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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Accessibility
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

I was greatly interested the other day by seeing a photograph, in his old age, of Henry Phillpotts, the redoubtable Bishop of Exeter, who lost more money in lawsuits with clergymen than any Bishop, I suppose, who ever lived. He sate, the old man, in his clumsily fitting gaiters, bowed or crouched in an arm-chair, reading a letter. His face was turned to the spectator; with his stiff, upstanding hair, his out-thrust lip, his corrugated brow, and the deep pouched lines beneath his eyes, he looked like a terrible old lion, who could no longer spring, but who had not forgotten how to roar. His face was full of displeasure and anger. I remembered that a clergyman once told me how he had been sitting next the Bishop at a dinner of parsons, and a young curate, sitting on the other side of the Bishop, affronted him by believing him to be deaf, and by speaking very loudly and distinctly to him. The Bishop at last turned to him, with a furious visage, and said, "I would have you to understand, sir, that I am not deaf!" This disconcerted the young man so much that he could neither speak nor eat. The old Bishop turned to my friend, and said, in a heavy tone, "I'm not fit for society!" Indeed he was not, if he could unchain so fierce a beast on such slight provocation.

And there are many other stories of the bitter things he said, and how his displeasure could brood like a cloud over a whole company. He was a gallant old figure, it is true, very energetic, very able, determined to do what he thought right, and infinitely courageous. I mused over the portrait, thought how lifelike and picturesque it was, and how utterly unlike one's idea of an aged Christian or a chief shepherd. In his beautiful villa by the sea, with its hanging woods and gardens, ruling with diligence, he seemed to me more like a stoical Roman Emperor, or a tempestuous Sadducee, the spirit of the world incarnate. One wondered what it could have been that had drawn him to Christ, or what part he would have taken if he had been on the Sanhedrin that judged Him!

It seems to me that one of the first characteristics which one ought to do one's best to cast out of one's life is that of formidableness. Yet to tell a man that he is formidable is not an accusation that is often resented. He may indulgently deprecate it, but it seems to most people a sort of testimonial to their force and weight and influence, a penalty that they have to pay for being effective, a matter of prestige and honour. Of course, an old, famous, dignified man who has played a great part on the stage of life must necessarily be approached by the young with a certain awe. But there is no charm in the world more beautiful than the charm which can permeate dignity, give confidence, awake affection, dissipate dread. But if a man of that sort indulges his moods, says what he thinks bluntly and fiercely, has no mercy on feebleness or ignorance, he can be a very dreadful personage indeed!

Accessibility is one of the first of Christian virtues; but it is not always easy to practise, because a man of force and ability, who is modest and shy, forgets as life goes on how much more his influence is felt. He himself does not feel at all different from what he was when he was young, when he was snubbed and silenced and set down in argument. Perhaps he feels that the world is a kinder and an easier place, as he grows into deference and esteem, but it is the surest sign of a noble and beautiful character if the greater he becomes the more simple and tender he also becomes.

I was greatly interested the other day in attending a meeting at which, among other speakers, two well-known men spoke. The first was a man of great renown and prestige, and he made a very beautiful, lofty, and tender discourse; but, from some shyness or gravity of nature, he never smiled nor looked at his audience; and thus, fine though his speech was, he never got into touch with us at all. The second speech was far more obvious and commonplace, but the speaker, on beginning, cast a friendly look round and smiled on the audience; and he did the same all the time, so that one had at once a friendly sense of contact and geniality, and I felt that every word was addressed to me personally. That is what it is to be accessible!

One of the best ways in which we can keep the spirit of poetry--by which I mean the higher, sweeter, purer influences of thought--alive in one's heart, is by accessibility--by determining to speak freely of what one admires and loves, what moves and touches one, what keeps one's mind upon the inner and finer life. It is not always possible or indeed convenient for younger people to do this, for reasons which are not wholly bad reasons. Young people ought not to be too eager to take the lead in talk, nor ought they to be too openly impatient of the more sedate and prosaic discourse of their elders; and then, too, there is a time for all things; one cannot keep the mind always on the strain; and the best and most beautiful things are apt to come in glimpses and hints, and are not always arrived at by discussion and argument.

There is a story of a great artist full of sympathy and kindness, to whom in a single day three several people came to confide sad troubles and trials. The artist told the story to his wife in the evening. He said that he was afraid that the third of the visitors thought him strangely indifferent and even unkind. "The fact was," he said, "that my capacity for sympathy was really exhausted. I had suffered so much from the first two recitals that I could not be sorry any more. I _said_ I was sorry, and I _was_ sorry far down in my mind, but I could not _feel_ sorry. I had given all the sympathy I had, and it was no use going again to the well when there was no more water." This shows that one cannot command emotion, and that one must not force even thoughts of beauty upon others. We must bide our time, we must adapt ourselves, and we must not be instant in season and out of season. Yet neither must we be wholly at the mercy of moods. In religion, the theory of liturgical worship is an attempt to realise that we ought to practise religious emotion with regularity. We do not always feel we are miserable sinners when we say so, and we sometimes feel that we are when we do not say it; but it is better to confess what we know to be true, even if at that moment we do not feel it to be true.

