Resignation

You know how a little child of three or four years old kicks and howls, if it do not get its own way. You know how quietly a grown-up man takes it, when ordinary things fall out otherwise than he wished. A letter, a newspaper, a magazine, does not arrive by the post on the morning on which it had been particularly wished for, and counted on with certainty. The day proves rainy, when a fine day was specially desirable. The grown-up man is disappointed: but he soon gets reconciled to the existing state of facts. He did not much expect that things would turn out as he wished them. Yes : there is nothing like the habit of being disappointed, to make a man resigned when disappointment comes, and to enable him to take it quietly. And a habit of practical resignation grows upon most men, as they advance through life.

You have often seen a poor beggar, most probably an old man, with some lingering remains of respectability in his faded appearance, half ask an alms of a passer-by : and you have seen him, at a word of repulse, or even on finding no notice taken of his request, meekly turn away : too beaten and sick at heart for energy : drilled into a dreary resignation by the long custom of finding everything go against him in this world. You may have known a poor cripple, who sits all day by the side of the pavement of a certain street, with a little bundle of tracts in his hand, watching those who pass by, in the hope that they may give him something. I wonder, indeed, how the police suffer him to be there: for, though ostensibly selling the tracts, he is really begging. Hundreds of times in the long day, he must see people approaching, and hope that they may spare him a halfpenny, and find ninety-nine out of each hundred pass without noticing him. It must be a hard school of Resignation. Disappointments without number have subdued that poor creature into bearing one disappointment more with scarce an appreciable stir of heart. But, on the other hand, kings, great nobles, and the like, have been known, even to the close of life, to violently curse and swear, if things went against them ; going the length of stamping and blaspheming even at rain and wind, and branches of trees and plashes of mud, which were of course guiltless of any design of giving offence to these eminent individuals. There was a great monarch, who, when any little cross-accident befell him, was wont to fling himself upon the floor, and there to kick and scream and tear his hair. And around him, meanwhile, stood his awe-stricken attendants: all doubtless ready to assure him that there was something noble and graceful in his kicking and screaming, and that no human being had ever before with such dignity and magnanimity torn his hair. My friend Mr. Smith tells me that in his early youth he had a (very slight) acquaintance with a great prince, of elevated rank and of vast estates. That great prince came very early to his greatness; and no one had ever ventured, since he could remember, to tell him he had ever said or done wrong. Accordingly, the prince had never learned to control himself, nor grown accustomed to bear quietly what he did not like. And when any one, in conversation, related to him something which he disapproved, he used to start from his chair, and rush up and down the apartment, furiously flapping his hands together, till he had thus blown off the steam produced by the irritation of his nervous system. That prince was a good man : and so aware was he of his infirmity, that, when in these fits of passion, he never suffered himself to say a single word : being aware that he might say what he would afterwards regret. And though he could not wholly restrain himself, the entire wrath he felt passed off in flapping. And after flapping for a few minutes, he sat down again, a reasonable man once more. All honor to him ! For my friend Smith tells me that that prince was surrounded by toadies, who were ready to praise everything he might do, even to his flapping. And in particular, there was one humble retainer, who, whenever his master flapped, was wont to hold up his hands in an ecstasy of admiration, exclaiming, “It is the flapping of a god, and not of a man ! ”

Now all this lack of Resignation on the part of princes and kings comes of the fact, that they are so far like children that they have not become accustomed to be resisted, and to be obliged to forego what they would like. Resignation comes by the habit of being disappointed, and of finding things go against you. It is, in the case of ordinary human beings, just what they expect. Of course, you remember the adage, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” I have a good deal to say about that adage. Reasonableness of expectation is a great and good thing: despondency is a thing to be discouraged and put down as far as may be. But meanwhile let me say, that the corollary drawn from that dismal beatitude seems to me unfounded in fact. I should say just the contrary. I should say, “ Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he will very likely be disappointed.” You know, my reader, whether things do not generally happen the opposite way from that which you expected. Did you ever try to keep off an evil you dreaded by interposing this buffer ? Did you ever think you might perhaps prevent a trouble from coming by constantly anticipating it, — keeping, meanwhile, an under-thought that things rarely happen as you anticipate them, and thus that your anticipation of the thing might possibly keep it away ? Of course you have ; for you are a human being. And in all common cases, a watch might as well think to keep a skilful watchmaker in ignorance of the way in which its movements are produced, as a human being think to prevent another human being from knowing exactly how he will think and feel in given circumstances. We have watched the working of our own watches far too closely and long, my friends, to have the least difficulty in understanding the great principles upon which the watches of other men go. I cannot look inside your breast, my reader, and see the machinery that is working there: I mean the machinery of thought and feeling. But I know exactly how it works, nevertheless : for I have long watched a machinery precisely like it.

