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    Chapter 12

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    Chapter 12
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    A CHRISTMAS SERMON

    BY the time this paper appears, I shall have been talking for
    twelve months; and it is thought I should take my leave in a formal
    and seasonable manner. Valedictory eloquence is rare, and death-
    bed sayings have not often hit the mark of the occasion. Charles
    Second, wit and sceptic, a man whose life had been one long lesson
    in human incredulity, an easy-going comrade, a manoeuvring king -
    remembered and embodied all his wit and scepticism along with more
    than his usual good humour in the famous "I am afraid, gentlemen, I
    am an unconscionable time a-dying."

    I

    An unconscionable time a-dying - there is the picture ("I am
    afraid, gentlemen,") of your life and of mine. The sands run out,
    and the hours are "numbered and imputed," and the days go by; and
    when the last of these finds us, we have been a long time dying,
    and what else? The very length is something, if we reach that hour
    of separation undishonoured; and to have lived at all is doubtless
    (in the soldierly expression) to have served.

    There is a tale in Ticitus of how the veterans mutinied in the
    German wilderness; of how they mobbed Germanicus, clamouing go
    home; and of how, seizing their general's hand, these old, war-worn
    exiles passed his finger along their toothless gums. SUNT LACRYMAE
    RERUM: this was the most eloquent of the songs of Simeon. And
    when a man has lived to a fair age, he bears his marks of service.
    He may have never been remarked upon the breach at the head of the
    army; at least he shall have lost his teeth on the camp bread.

    The idealism of serious people in this age of ours is of a noble
    character. It never seems to them that they have served enough;
    they have a fine impatience of their virtues. It were perhaps more
    modest to be singly thankful that we are no worse. It is not only
    our enemies, those desperate characters - it is we ourselves who
    know not what we do, - thence springs the glimmering hope that
    perhaps we do better than we think: that to scramble through this
    random business with hands reasonably clean to have played the part
    of a man or woman with some reasonable fulness, to have often
    resisted the diabolic, and at the end to be still resisting it, is
    for the poor human soldier to have done right well. To ask to see
    some fruit of our endeavour is but a transcendental way of serving
    for reward; and what we take to be contempt of self is only greed
    of hire.

    And again if we require so much of ourselves, shall we not require
    much of others? If we do not genially judge our own deficiencies,
    is it not to be feared we shall be even stern to the trespasses of
    others? And he who (looking back upon his own life) can see no
    more than that he has been unconscionably long a-dying, will he not
    be tempted to think his neighbour unconscionably long of getting
    hanged? It is probable that nearly all who think of conduct at
    all, think of it too much; it is certain we all think too much of
    sin. We are not damned for doing wrong, but for not doing right;
    Christ would never hear of negative morality; THOU SHALT was ever
    his word, with which he superseded THOU SHALT NOT. To make our
    idea of morality centre on forbidden acts is to defile the
    imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a
    secret element of gusto. If a thing is wrong for us, we should not
    dwell upon the thought of it; or we shall soon dwell upon it with
    inverted pleasure. If we cannot drive it from our minds - one
    thing of two: either our creed is in the wrong and we must more
    indulgently remodel it; or else, if our morality be in the right,
    we are criminal lunatics and should place our persons in restraint.
    A mark of such unwholesomely divided minds is the passion for
    interference with others: the Fox without the Tail was of this
    breed, but had (if his biographer is to be trusted) a certain
    antique civility now out of date. A man may have a flaw, a
    weakness, that unfits him for the duties of life, that spoils his
    temper, that threatens his integrity, or that betrays him into
    cruelty. It has to be conquered; but it must never he suffered to
    engross his thoughts. The true duties lie all upon the farther
    side, and must be attended to with a whole mind so soon as this
    preliminary clearing of the decks has been effected. In order that
    he may be kind and honest, it may be needful he should become a
    total abstainer; let him become so then, and the next day let him
    forget the circumstance. Trying to be kind and honest will require
    all his thoughts; a mortified appetite is never a wise companion;
    in so far as he has had to mortify an appetite, he will still be
    the worse man; and of such an one a great deal of cheerfulness will
    be required in judging life, and a great deal of humility in
    judging others.

    It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life's
    endeavour springs in some degree from dulness. We require higher
    tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have.
    Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too
    inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather
    set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had
    rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or
    mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure
    with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the
    heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the
    Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.

    To be honest, to be kind - to earn a little and to spend a little
    less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to
    renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to
    keep a few friends, but these without capitulation - above all, on
    the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself - here is a
    task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an
    ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who
    should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is
    indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can
    controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not
    intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in
    every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of
    living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year's end or for
    the end of life. Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there
    need be no despair for the despairer.

    II

    But Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us
    to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its
    associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of
    joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to
    sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest
    and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well
    he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble
    disappointment, noble self-denial, are not to be admired, not even
    to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter
    the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay
    without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those
    who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. Mighty men
    of their hands, the smiters and the builders and the judges, have
    lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this lovely
    character; and among our carpet interests and twopenny concerns,
    the shame were indelible if WE should lose it. Gentleness and
    cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect
    duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have
    neither one nor other. It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom
    Christ could not away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend
    upon it they are wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may
    be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should
    spoil the lives of better and simpler people.

