Let Us Be Cheerful

THE world has not yet got beyond the old philosophies, so far as philosophy goes. Science, of course, is another thing ; but if man has gone ahead in the knowledge of matter, he has not made much progress in the knowledge of mind, and philosophy and abstract speculations remain pretty much where they were centuries ago. And among the various dualities into which mankind can be divided, Democritus who laughed, and Heraclitus who wept, may be taken as the types of one very large system of classification. There are still those who make the best of everything, even when things are bad, who see the silver lining to the cloud, and hold on to the hope of the lane turning at last; and there are those who make the worst of what is good, who growl about the sun having spots and the morning light its vapors, and persist in their belief that night has never a day to follow, and even more, that noon is very much like night upon the whole; and they don’t see much difference between dusk and dawn, whatever you may see. There are still those who hold that love and fame are but vanity, when all is told, and those who can see a certain gracious little use in vanity itself; those who give in to the worship of sorrow, and those who subscribe to the creed of cheerfulness ; those who live always in mephitic vapors valleyborn, and those who dwell on mountain-tops, and breast the broad breezes rejoicing.

Cheerfulness is not entirely, as it pleases some sour-blooded folks to say, a mere matter of good digestion, or the result of a well-set electric current : a thing, therefore, as little under one’s own control as an attack of neuralgia or a fit of the gout, and deserving no more commendation than these deserve censure ; it is much more a matter of mental power, though also, let it be granted honestly, somewhat traceable to physical condition ; that is, it is a frame of mind that can be induced by a determined will ; and, above all, it is the product of an unselfish nature. That peevish despair which some people call tenderness of mind is nine times out of ten simple selfishness ; and lowness of spirits is euphemistic for mental indolence, — that kind of indolence which will not take the trouble to be cheerful; which lets itself drift into foreboding and the enduring fear of disaster, because foreboding and fear, being passive states, are less difficult to compass than the active energy of hope and cheerfulness. Let no one pride himself on his faculty of gloom ; he might as well pride himself on the possession of a squint or a hump.

Neither is cheerfulness want of sympathy with others in their troubles. On the contrary, no one knows so well as a cheerful person what are the difficulties to be overcome, and the amount of temptation to despair to be resisted. It is so much easier to keep down in the low levels, and to make one’s final abode in the Slough of Despond, than to struggle upward for the high lands, or to strike out for the dry places, that cheerfulness is literally a step in advance, giving a wider horizon and an additional experience ; but a step made only by effort and at great cost. And I presume there is no possible question as to which knows most, the person who has gone forward, or the one who has lagged behind ; the person who has learnt an extra lesson, or the one who has doubled down the page for finis, and shut the book between its clasps. Moping and gloom are want of sympathy of the will; and despairing views are by no means the best coin wherewith to redeem your own or another’s disaster. What is the good to be had from a person who comes to your house when you are in trouble, and makes your burden heavier by the weight of his own forebodings? Say, your child is ill, and you are in cruel anxiety ; does it help you to tell you that poor Mrs. A—’s sweet boy was not half so bad as yours, and yet it died, though the doctors all said it was recovering ? or is it better for you to hear, Yes, your child is dangerously ill, certainly, and there is cause for grave anxiety and the need of the most watchful care; but even worse cases have been known to recover, given that care; and while there is life there is hope : a trite proverb, granted, but sometimes forgotten in the pressure of a great dread ! Which would you rather have, vinegar and red pepper rubbed into your bleeding wounds, or wine and oil poured over them ? Neither the vinegar nor the oil will heal, but between irritating and soothing what must be borne either way, surely the soothing is the best! Again, if you are in that situation where you want all your energies to fight yourself as clear as may be of the ruin that must fall with greater or less force on all concerned, is it to the strengthening of your hands to be told that nothing is of any good, that you might just as well let all go by the board quietly as make a stand against the wreck ; that you can save nothing out of the fire, and will only burn your fingers by thrusting them into the flames ? Who is the more likely to do you good service, a narrow-chested Heraclitus, who prophesies of evil things and assures your defeat by unbuckling your armor, or a robust and brave-hearted Democritus, who says, fight to the last and remember that never a battle is lost till it is won ; who points out to you this undefended corner in the enemy’s ramparts, and that weak point in his lines, and who gives you the stimulus of hope and manly energy to go on with ?

For my own part, I think giving up, because you are afraid you can do no good by fighting, one of the most craven things in the whole world ; and never to know when one is beaten has made the Anglo-Saxon race what it is. I grant you, peevishness with some people is so ingrained and of the very fibre of their being, that they do not want to be heartened up, and indeed will not bear it; calling you cruel, coarse, unfeeling, if you speak to them cheerfully of their concerns and hopefully of their troubles, — their animosity being in exact ratio with their peevishness. They are of those who will be drowned and nobody shall help them ; who like to stick knives into their own flesh, and rub red pepper into the gaping wounds afterwards. But I am not speaking of these, who may well be left in the living tomb of their own building, but of the general run of folk who are influenced by their society, and either heartened or depressed according to the tone of their companions, — of those souls of wax which take the shape of any mould in which they may be run by chance or circumstance, and who are therefore pressed into the abject form of fear, or who come out with the nobler bearing of courage, according to the temper of the last mind which has manipulated them. Those who are strong can afford to despise extraneous influences ; but we are not all strong, and one is bound to consider one’s weaker brethren.