There are a great many people in this world who feel that things are all wrong, that they have missed stays in life, that they are beaten,—and yet who don’t much mind. They are indurated by long use. They do not try to disguise from themselves the facts. There are some men who diligently try to disguise the facts, and who in some measure succeed in doing so. I have known a self-sufficient and disagreeable clergyman who had a church in a large city. Five-sixths of the seats in the church were quite empty ; yet the clergyman often talked of what a good congregation he had, with a confidence which would have deceived any one who had not seen it. I have known a

church where it was agony to any one with an ear to listen to the noise produced when the people were singing ; yet the clergyman often talked of what splendid music he had. I have known an entirely briefless barrister, whose friends gave out that the sole reason why he had no briefs was that he did not want any. I have known students who did not get the prizes for which they competed, but who declared that the reason of their failure was, that, though they competed for the prizes, they did not wish to get them. I have known a fast young woman, after many engagements made and broken, marry as the last resort a brainless and penniless blackguard ; yet all her family talk in big terms of what a delightful connection she was making. Now, where all that self-deception is genuine, let us be glad to see it; and let us not, like Mr. Snarling, take a spiteful pleasure in undeceiving those who are so happy to be deceived. In most cases, indeed, such trickery deceives nobody. But where it truly deceives those who practise it, even if it deceive nobody else, you see there is no true Resignation. A man who has made a mess of life has no need to be resigned, if he fancies he has succeeded splendidly, But I look with great interest, and often with deep respect, at the man or

woman who feels that life has been a failure,—a failure, that is, as regards this world,—and yet who is quite resigned. Yes: whether it be the unsoured old maid, sweet-tempered, sympathetic in others’ joys, God’s kind angel in the house of sorrow, — or the unappreciated genius, quiet, subdued, pleased to meet even one who understands him amid a community which does not,—or the kind-hearted clever man to whom eminent success has come too late, when those were gone whom it would have made happy : I reverence and love, more than I can express, the beautiful natures I have known thus subdued and resigned,

Yes : human beings get indurated. When you come to know well the history of a great many people, you will find that it is wonderful what they have passed through. Most people have suffered a very great deal, since they came into this world. Yet in their appearance there is no particular trace of it all. You would not guess, from looking at them, how hard and how various their lot has been. I once knew a woman, rather more than middleaged. I knew her well, and saw her almost every day, for several years, before I learned that the homely Scotchwoman had seen distant lands, and had passed through very strange ups and downs, before she settled into the quiet, orderly life in which I knew her. Yet when spoken to kindly, by one who expressed surprise that all these trials had left so little trace, the inward feeling, commonly suppressed, burst bitterly out, and she exclaimed, “ It ’s a wonder that I’m living at all! ” And it is a wonder that a great many people are living, and looking so cheerful and so well as they do, when you think what fiery passion, what crushing sorrow, what terrible losses, what bitter disappointments, what hard and protracted work they have gone through. Doubtless, great good comes of it. All wisdom, all experience, comes of suffering. I should not care much for the counsel of the man whose life had been one long sunshiny holiday. There is greater depth in the philosophy of Mr. Dickens than a great portion of his readers discern. You are ready to smile at the singular way in which Captain Cuttle Commended his friend Jack Bunsby as a man of extraordinary wisdom, whose advice on any point was of inestimable value. “ Here ’s a man,” said Captain Cuttle, “ who has been more beaten about the head than any other living man ! ” I hail the words as the recognition of a great principle. To Mr. Bunsby it befell in a literal sense ; but we have all been (in a moral sense) a good deal beaten about both the head and the heart before we grew good for much. Out of the travail of his nature, out of the sorrowful history of his past life, the poet or the moralist draws the deep thought and feeling which find so straight a way to the hearts of other men. Do you think Mr. Tennyson would ever have been the great poet he is, if he had not passed through that season of great grief which has left its noble record in “In Memoriam ” ? And a youthful preacher, of vivid imagination and keen feeling, little fettered by anything in the nature of good taste, may by strong statements and a fiery manner draw a mob of unthinking hearers : but thoughtful men and women will not find anything in all that, that awakens the response of their inner nature in its truest depths ; they must have religious instruction into which real experience has been transfused; and the worth of the instruction will be in direct proportion to the amount of real experience which is embodied in it. And after all, it is better to be wise and good than to be gay and happy, if we must choose between the two things ; and it is worth while to be severely beaten about the head, if that is the condition on which alone we can gain true wisdom. True wisdom is cheap at almost any price. But it does not follow at all that you will be happy (in the vulgar sense) in direct proportion as you are wise. I suppose most middle-aged people, when they receive the ordinary kind wish at NewYear’s time of a Happy New-Year, feel that happy is not quite the word ; and feel that, too, though well aware that they have abundant reason for gratitude to a kind Providence. It is not here that we shall ever be happy, — that is, completely and perfectly happy. Something will always be coming to worry and distress. And a hundred sad possibilities hang over us : some of them only too certainly and quickly drawing near. Yet people are content, in a kind of way. They have learnt the great lesson of Resignation.