    A strange temptation attends upon man: to keep his eye on
    pleasures, even when he will not share in them; to aim all his
    morals against them. This very year a lady (singular iconoclast!)
    proclaimed a crusade against dolls; and the racy sermon against
    lust is a feature of the age. I venture to call such moralists
    insincere. At any excess or perversion of a natural appetite,
    their lyre sounds of itself with relishing denunciations; but for
    all displays of the truly diabolic - envy, malice, the mean lie,
    the mean silence, the calumnious truth, the back-biter, the petty
    tyrant, the peevish poisoner of family life - their standard is
    quite different. These are wrong, they will admit, yet somehow not
    so wrong; there is no zeal in their assault on them, no secret
    element of gusto warms up the sermon; it is for things not wrong in
    themselves that they reserve the choicest of their indignation. A
    man may naturally disclaim all moral kinship with the Reverend Mr.
    Zola or the hobgoblin old lady of the dolls; for these are gross
    and naked instances. And yet in each of us some similar element
    resides. The sight of a pleasure in which we cannot or else will
    not share moves us to a particular impatience. It may be because
    we are envious, or because we are sad, or because we dislike noise
    and romping - being so refined, or because - being so philosophic -
    we have an over-weighing sense of life's gravity: at least, as we
    go on in years, we are all tempted to frown upon our neighbour's
    pleasures. People are nowadays so fond of resisting temptations;
    here is one to be resisted. They are fond of self-denial; here is
    a propensity that cannot be too peremptorily denied. There is an
    idea abroad among moral people that they should make their
    neighbours good. One person I have to make good: myself. But my
    duty to my neighbour is much more nearly expressed by saying that I
    have to make him happy - if I may.

    III

    Happiness and goodness, according to canting moralists, stand in
    the relation of effect and cause. There was never anything less
    proved or less probable: our happiness is never in our own hands;
    we inherit our constitution; we stand buffet among friends and
    enemies; we may be so built as to feel a sneer or an aspersion with
    unusual keenness, and so circumstanced as to be unusually exposed
    to them; we may have nerves very sensitive to pain, and be
    afflicted with a disease very painful. Virtue will not help us,
    and it is not meant to help us. It is not even its own reward,
    except for the self-centred and - I had almost said - the
    unamiable. No man can pacify his conscience; if quiet be what he
    want, he shall do better to let that organ perish from disuse. And
    to avoid the penalties of the law, and the minor CAPITIS DIMINUTIO
    of social ostracism, is an affair of wisdom - of cunning, if you
    will - and not of virtue.

    In his own life, then, a man is not to expect happiness, only to
    profit by it gladly when it shall arise; he is on duty here; he
    knows not how or why, and does not need to know; he knows not for
    what hire, and must not ask. Somehow or other, though he does not
    know what goodness is, he must try to be good; somehow or other,
    though he cannot tell what will do it, he must try to give
    happiness to others. And no doubt there comes in here a frequent
    clash of duties. How far is he to make his neighbour happy? How
    far must he respect that smiling face, so easy to cloud, so hard to
    brighten again? And how far, on the other side, is he bound to be
    his brother's keeper and the prophet of his own morality? How far
    must he resent evil?

    The difficulty is that we have little guidance; Christ's sayings on
    the point being hard to reconcile with each other, and (the most of
    them) hard to accept. But the truth of his teaching would seem to
    be this: in our own person and fortune, we should be ready to
    accept and to pardon all; it is OUR cheek we are to turn, OUR coat
    that we are to give away to the man who has taken OUR cloak. But
    when another's face is buffeted, perhaps a little of the lion will
    become us best. That we are to suffer others to be injured, and
    stand by, is not conceivable and surely not desirable. Revenge,
    says Bacon, is a kind of wild justice; its judgments at least are
    delivered by an insane judge; and in our own quarrel we can see
    nothing truly and do nothing wisely. But in the quarrel of our
    neighbour, let us be more bold. One person's happiness is as
    sacred as another's; when we cannot defend both, let us defend one
    with a stout heart. It is only in so far as we are doing this,
    that we have any right to interfere: the defence of B is our only
    ground of action against A. A has as good a right to go to the
    devil, as we to go to glory; and neither knows what he does.

    The truth is that all these interventions and denunciations and
    militant mongerings of moral half-truths, though they be sometimes
    needful, though they are often enjoyable, do yet belong to an
    inferior grade of duties. Ill-temper and envy and revenge find
    here an arsenal of pious disguises; this is the playground of
    inverted lusts. With a little more patience and a little less
    temper, a gentler and wiser method might be found in almost every
    case; and the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel-scene in
    private life, or, in public affairs, by some denunciatory act
    against what we are pleased to call our neighbour's vices, might
    yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy.

    IV

    To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven
    and to what small purpose; and how often we have been cowardly and
    hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day
    and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness; - it may
    seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a
    certain consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a
    man's vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with
    a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of
    rewards and pleasures as it is - so that to see the day break or
    the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when
    he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys - this world is yet
    for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails,
    weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly
    varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly
    process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go,
    there need be few illusions left about himself. HERE LIES ONE WHO
    MEANT WELL, TRIED A LITTLE, FAILED MUCH: - surely that may be his
    epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at
    the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field:
    defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius! - but if there is
    still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured. The
    faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long
    disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality
    of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones;
    there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and
    the dust and the ecstasy - there goes another Faithful Failure!

    From a recent book of verse, where there is more than one such
    beautiful and manly poem, I take this memorial piece: it says
    better than I can, what I love to think; let it be our parting
    word.

    "A late lark twitters from the quiet skies;
    And from the west,
    Where the sun, his day's work ended,
    Lingers as in content,
    There falls on the old, gray city
    An influence luminous and serene,
    A shining peace.

    "The smoke ascends
    In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
    Shine, and are changed. In the valley
    Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
    Closing his benediction,
    Sinks, and the darkening air
    Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night -
    Night, with her train of stars
    And her great gift of sleep.

    "So be my passing!
    My task accomplished and the long day done,
    My wages taken, and in my heart
    Some late lark singing,
    Let me be gathered to the quiet west,
    The sundown splendid and serene,
    Death."

    [1888.]
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