The greatest difficulty that besets the path of the cheerful is in the close companionship of the gloomy. Anyone who can undergo this ordeal and come out of it still cheerful is a hero, or, still more, a heroine,—“ still more,” because of the greater impressibility of women. Ah ! there are many such small, unseen dramas of heroism enacted at this moment in quiet families and subordinate positions, which does not make it less a matter of heroism, demanding our admiration and best sympathy, when we find a heart that is strong enough, not only to bear its own burden with dignity, but also to endure cheerfully that far heavier burden of a comrade’s gloom. This is not so difficult a task for a period, perhaps ; but it is almost impossible for a lifetime. I do not say quite, but almost ; for some people have a large and beautiful power of sustainment, and can nourish their souls, not only by the power of self-support, but in the very teeth of enforced starvation. But what a life it is, if you are of a brave and cheerful nature, to be closely associated with depressed and sour and gloomy folk ! You come down in the morning serene, happy, gay. The air is sweet, the birds are singing in the flowery bushes, the sun glints pleasantly on the shining laurel leaves, the flowers send out their fresh sweet morning scents, and you take joy in your existence, and are glad to be one of the great multitude of the living; but your gloom-haunted companion can see no gladness in all this. Like the princess in the fairy-tale, or the time-honored Sybarite of tradition, a bean is under the seven feather-beds, a roseleaf is crumpled on the flowery couch ; there is no rest or joy where such misfortunes exist, and the glory of Ichabod has departed. You say something bright and pleasant; it may be something very futile, perhaps a trifle silly, but it is at least a fresh and honest little bubble out of the wellspring of happiness in your own cheerful heart: you are met by a growl, by a sarcasm, or by a chilling silence, with an air of life being far too grave a matter for such levity as yours to be admitted. Then you fall back upon yourself again ; and it all depends on the depth of that wellspring within whether you are substantially saddened or only temporarily depressed for want of leave wherein to expand ; whether you lose of the sum of your moral vitality, or merely suffer by the barrenness of another. You must be exceptionally brave and happy-hearted if you can bear with this kind of thing for any length of time uninjured : and no one in his right mind would bear it at all if he could escape from it. Only those who have tried it know the extent of the anguish of soul that results from perpetual companionship with a gloomy temper, and how far worse than all the inevitable ills of life is that self-made evil of moroseness, which will neither be cheerful for its own part nor suffer the cheerfulness of others. A man of this temper once brought it as a serious accusation against the moral nature of his wife, who was a bright and enjoying woman, that she “looked for happiness from life.” To look for happiness was to his mind an evidence of shallowness, of levity, of sensuality, a hungering after the grosser fleshpots not to be tolerated by those who fed on more ethereal manna. He did not think that any one had the right to look for happiness in this valley of the shadow. Dwelling among the tombs as he did, by preference, and carrying the pall with which he draped all life, he imposed on others the gloomy worship of sorrow which he found profitable for his own sad soul: and those who disputed his gaunt, grim theology were worse than pagans to his mind, and below the dignity of grown men.

Your morose people are always accusing their cheerful friends of levity. Unjustly enough ; for hope and courage are surely not incompatible with any amount of deep feeling and serious thought ; as neither are these necessarily connected with gloom. It is simply a question of inclination of the balance, and whether the scale is more heavily weighted for good or for ill. The mystery of all the sin and misery lying in life remains the same mystery still, whether we accept it in cheerful faith as to its ultimate and hidden good, or whether we mourn over its hopeless and irremediable sadness. The cloud is there, but so is the sun above it. Which, then, shall it be, the shadow only, or the remembrance of the hidden sun ? The gloomy say the first, the cheerful hold to the last ; and of the two the cheerful are the wiser, the truer, and the more substantially religious. The worship of sorrow is not religion ; it is superstition, and a fierce fanatic fetishism ; but religion, as the best thoughts of the best men have formalized it for us, — no ! it is not that !

Of all the religions which man has yet made for himself, the ancient Greek was undoubtedly the most cheerful and heartsome. Very little of the purely tragic, and still less of the grim Manichean element entered therein. It had no imps or demons, no afreets, djinns, or ghouls, as in the Persian mythology ; the theory of a huge master-devil roaming through the world, seeking to-day the souls of men and making use of their very affections and virtues for that purpose, the basic idea of which came also from Persia, while the perfected and hideous superstructure was Judaic, was as foreign to its cheerful spirit as the bloody rites of Moloch or the doctrine of an offended deity living in enduring enmity with and estrangement from his creatures. The nearest approach to the Christian idea of devils which it made for itself was in its fauns and older satyrs : but these were but weak archetypes of our grim Satan, Miltonic, or of the more familiar and degraded popular idea, and scarcely to be classed as of his clan at all. The central idea of the faith was light, not gloom ; and to this day the world is the better and more beautiful for the cheerful creed of Hellas ! The monstrous fiends and horrible pictures of hell’s mouth, by which mediæval priests and preachers sought to terrify their rude hearers from evil into good, are already forgotten ; but the happy fancies of that sweet elder time when the gods and goddesses dwelt among men, and the forces of nature were depicted as beautiful and benign individualities, remain still in the hearts of those who, though they have learnt to consider them as just so many allegories, have continued also to love them as allegories expressive of enduring truth ; perhaps truth as great and as noble as is to be found in the legends of saints and the asceticism of devotees.

