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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Descendants Of Nabal

Title:     The Descendants Of Nabal
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

The line has never been broken, and they have married into respectable families, right and left, until to-day there can hardly be found a household which has not at least one to worry it.

They are not men and women of great passionate natures, who flame out now and then in an outbreak like a volcano, from which everybody runs. This, though terrible while it lasts, is soon over, and there are great compensations in such souls. Their love is worth having. Their tenderness is great. One can forgive them "seventy times seven," for the hasty words and actions of which they repent immediately with tears.

But the Nabals are sullen; they are grumblers; they are never done. Such sons of Belial are they to this day that no man can speak peaceably unto them. They are as much worse than passionate people as a slow drizzle of rain is than a thunder-storm. For the thunder-storm, you stay in-doors, and you cannot help having pleasure in its sharp lights and darks and echoes; and when it is over, what clear air, what a rainbow! But in the drizzle, you go out; you think that with a waterproof, an umbrella, and overshoes, you can manage to get about in spite of it, and attend to your business. What a state you come home in,--muddy, limp, chilled, disheartened! The house greets you, looking also muddy and cold,--for the best of front halls gives up in despair and cannot look any thing but forlorn in a long, drizzling rain; all the windows are bleared with trickling, foggy wet on the outside, which there is no wiping off nor seeing through, and if one could see through there is no gain. The street is more gloomy than the house; black, slimy mud, inches deep on crossings; the same black, slimy mud in footprints on side-walks; hopeless-looking people hurrying by, so unhappy by reason of the drizzle that a weird sort of family likeness is to be seen in all their faces. This is all that can be seen outside. It is better not to look. For the inside is no redemption except a wood-fire,--a good, generous wood-fire,--not in any of the modern compromises called open stoves, but on a broad stone hearth, with a big background of chimney, up which the sparks can go skipping and creeping.

This can redeem a drizzle; but this cannot redeem a grumbler. Plump he sits down in the warmth of its very blaze, and complains that it snaps, perhaps, or that it is oak and maple, when he paid for all hickory. You can trust him to put out your wood-fire for you as effectually as a water-spout. And, if even a wood-fire, bless it! cannot outshine the gloom of his presence, what is to happen in the places where there is no wood-fire, on the days when real miseries, big and little, are on hand, to be made into mountains of torture by his grumbling? Oh, who can describe him? There is no language which can do justice to him; no supernatural foresight which can predict where his next thrust will fall, from what unsuspected corner he will send his next arrow. Like death, he has all seasons for his own; his ingenuity is infernal. Whoever tries to forestall or appease him might better be at work in Augean stables; because, after all, we must admit that the facts of life are on his side. It is not intended that we shall be very comfortable. There is a terrible amount of total depravity in animate and inanimate things. From morning till night there is not an hour without its cross to carry. The weather thwarts us; servants, landlords, drivers, washerwomen, and bosom friends misbehave; clothes don't fit; teeth ache; stomachs get out of order; newspapers are stupid; and children make too much noise. If there are not big troubles, there are little ones. If they are not in sight, they are hiding. I have wondered whether the happiest mortal could point to one single moment and say, "At that moment there was nothing in my life which I would have had changed." I think not.

In argument, therefore, the grumbler has the best of it. It is more than probable that things are as he says. But why say it? Why make four miseries out of three? If the three be already unbearable, so much the worse. If he is uncomfortable, it is a pity; we are sorry, but we cannot change the course of Nature. We shall soon have our own little turn of torments, and we do not want to be worn out before it comes by having listened to his; probably, too, the very things of which he complains are pressing just as heavily on us as on him,--are just as unpleasant to everybody as to him. Suppose everybody did as he does. Imagine, for instance, a chorus of grumble from ten people at a breakfast-table, all saying at once, or immediately after each other, "This coffee is not fit to drink." "Really, the attendance in this house is insufferably poor." I have sometimes wished to try this homoeopathic treatment in a bad case of grumble. It sounds as if it might work a cure.

If you lose your temper with the grumbler, and turn upon him suddenly, saying, "Oh, do not spoil all our pleasure. Do make the best of things: or, at least, keep quiet!" then how aggrieved he is! how unjust he thinks you are to "make a personal matter of it"! "You do not, surely, suppose I think you are responsible for it, do you?" he says, with a lofty air of astonishment at your unreasonable sensitiveness. Of course, we do not suppose he thinks we are to blame; we do not take him to be a fool as well as a grumbler. But he speaks to us, at us, before us, about the cause of his discomfort, whatever it may be, precisely as he would if we were to blame; and that is one thing which makes his grumbling so insufferable. But this he can never be made to see. And the worst of it is that grumbling is contagious. If we live with him, we shall, sooner or later, in spite of our dislike of his ways, fall into them; even sinking so low, perhaps, before the end of a single summer, as to be heard complaining of butter at boarding-house tables, which is the lowest deep of vulgarity of grumbling. There is no help for this; I have seen it again and again. I have caught it myself. One grumbler in a family is as pestilent a thing as a diseased animal in a herd: if he be not shut up or killed, the herd is lost.

But the grumbler cannot be shut up or killed, since grumbling is not held to be a proof of insanity, nor a capital offence,--more's the pity.

What, then, is to be done? Keep out of his way, at all costs, if he be grown up. If it be a child, labor day and night, as you would with a tendency to paralysis, or distortion of limb, to prevent this blight on its life.

It sounds extreme to say that a child should never be allowed to express a dislike of any thing which cannot be helped; but I think it is true. I do not mean that it should be positively forbidden or punished, but that it should never pass unnoticed; his attention should be invariably called to its uselessness, and to the annoyance it gives to other people. Children begin by being good-natured little grumblers at every thing which goes wrong, simply from the outspokenness of their natures. All they think they say and act. The rudiments of good behavior have to be chiefly negative at the outset, like Punch's advice to those about to marry,--"Don't."

The race of grumblers would soon die out if all children were so trained that never, between the ages of five and twelve, did they utter a needless complaint without being gently reminded that it was foolish and disagreeable. How easy for a good-natured and watchful mother to do this! It takes but a word.

"Oh, dear! I wish it had not rained to-day. It is too bad!"

"You do not really mean what you say, my darling. It is of much more consequence that the grass should grow than that you should go out to play. And it is so silly to complain, when we cannot stop its raining."

"Mamma, I hate this pie."

"Oh! hush, dear! Don't say so, if you do. You can leave it. You need not eat it. But think how disagreeable it sounds to hear you say such a thing."

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I am too cold."

"Yes, dear, I know you are. So is mamma. But we shall not feel any warmer for saying so. We must wait till the fire burns better; and the time will seem twice as long if we grumble."

"Oh, mamma! mamma! My steam-engine is all spoiled. It won't run. I hate things that wind up!"

"But, my dear little boy, don't grumble so! What would you think if mamma were to say, 'Oh, dear! oh, dear! My little boy's stockings are full of holes. How I hate to mend stockings!' and, 'Oh, dear! oh, dear! My little boy has upset my work-box! I hate little boys'?"

How they look steadily into your eyes for a minute,--the honest, reasonable little souls!--when you say such things to them; and then run off with a laugh, lifted up, for that time, by your fitly spoken words of help.

Oh! if the world could only stop long enough for one generation of mothers to be made all right, what a millennium could be begun in thirty years!

"But, mamma, you are grumbling yourself at me because I grumbled!" says a quick-witted darling not ten years old. Ah! never shall any weak spot in our armor escape the keen eyes of these little ones.

"Yes, dear! And I shall grumble at you till I cure you of grumbling. Grumblers are the only thing in this world that it is right to grumble at."

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Descendants Of Nabal