There are many worthy people who would be quite fevered and flurried by good fortune, if it were to come to any very great degree. It would injure their heart. As for bad fortune, they can stand it nicely, they have been accustomed to it so long. I have known a very hard-wrought man, who had passed, father early in life, through very heavy and protracted trials. I have heard him say, that, if any malicious enemy wished to kill him, the course would be to make sure that tidings of some signal piece of prosperity should arrive by post on each of six or seven successive days. It would quite unhinge and unsettle him, he said. His heart would go: his nervous system would break down. People to whom pieces of good-luck come rare and small have a great curiosity to know how a man feels when he is suddenly told that he has drawn one of the greatest prizes in the lottery of life. The kind of feeling, of course, will depend entirely on the kind of man. Yet very great prizes, in the way of dignity and duty, do for the most part fall to men who in some measure deserve them, or who at least are not conspicuously undeserving of them and unfit for them. So that it is almost impossible that the great news should elicit merely some unworthy explosion of gratified selfconceit. The feeling would in almost every case be deeper and worthier. One would like to be sitting at breakfast with a truly good man, when the letter from the Prime-Minister comes in, offering him the Archbishopric of Canterbury. One would like to see how he would take it. Quietly, I have no doubt. Long preparation has fitted the man who reaches that position for taking it quietly. A recent Chancellor publicly stated how he felt, when offered the Great Seal. His first feeling, that good man said, was of gratification that he had fairly reached the highest reward of the profession to which he had given his life ; but the feeling which speedily supplanted that was an overwhelming sense of his responsibility and a grave doubt as to his qualifications. I have always believed, and sometimes said, that good fortune — not so great or so sudden as to injure one’s nerves or heart, but kindly and equable — has a most wholesome effect upon human character. I believe that the happier a man is, the better and kinder he will be. The greater part of unamiability, ill-temper, impatience, bitterness, and uncharitableness comes out of unhappiness. It is because a man is so miserable that he is such a sour, suspicious, fractious, petted creature. I was amused, this morning, to read in the newspaper an account of a very small incident which befell the new Primate of England on his journey back to London, after being enthroned at Canterbury. The reporter of that small incident takes occasion to record that the Archbishop had quite charmed his travelling-companions in the railway-carriage by the geniality and kindliness of his manner. I have no doubt he did. I am sure he is a truly good Christian man. But think of what a splendid training for producing geniality and kindliness he has been going through for a great number of years! Think of the moral influences which have been bearing on him for the last few weeks ! We should all be kindly and genial, if we had the same chance of being so. But if Dr. Longley had a living of a hundred pounds a year, a fretful, ailing wife, a number of half-fed and halfeducated little children, a dirty, miserable house, a bleak country round, and a set of wrong-headed and insolent parishioners to keep straight, I venture to say he would have looked, and been, a very different man in that railway-carriage running up to London. Instead of the genial smiles that delighted his fellow-travellers, (according to the newspaper-story,) his face would have been sour, and his speech would have been snappish ; he would have leaned back in the corner of a second-class carriage, sadly calculating the cost of his journey, and how part of it might be saved by going without any dinner. Oh, if I found a four-leaved shamrock, I would undertake to make a mighty deal of certain people I know ! I would put an end to their weary schemings to make the ends meet. I would cut off all those wretched cares which jar miserably on the shaken nerves. I know the burst of thankfulness and joy that would come, if some dismal load, never to be cast off, were taken away. And I would take it off. I would clear up the horrible muddle. I would make them happy: and in doing that, I know that I should make them good.

