would have deprived them of any sting. How much would that charity which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” effect to smooth away the sorrows of life and add to the happiness of home. Home indeed may be a sure haven of repose from the storms and perils of the world. If our life be one of toil and of suffering, if the world outside be cold and dreary, what a pleasure to return to the sunshine of happy faces and the warmth of hearts we love.
We have in life many troubles, and troubles are of many kinds. Some sorrows, alas, are real enough, especially those we bring on ourselves, but others, and by no means the least numerous, are mere ghosts of troubles: if we face them boldly, we find that they have no substance or reality, but are mere creations of our own morbid imagination, and that it is as true now as in the time of David that “Man disquieteth himself in a vain shadow.” Some, indeed, of our troubles are evils, but not real; while others are real, but not evils.
We often magnify troubles and difficulties, and look at them till they seem much greater than they really are. “Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them: nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep.”
Marcus Aurelius observes that “a spider is proud when it has caught a fly, a man when he has caught a hare, another when he has taken a little fish in a net, another when he has taken wild boars, another when he has taken bears, and another when he has taken Sarmatians;” but this, if from one point of view it shows the vanity of fame, also encourages us with the evidence that every one may succeed if his objects are but reasonable. “A continual and restless search after fortune,” says Bacon, “takes up too much of their time who have nobler things to observe.”
As regards fame we must not confuse name and essence. To be remembered is not necessarily to be famous. There is infamy as well as fame; and unhappily almost as many are remembered for the one as for the other, and not a few for the mixture of both. In some cases where men have been called after places, the men are remembered, while the places are forgotten. When we speak of Palestrina or Perugino, of Nelson or Wellington, of Newton or Darwin, who remembers the towns? We think only of the men.
Ambition often takes the form of a love of money. There are many who have never attempted Art or Music, Poetry or Science; but most people do something for a livelihood, and consequently an increase of income is not only acceptable in itself, but gives a pleasant feeling of success. Unquestionably the possession of wealth is by no means unattended by drawbacks. Money and the love of money often go together. The poor man, as Emerson says, is the man who wishes to be rich; and the more a man has, the more he often longs to be richer. Just as drinking often does but increase thirst; so in many cases the craving for riches does grow with wealth. If life has been sacrificed to the rolling up of money for its own sake, the very means by which it was acquired will prevent its being enjoyed; the chill of poverty will have entered into the very bones. The term Miser was happily chosen for such persons; they are essentially miserable.
We are really richer than we think. We often hear of Earth hunger. People envy a great Landlord, and fancy how delightful it must be to possess a large estate. But, as Emerson says, “If you own land, the land owns you.” Moreover, have we not all, in a better sense—have we not all thousands of acres of our own? The commons, and roads, and footpaths, and the seashore, our grand and varied coast—these are all ours. The sea-coast has, moreover, two great advantages. In the first place, it is for the most part but little interfered with by man, and in the second it exhibits most instructively the forces of Nature. We are all great landed proprietors, if we only knew it. What we lack is not land, but the power to enjoy it.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock)

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