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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


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

To achieve serenity we must have the power of keeping our hearts and minds fixed upon something which is beyond and above the passing incidents of life, which so disconcert and overshadow us, and which are after all but as clouds in the sky, or islets in a great ocean. Think with what smiling indifference a man would meet indignation and abuse and menace, if he were aware that an hour hence he would be triumphantly vindicated and applauded. How calmly would a man sleep in a condemned cell if he knew that a free pardon were on its way to him! Of course the more eagerly and enjoyably we live, so much the more we are affected by little incidents, beyond which we can hardly look when they bring us so much pleasure or so much discomfort; and thus it is always the men and women of keen and highly-strung natures, who taste the quality of every moment, in its sweetness and its bitterness, who will most feel the influence of fear. Edward FitzGerald once sadly confessed that, as life went on, days of perfect delight--a beautiful scene, a melodious music, the society of those whom he loved best--brought him less and less joy, because he felt that they were passing swiftly, and could not be recalled. And of course the imaginative nature which lives tremulously in delight will be most apt to portend sadness in hours of happiness, and in sorrow to anticipate the continuance of sorrow. That is an inevitable effect of temperament; but we must not give way helplessly to temperament, or allow ourselves to drift wherever the mind bears us. Just as the skilled sailor can tack up against the wind, and use ingenuity to compel a contrary breeze to bring him to the haven of his desire, so we must be wise in trimming our sails to the force of circumstance; while there is an eager delight in making adverse conditions help us to realise our hopes.

The timid soul that loves delight is apt to say to itself, "I am happy now in health and circumstances and friends, but I lean out into the future, and see that health must fail and friends must drift away; death must part me from those I love; and beyond all this, I see the cloudy gate through which I must myself pass, and I do not know what lies beyond it." That is true enough! It is like the story of the old prince, as told by Herodotus, who said in his sorrowful age that the Gods gave man only a taste of life, just enough to let him feel that life was sweet, and then took the cup from his lips. But if we look fairly at life, at our own life, at other lives, we see that pleasure and contentment, even if we hardly realised that it was contentment at the time, have largely predominated over pain and unhappiness; a man must be very rueful and melancholy before he will deliberately say that life has not been worth living, though I suppose that there have probably been hours in the lives of all of us when we have thought and said and even believed that we would rather not have lived at all than suffer so. Neither must we pass over the fact that every day there are men and women who, under the pressure of calamity and dismay, bring their lives to a voluntary end.

But we have to be very dull and thankless and slow of heart not to feel that by being allowed to live, for however short a time, we have been allowed to take part in a very beautiful and wonderful thing. The loveliness of earth, its colours, its lights, its scents, its savours, the pleasures of activity and health, the sharp joys of love and friendship, these are surely very great and marvellous experiences, and the Mind which planned them must be full of high purpose, eager intention, infinite goodwill. And we may go further than that, and see that even our sorrows and failures have often brought something great to our view, something which we feel we have learned and apprehended, something which we would not have missed, and which we cannot do without. If we will frankly recognise all this, we cannot feebly crumple up at the smallest touch of misery, and say suspiciously and vindictively that we wish we had never opened our eyes upon the world; and even if we do say that, even if we abandon ourselves to despair, we yet cannot hope to escape; we did not enter life by our own will, it is not our own prudence that has kept us there, and even if we end it voluntarily, as Carlyle said, by noose or henbane, we cannot for an instant be sure that we are ending it; every inference in the world, in fact, would tend to indicate that we do not end it. We cannot destroy matter, we can only disperse and rearrange it; we cannot generate a single force, we can only summon it from elsewhere, and concentrate it, as we concentrate electricity, at a single glowing point. Force seems as indestructible as matter, and there is no reason to think that life is destructible either. So that if we are to resign ourselves to any belief at all, it must be to the belief that "to be, or not to be" is not a thing which is in our power at all. We may extinguish life, as we put out a light; but we do not destroy it, we only rearrange it.