But I have sought the four-leaved shamrock for a long time, and never have found it; and so I am growing subdued to the conviction that I never shall. Let us go back to the matter of Resignation, and think a little longer about that.

Resignation, in any human being, means that things are not as you would wish, and yet that you are content. Who has all he wishes ? There are many houses in this world in which Resignation is the best thing that can be felt any more. The bitter blow has fallen ; the break has been made; the empty chair is left (perhaps a very little chair) ; and never more, while Time goes on, can things be as they were fondly wished and hoped. Resignation would need to be cultivated by human beings; for all round us there is a multitude of things very different from what we would wish. Not in your house, not in your family, not in your street, not in your parish, not in your country, and least of all in yourself, can you have things as you would wish. And you have your choice of two alternatives. You must either fret yourself into a nervous fever, or you must cultivate the habit of Resignation. And very often Resignation does not mean that you are at all reconciled to a thing, but just that you feel you can do nothing to mend it. Some friend, to whom you are really attached, and whom you often see, vexes and worries you by some silly and disagreeable habit, — some habit which it is impossible you should ever like, or ever even overlook; yet you try to make up your mind to it, because it cannot be helped, and you would rather submit to it than lose your friend. You hate the east-wind: it withers and pinches you, in body and soul : yet you cannot live in a certain beautiful city without feeling the eastwind many days in the year. And that city’s advantages and attractions are so many and great that no sane man with sound lungs would abandon the city merely to escape the east-wind. Yet, though resigned to the east-wind, you are anything but reconciled to it.