We ought not then always, out of modesty, to abstain from talking about the things for which we care. A foolish shyness will sometimes keep two sympathetic people from ever talking freely together of their real hopes and interests. We are terribly afraid in England of what we call priggishness. It is on the whole a wholesome tendency, but it is the result of a lack of flexibility of mind. What we ought to be afraid of is not seriousness and earnestness, but of solemnity and pomposity. We ought to be ready to vary our mood swiftly, and even to see the humorous side of sacred and beautiful things. The oppressiveness of people who hold a great many things sacred, and cannot bear that they should be jested about, is very great. There is nothing that takes all naturalness out of intercourse more quickly than the habit which some people have of begging that a subject may not be pursued "because it is one on which I feel very deeply." That is the essence of priggishness, to feel that our reasons are better, our motives purer, than the reasons of other people, and that we have the privilege of setting a standard. Conscious superiority is the note of the prig; and we have the right to dread it.

But the Gospel again is full of precepts in favour of frankness, outspokenness, letting light shine out, speaking sincerely; only it must not be done provokingly, condescendingly, solemnly. It is well for every one to have a friend or friends with whom he can talk quite unaffectedly about what he cares for and values; and he ought to be able to say to such a friend, "I cannot talk about these things now; I am in a dusty, prosaic, grubby mood, and I want to make mud-pies"; the point is to be natural, and yet to keep a watch upon nature; not to force her into cramped postures, and yet not to indulge her in rude, careless, and vulgar postures. It is a bad sign in friendship, if intimacy seems to a man to give him the right to be rude, coarse, boisterous, censorious, if he will. He may sometimes be betrayed into each and all of these things, and be glad of a safety-valve for his ill-humours, knowing that he will not be permanently misunderstood by a sympathetic friend. But there must be a discipline in all these things, and nature must often give way and be broken in; frankness must not degenerate into boorishness, and liberty must not be the power of interfering with the liberty of the friend. One must force oneself to be courteous, interested, sweet-tempered, when one feels just the contrary; one must keep in sight the principle, and if violence must be done, it must not be done to the better nature. Least of all must one deliberately take up the role of exercising influence. That is a sad snare to many fine natures. One sees a weak, attractive character, and it seems so tempting to train it up a stick, to fortify it, to mould it. If one is a professed teacher, one has to try this sometimes; but even then, the temptation to drive rather than lead must be strenuously resisted.

I have always a very dark suspicion of people who talk of spheres of influence, and who enjoy consciously affecting other lives. If this is done professionally, as a joyful sort of exercise, it is deadly. The only excuse for it is that one really cares for people and longs to be of use; one cannot pump one's own tastes and character into others. The only hope is that they should develop their own qualities. Other people ought not to be 'problems' to us; they may be mysteries, but that is quite another thing. To love people, if one can, is the only way. To find out what is lovable in them and not to try to discover what is malleable in them is the secret. A wise and witty lady, who knows that she is tempted to try to direct other lives, told me that one of her friends once remonstrated with her by saying that she ought to leave something for God to do!

I know a very terrible and well-meaning person, who once spoke severely to me for treating a matter with levity. I lost my temper, and said, "You may make me ashamed of it, if you can, but you shall not bully me into treating a matter seriously which I think is wholly absurd." He said, "You do not enough consider the grave issues which may be involved." I replied that to be for ever considering graver issues seemed to me to make life stuffy and unwholesome. My censor sighed and shook his head.

We cannot coerce any one into anything good. We may salve our own conscience by trying to do so, we may even level an immediate difficulty; but a free and generous desire to be different is the only hope of vital change. The detestable Puritan fibre that exists in many of us, which is the most utterly unchristian thing I know, tempts us to feel that no discipline is worth anything unless it is dark and gloomy; but that is the discipline of the law-court and the prison, and has never remedied anything since the world began. Wickedness is nearly always, perhaps always, a moral invalidism, and we shall see some day that to punish men for crime by being cruel to them is like condemning a man to the treadmill for having typhoid fever. I can only say that the more I have known of human beings, and the older I grow, the more lovable, gentle, sweet-tempered I have found them to be.

The life of Carlyle seems to me to be one of the most terrible and convincing documents in the world in proof of what I have been saying. The old man was so bent on battering and bumping people into righteousness, so in love with spluttering and vituperating and thundering all over the place, that he missed the truest and sweetest ministry of love. He broke his wife's heart, and it is idle to pretend he did not. Mrs. Carlyle was a sharp-edged woman too, and hurt her own life by her bitter trenchancy. But there was enough true love and loyalty and chivalry in the pair to furnish out a hundred marriages. Yet one sees Carlyle stamping and cursing through life, and never seeing what lay close to his hand. I admire his life not because it was a triumph, but because it was such a colossal failure, and so finely atoned for by the noble and great-minded repentance of a man who recognised at last that it was of no use to begin by trying to be ruler over ten cities, unless he was first faithful in a few things.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Accessibility