And we can thus at least practise and exercise ourselves in the belief that we cannot bring our experiences to an end, however petulantly and irritably we desire to do so, because it simply is not in our power to effect it. We talk about the power of the will, but no effort of will can obliterate the life that we have lived, or add a cubit to our stature; we cannot abrogate any law of nature, or destroy a single atom of matter. What it seems that we can do with the will is to make a certain choice, to select a certain line, to combine existing forces, to use them within very small limits. We can oblige ourselves to take a certain course, when every other inclination is reluctant to do it; and even so the power varies in different people. It is useless then to depend blindly upon the will, because we may suddenly come to the end of it, as we may come to the end of our physical forces. But what the will can do is to try certain experiments, and the one province where its function seems to be clear, is where it can discover that we have often a reserve of unsuspected strength, and more courage and power than we had supposed. We can certainly oppose it to bodily inclinations, whether they be seductions of sense or temptations of weariness. And in this one respect the will can give us, if not serenity, at least a greater serenity than we expect. We can use the will to endure, to wait, to suspend a hasty judgment; and impulse is the thing which menaces our serenity most of all. The will indeed seems to be like a little weight which we can throw into either scale. If we have no doubt how we ought to act, we can use the will to enforce our judgment, whether it is a question of acting or of abstaining; if we are in doubt how to act, we can use our will to enforce a wise delay.

The truth then about the will is that it is a force which we cannot measure, and that it is as unreasonable to say that it does not exist as to say that it is unlimited. It is foolish to describe it as free; it is no more free than a prisoner in a cell is free; but yet he has a certain power to move about within his cell, and to choose among possible employments.

Anyone who will deliberately test his will, will find that it is stronger than he suspects; what often weakens our use of it is that we are so apt to look beyond the immediate difficulty into a long perspective of imagined obstacles, and to say within ourselves, "Yes, I may perhaps achieve this immediate step, but I cannot take step after step--my courage will fail!" Yet if one does make the immediate effort, it is common to find the whole range of obstacles modified by the single act; and thus the first step towards the attainment of serenity of life is to practise cutting off the vista of possible contingencies from our view, and to create a habit of dealing with a case as it occurs.

I am often tempted myself to send my anxious mind far ahead in vague dismay; at the beginning of a week crammed with various engagements, numerous tasks, constant labour, little businesses, many of them with their own attendant anxiety, it is easy to say that there is no time to do anything that one wants to do, and to feel that the matters themselves will be handled amiss and bungled. But if one can only keep the mind off, or distract it by work, or beguile it by a book, a walk, a talk, how easily the thread spins off the reel, how quietly one comes to harbour on the Saturday evening, with everything done and finished!

Again, I am personally much disposed to dread the opposition and the displeasure of colleagues, and to shrink nervously from anything which involves dealing with a number of people. I ought to have found out before now how futile such dread is; other people forget their vexation and even grow ashamed of it, much as one does oneself; and looking back I can recall no crisis which turned out either as intricate or as difficult as one expected.

Let me admit that I have more than once in life made grave mistakes through this timidity and indolence, or through an imaginativeness which could see in a great opportunity nothing but a sea of troubles, which would, I do not doubt, have melted away as one advanced. But no one has suffered except myself! Institutions do not depend upon individuals; and I regard such failures now just as the petulant casting away of a chance of experience, as a lesson which I would not learn; but there is nothing irreparable about it; one only comes, more slowly and painfully, to the same goal at last. I dare not say that I regret it all, for we are all of us, whether small or great, being taught a mighty truth, whether we wish it or know it; and all that we can do to hasten it is to put our will into the right scale. I do not think mistakes and failures ought to trouble one much; at all events there is no fear mingled with them. But I do not here claim to have attained any real serenity--my own heart is too impatient, too fond of pleasure for that!--yet I can see clearly enough that it is there, if I could but grasp it; and I know well enough how it is to be attained, by being content to wait, and by realising at every instant and moment of life that, in spite of my tremors and indolences, my sharp impatiences, my petulant disgusts, something very real and great is being shown me, which I shall at last, however dimly, perceive; and that even so the goal of the journey is far beyond any horizon that I can conceive, and built up like the celestial city out of unutterable brightness and clearness, upon a foundation of peace and joy.