Resignation is not always a good thing. Sometimes it is a very bad thing. You should never be resigned to things continuing wrong, when you may rise and set them right. I dare say, in the Romish Church, there were good men before Luther who were keenly alive to the errors and evils that had crept into it, but who, in despair of making things better, tried sadly to fix their thoughts upon other subjects: who took to illuminating missals, or constructing systems of logic, or cultivating vegetables in the garden of the monastery, or improving the music in the chapel: quietly resigned to evils they judged irremediable. Great reformers have not been resigned men. Luther was not resigned ; Howard was not resigned; Fowell Buxton was not resigned; George Stephenson was not resigned. And there is hardly a nobler sight than that of a man who determines that he will NOT make up his mind to the continuance of some great evil: who determines that he will give his life to battling with that evil to the last: who determines that either that evil shall extinguish him, or he shall extinguish it. I reverence the strong, sanguine mind, that resolves to work a revolution to better things, and that is not afraid to hope it can work a revolution. And perhaps, my reader, we should both reverence it all the more that we find in ourselves very little like it. It is a curious thing, and a sad thing, to remark in how many people there is too much resignation. It kills out energy. It is a weak, fretful, unhappy thing. People are reconciled, in a sad sort of way, to the fashion in which things go on. You have seen a poor, slatternly mother, in a way-side cottage, who has observed her little children playing in the road before it, in the way of passing carriages, angrily ordering the little things to come away from their dangerous and dirty play; yet, when the children disobey her, and remain where they were, just saying no more, making no farther effort. You have known a master tell his man-servant to do something about stable or garden, yet, when the servant does not do it, taking no notice : seeing that he has been disobeyed, yet wearily resigned, feeling that there is no use in always fighting. And I do not speak of the not uufrequent cases in which the master, after giving his orders, comes to discover that it is best they should not be carried out, and is very glad to see them disregarded: I mean when he is dissatisfied that what he has directed is not done, and wishes that it were done, and feels worried by the whole affair, yet is so devoid of energy as to rest in a fretful resignation. Sometimes there is a sort of sense as if one had discharged his conscience by making a weak effort in the direction of doing a thing, an effort which had not the slightest chance of being successful. When I was a little boy, many years since, I used to think this; and I was led to thinking it by remarking a singular characteristic in the conduct of a school-companion. In those days, if you were chasing some other boy who had injured or offended you, with the design of retaliation, if you found you Could not catch him, by reason of his superior speed, you would have recourse to the following expedient. If your companion was within a little space of you, though a space you felt you could not make less, you would suddenly stick out one of your feet, which would hook round his, and he, stumbling over it, would fall. I trust I am not suggesting a mischievous and dangerous trick to any boy of the present generation. Indeed, I have the firmest belief that existing boys know all we used to know, and possibly more. All this is by way of rendering intelligible what I have to say of my old companion. He was not a good runner. And when another boy gave him a sudden Hide with a knotted handkerchief, or the like, he had little chance of catching that other boy. Yet I have often seen him, when chasing another, before finally abandoning the pursuit, stick out his foot in the regular way, though the boy he was chasing was yards beyond his reach. Often did the present writer meditate on that phenomenon, in the days of his boyhood. It appeared curious that it should afford Some comfort to the evaded pursuer, to make an offer at upsetting the escaping youth, — an offer which could not possibly be successful. But very often, in after-life, have I beheld in the conduct of grown-up men and women the moral likeness of that futile sticking-out of the foot. I have beheld human beings who lived in houses always untidy and disorderly, or whose affairs were in a horrible confusion and entanglement, who now and then seemed roused to a a feeling that this would not do, who querulously bemoaned their miserable lot, and made some faint and futile attempt to set things right, attempts which never had a chance to succeed, and which ended in nothing. Yet it seemed somehow to pacity the querulous heart. I have known a clergyman, in a parish with a bad population, seem suddenly to waken up to a conviction that he must do something to mend matters, and set agoing some weak little machinery, which could produce no appreciable result, and which came to a stop in a few weeks. Yet that faint offer appeared to discharge the claims of conscience, and after it the clergyman remained long time in a comatose state of unhealthy Resignation. But it is a miserable and a wrong kind of Resignation which dwells in that man who sinks down, beaten and hopeless, in the presence of a recognized evil. Such a man may be in a sense resigned, but he cannot possibly be content.

If you should ever, when you have reached middle age, turn over the diary or the letters you wrote in the hopeful though foolish days when you were eighteen or twenty, you will be aware how quietly and gradually the lesson of Resignation has been taught you. You would have got into a terrible state of excitement, if any one had told you then that yon would have to forego your most cherished hopes and wishes of that time ; and it would have tried you even more severely to be assured that in not many years you would not care a single straw for the things and the persons who were then uppermost in your mind and heart. What an entirely new set of friends and interests is that which now surrounds you ! and how completely the old ones are gone : gone, like the sunsets you remember in the summers of your childhood ; gone, like the primroses that grew in the woods where you wandered as a boy ! Said my friend Smith to me, a few days ago: “You remember Miss Jones, and all about that ? I met her yesterday, after ten years. She is a fat, middle-aged, ordinary-looking woman. What a terrific tool I was ! ” Smith spoke to me in the confidence of friendship; yet I think he was a little mortified at the heartiness with which I agreed with him on the subject of his former folly. He had got over it completely; and in seeing that he was (at a certain period) a fool, he had come to discern that of which his friends had always been aware. Of course, early interests do not always die out. You remember Dr. Chalmers, and the ridiculous exhibition about the wretched little likeness of an early sweetheart, not seen for forty years, and long since in her grave. You remember the singular way in which he signified his remembrance of her, in his famous and honored age. I don’t mean the crying, nor the walking up and down the garden-walk tailing her by fine names. I mean the taking out his card: not his carte; you could understand that: but his visiting-card bearing his name, and sticking it behind the portrait with two wafers. Probably it pleased him to do so; and assuredly it did harm to no one else. And we have all heard of the like things. Early affections are sometimes, doubtless, cherished in the memory of the old. But still, more material interests come in, and the old affection is crowded out of its old place in the heart. And so those comparatively fanciful disappointments sit lightly. The romance is gone. The mid-day sun beats down, and there lies the dusty way. When the cantankerous and unamiable mother of Christopher North stopped his marriage with a person at least as respectable as herself, on the ground that the person was not good enough, we are told that the future professor nearly went mad, and that he never quite got over it. But really, judging from his writings and his biography, he bore up under it, after a little, wonderfully well.

