Man is so securely cut off and surrounded, so perfectly insulated, that he cannot get out into the life beyond himself nor can anything beyond get into him. Nothing ever actually touches him. He has buffers, fenders, bastions.
Should any experience, any emotion, whether grief or joy, of powerful voltage really establish a contact, death would be instantaneous from electrocution. Mankind knows this and therefore takes the necessary precautions, meeting the assaults of the world with every kind of safeguard. He patches grief with proverbs and makes misfortune drunk with candle wasters. “Afflictions induce callosities,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us.” He drugs himself with the anodyne of Christian consolations, shirking the poignancy of a grief that should electrocute, with some glib quotation from the New Testament. Man shuffles out of his miseries by self-indulgence in casuistical ethics, anointing his despair with talk about patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national duty.
Man is a pitifully adaptable creature. He works in coal mines and sewers, he lives on fifteen shillings a week, he volunteers for the prospect of dismemberment by a German shell, when before, perhaps, he would complain bitterly of a scratch from a briar. Even this terrible agony of war, Time and the newspapers’ chatter are helping us to reduce to the level of Parliamentary News or “City Gossip.” It may seem a mocking remark to make at this time, but few, if any, realize the accumulated horrors of the war. Such suffering is beyond the capacity of the human soul to experience. We are too small, too insulated, too egoistic. We may weep for our own sorrows or those of immediate friends, and even (if we have the good-will) try in imagination to multiply that grief by millions (as if grief were arithmetic!), yet we should still be far from even a crude realization of the collec- tive horrors of the war — our souls are too small, too circumscribed and petty. If man had what Shelley called the Creative Faculty to imagine what they know — wars would cease.
To be candid, man is ineradicably commonplace. No sooner is he the fortunate possessor of some beautiful grief that should be inconsolable, than maybe a fortnight, a month, a year later, his consciousness, working industriously upon it, has reduced it to more comfortable proportions. If he wrings his hands, he will soon be ringing the bells. Time heals, we say. But there is something about Time’s irresistible therapeutic properties that in result is almost ridiculous. My happiness this year makes my grief two years ago childish, impertinent. Yet, if I had possessed the decent steadfastness of feeling to continue to grieve, my friends would have said I was morbid and silly. Last month I was in despair. To-day my circumstances are absolutely unchanged, except that Time has applied his balsam and I am cheerful once more.
Nothing breaks a man. He will brag about his misfortunes as loudly as about his successes. Nq shock penetrates behind his insulation. He is jolted, perhaps, but not killed. Grief is often a luxury. To restore the limb to a beggar with a wooden leg would be almost his displeasure.
It is impossible to circumvent the human soul — that precious quiddity that triumphs over all things, suffereth all things, is not easily provoked. But the psychological truth is that the so-called conquests of the soul are usually only strategical retreats dictated by the instinct for preservation of self. My own “conquest “was only a retreat. From a crisis in which I should have fought to the death I shrewdly retired; in a prolonged and almost continuous period of the most revolting ill-health, instead of becoming rebel and paying the last penalty for it, I developed the shameless endurance of a beast of burden — meekly shouldered my cross, and was even cheerful about it — that is what disgusts me. Me and men like me no amount of chastisement would ever correct. We just go on calling out “The Devil a bit! Cheero!” like the Parrot in the thunderstorm, poor foolish ridiculous bird.
By withdrawing here, giving ground there, and in general retreating along all my line of life, I have fended off the enemy armed with the scythe, and saved remnants of my forces such as they are, where, in a similar case, a man of courage would have joined battle and overcome him, for it is “great to do that thing that ends all other deeds, which shackles accidents and bolts up change.”
And as with his pains, so also with his pleasures. No joy sends a man crazy. He is ecstatic for a morning perhaps, but he soon settles down. He has not the strength of soul to keep long at the top of his compass or at the bottom. And in our inmost heart, with what superlative self-contempt do we watch our joy or sorrow die down and disappear!
No wonder bowls us out. To all the marvellous things of the universe — the sun overhead, the little blue flowers at our feet, to birds and aeroplanes travelling through the air — we extend an oily, vulgar familiarity. Where we should stand hat in hand at a respectful distance we advance, and with a careless jerk of the head signify acquaintance. As Carlyle said: the average man regards the making of a world with about as much wonder as the baking of an apple dumpling.
The consciousness is like some baneful atmosphere. As soon as they enter it, our emotions, at first like glorious white-hot stars, rapidly cool down to finish up often as cold as the moon.
Poor human frailty! We are only children, with new toys, and broken toys and old familiar toys. Our greatest experiences are only nursery episodes and our greatest emotions only a little less fleeting than the tears of childhood. Even Job lived to the age of 140, and became happy in the possession of beautiful daughters, and God knows how many valuable she-asses. Yet this was the fellow who cursed the day he was born.
Perfect dignity is denied us. For if we persisted in grief we are morbid, and if we sweep on with the tide our memories are ridiculously short and — out of sight, out of mind. So wags the world.