It is very difficult to determine, by any exercise of the intellect or imagination, what fears would remain to us if we were freed from the dominion of the body. All material fears and anxieties would come to an end; we should no longer have any poverty to dread, or any of the limitations or circumscriptions which the lack of the means of life inflicts upon us; we should have no ambitions left, because the ambitions which centre on influence--that is, upon the desire to direct and control the interests of a nation or a group of individuals--have no meaning apart from the material framework of civil life. The only kind of influence which would survive would be the influence of emotion, the direct appeal which one who lives a higher and more beautiful life can make to all unsatisfied souls, who would fain find the way to a greater serenity of mood. Even upon earth we can see a faint foreshadowing of this in the fact that the only personalities who continue to hold the devotion and admiration of humanity are the idealists. Men and women do not make pilgrimages to the graves and houses of eminent jurists and bankers, political economists or statisticians: these have done their work, and have had their reward. Even the monuments of statesmen and conquerors have little power to touch the imagination, unless some love for humanity, some desire to uplift and benefit the race, have entered into their schemes and policies. No, it is rather the soil which covers the bones of dreamers and visionaries that is sacred yet, prophets and poets, artists and musicians, those who have seen through life to beauty, and have lived and suffered that they might inspire and tranquillise human hearts. The princes of the earth, popes and emperors, lie in pompous sepulchres, and the thoughts of those who regard them, as they stand in metal or marble, dwell most on the vanity of earthly glory. But at the tombs of men like Vergil and Dante, of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, the human heart still trembles into tears, and hates the death that parts soul from soul. So that if, like Dante, we could enter the shadow-land, and hold converse with the spirits of the dead, we should seek out to consort with, not those who have subdued and wasted the earth, or have terrified men into obedience and service, but those whose hearts were touched by dreams of impossible beauty, and who have taught us to be kind and compassionate and tender-hearted, to love God and our neighbour, and to detect, however faintly, the hope of peace and joy which binds us all together.

And thus if emotion, by which I mean the power of loving, is the one thing which survives, the fears which may remain will be concerned with all the thoughts which cloud love, the anger and suspicion that divide us; so that perhaps the only fears which will survive at all will be the fears of our own selfishness and coldness, that inner hardness which has kept us from the love of God and isolated us from our neighbour. The pride which kept us from admitting that we were wrong, the jealousy that made us hate those who won the love we could not win, the baseness which made us indifferent to the discomfort of others if we could but secure our own ease, these are the thoughts which may still have the power to torture us; and the hell that we may have to fear may be the hell of conscious weakness and the horror of retrospect, when we recollect how under these dark skies of earth we went on our way claiming and taking all that we could get, and disregarding love for fear of being taken advantage of. One of the grievous fears of life is the fear of seeing ourselves as we really are, in all our baseness and pettiness; yet that will assuredly be shown us in no vindictive spirit, but that we may learn to rise and soar.

There is no hope that death will work an immediate moral change in us; it may set us free from some sensual and material temptations, but the innermost motives will indeed survive, that instinct which makes us again and again pursue what we know to be false and unsatisfying.

The more that we shrink from self-knowledge, the more excuses that we make for ourselves, the more that we tend to attribute our failures to our circumstances and to the action of others, the more reason we have to fear the revelation of death. And the only way to face that is to keep our minds open to any light, to nurture and encourage the wish to be different, to pray hour by hour that at any cost we may be taught the truth; it is useless to search for happy illusions, to look for short cuts, to hope vaguely that strength and virtue will burst out like a fountain beside our path. We have a long and toilsome way to travel, and we can by no device abbreviate it; but when we suffer and grieve, we are walking more swiftly to our goal; and the hours we spend in fear, in sending the mind in weariness along the desolate track, are merely wasted, for we can alter nothing so. We use life best when we live it eagerly, exulting in its fulness and its significance, casting ourselves into strong relations with others, drinking in beauty, making high music in our hearts. There is an abundance of awe in the experiences through which we pass, awe at the greatness of the vision, at the vastness of the design, as it embraces and enfolds our weakness. But we are inside it all, an integral and indestructible part of it; and the shadow of fear falls when we doubt this, when we dread being overlooked or disregarded. No such thing can happen to us; our inheritance is absolute and certain, and it is fear that keeps us away from it, and the fear of fearlessness. For we are contending not with God, but with the fear which hides Him from our shrinking eyes; and our prayer should be the undaunted prayer of Moses in the clefts of the mountain, "I beseech Thee, show me Thy Glory!"

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