But looking back to the days which the old yellow letters bring back, you will think to yourself, Where are the hopes and anticipations of that time ? You expected to be a great man, no doubt. Well, you know you are not. You are a small man, and never will be anything else ; yet you are quite resigned. If there be an argument which stirs me to indignation at its futility, and to wonder that any mortal ever regarded it as of the slightest force, it is that which is set out in the famous soliloquy in “ Cato,” as to the Immortality of the Soul. Will any sane man say, that, if in this world you wish for a thing very much, and anticipate it very clearly and confidently, you are therefore sure to get it ? If that were so, many a little schoolboy would end by driving his carriage and four, who ends by driving no carriage at all. I have heard of a man whose private papers were found after his death all written over with his signature as he expected it would be when he became Lord Chancellor. Let us say his peerage was to be as Lord Smith. There it was, SMITH, C., SMITH, C., written in every conceivable fashion, so that the signature, when needed, might be easy and imposing. That man had very vividly anticipated the woolsack, the gold robe, and all the rest. It need hardly be said, he attained none of these. The famous argument, you know of course, is, that man has a great longing to be immortal, and that therefore he is sure to be immortal. Rubbish ! It is not true that any longing after immortality exists in the heart of a hundredth portion of the race. And if it were true, it would prove immortality no more than the manifold signatures of SMITH, C., proved that Smith was indeed to be Chancellor. No : we cling to the doctrine of a Future Life; we could not live without it; but we believe it, not because of undefined longings within ourselves, not because of reviving plants and flowers, not because of the chrysalis and the butterfly,—but because “our Saviour, Jesus Christ, hath abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

There is something very curious, and very touching, in thinking how clear and distinct, and how often recurring, were our early anticipations of things that were never to be. In this world, the fact is for the most part the opposite of what it should be to give force to Plato’s (or Cato’s) argument: the thing you vividly anticipate is the thing that is least likely to come. The thing you don't much care for, the thing you don’t expect, is the likeliest. And even if the event prove what you anticipated, the circumstances, and the feeling of it, will be quite different from what you anticipated. A certain little girl three years old was told that in a little while she was to go with her parents to a certain city, a hundred miles off, — a city which may be called Altenburg as well as anything else. It was a great delight to her to anticipate that journey, and to anticipate it very circumstantially. It was a delight to her to sit down at evening on her father’s knee, and to tell him all about how it would be in going to Altenburg. It was always the same thing. Always, first, how sandwiches would be made, — how they would all get into the carriage, (which would come round to the door,) and drive away to a certain railway-station, — how they would get their tickets, and the train would come up, and they would all get into a carriage together, and lean back in corners, and eat the sandwiches, and look out of the windows, and so on. But when the journey was actually made, every single circumstance in the little girl’s anticipations proved wrong. Of course, they were not intentionally made wrong. Her parents would have carried out to the letter, if they could, what the little thing had so clearly pictured and so often repeated. But it proved to be needful to go by an entirely different way and in an entirely different fashion. All those little details, dwelt on so much, and with so much interest, were things never to be. It is even so with the anticipations of larger and older children. How distinctly, how fully, my friend, we have pictured out to our minds a mode of life, a home and the country round it, and the multitude of little things which make up the habitude of being, which we long since resigned ourselves to knowing could never prove realities ! No doubt, it is all right and well. Even Saint Paul, with all his gift of prophecy, was not allowed to foresee what was to happen to himself. Yon know how he wrote that he would do a certain thing, “ so soon as I shall see how it will go with me.”

But our times are in the Best Hand. And the one thing about our lot, my reader, that we may think of with perfect contentment, is that they are so. I know nothing more admirable in spirit, and few things more charmingly expressed, than that little poem by Mrs. Waring which sets out that comfortable thought. You know it, of course. You should have it in your memory ; and let it be one of the first things your children learn by heart. It may well come next after, “ O God of Bethel ” : it breathes the self-same tone. And let me close these thoughts with one of its verses:—

“ There are briers besetting every path,
Which call for patient care;
There is a cross in every lot,
And an earnest need for prayer:
But a lowly heart that leans on Thee
Is happy anywhere! ”