Almost all great poets, that is, the greatest, have been men of cheerful nature ; while, singularly enough, almost all half-great men, second-class poets, have been moony and mopy. No one will venture to say that the healthy cheerfulness which shines out like the sunlight from Homer, from Shakespeare, from Virgil, and even from Milton, though in this last tempered with so much stateliness and dignity as to appear almost sad, is due to shallowness of perception or to frivolity of feeling. To be sure, Dante, as great a man as any, was weighed down with gloom and sadness, living in the world as in a charnel-house, and seeing corruption and decay everywhere. But no other man, as great as he, was so sad ; though the crowd of minor poets and poetasters in all ages have been lachrymose and uncomfortable fellows enough, and have taken broken-hearted views of everything within the range of their vision at all. Granting that this sorrowful appreciation of the difficulties of life is a point beyond the careless levity of the shallow-pated, or the fool’s paradise of the lotus-eater, still there is a point beyond that again, where depth and cheerfulness can unite, and where the highest philosophy would express itself in the serenest faith.

If only in the way of help over bad passes, cheerfulness is such an invaluable stirrup-companion through life ! Nothing puts one over those same bad passes so well when they are fairly come at and inevitable, as the cheery belief that they are temporary and conquerable. To shut one’s eyes, and go doggedly at one’s fences, is certainly one way of clearing them ; but a better way is to be able to look quietly at one’s dangers and calculate calmly one’s difficulties as they stand full in view ; to brace one’s self to bear bravely and endure cheerfully, or to break through the quickest hedge at any cost of rent flesh, if bearing and enduring do not answer, or are incompatible with dignity. But peevish people neither break boldly nor bear cheerfully. They sit down under their troubles, and they mope or growl according to their temperament; of the magnanimity of cheerfulness they know nothing. In fact, continual gloominess so enervates the nature, that men and women given to this vice become at last incapable of energetic action, and could as soon square the circle as make themselves happy with what they have : they are always wrong in their circumstances somehow, and always suffering because of external things, not because of internal feelings. If only such and such things were different! — if only some one would go or some one would come, if this wall was thrown down or that fence built up, — they would be quite happy. Foolish people ! they never think that state is being, and that happiness or unhappiness comes from within rather than from without, and that those who wish to be happy may be happy, outside absolute ruin and desolation of circumstance and soul; still those who wish to be miserable have only so to will in order to be gratified, the world being too busy to give its time to smoothing down the hairy backs of blue devils. Besides, what use is there in gloom ? In this phantasmagoric life of ours, “ where nothing is, but all things seem,” where we are what we believe ourselves to be, and have in proportion to our faith, what good or use is there in fancying everything worse than it is, and filling one’s moral paint-pot with lampblack instead of rose-color and azurine ? The mind is as a haunted chamber, where the will can summon what shapes it pleases, — angels or demons, good genii or bad, — as it chooses for its own account; and while the cheerful live in the midst of smiling spirits, bright-eyed and golden-haired, with brave words and happy issues to help in times of difficulty, the gloomy call about them an array of moping, mowing imps, with lank, lean jaws, and bleary, cast-down eyes, pointing with skinny fingers to the altar of eternal sorrow, the altar at which Death stands as the high-priest, offering up the sacrifice of human souls and human joys. But angels or imps, they are essentially born of the mind alone, and are products of the will ; and he who wishes to change his company has only to remember that matchless motto, Velle est agere, to find the thing done. “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” sang the brave old cavalier. And no poet’s lyre ever gave forth a truer note.

No doctrine is more important to impress on people than this of cheerfulness being able to make its own joy; the finding of life being in accordance with the spirit of the seeker, far more than with any possible run of circumstances. Even sorrow can be better borne if there is a cheerful nature for the melancholy porterage,— melancholy at the best ! — while a peevish temper turns happiness itself to gloom, and spoils the harmony of the sweetest music. The only case in which the collapse of cheerfulness is excusable is when a bright, enjoying, and energetic nature is chained up in the same yoke with a gloomy, sour, and narrow soul ; when the blither and braver is under the harrow drawn by the meagre and the melancholy; when a free, full, frank nature is stunted, clipped, pressed back, imprisoned, and denied the happiness which is the God-given right of all men by the tyranny and perverseness of a comrade. Then if the chain cannot be broken, no one can wonder if the wounded spirit sinks exhausted from its many blows, and if what was once bright and smiling cheerfulness puts on the grave aspect of stronghearted endurance only.