The Value of Taking Things Seriously
So much has been said and written in praise of that nebulous uncertainty, a sense of humor, that we are perpetually in danger of forgetting what serene comfort lies in the lack of it. A sense of humor is merely a compensation bestowed upon a temperament which would otherwise find itself unable to support the ills of which it is all too keenly aware; but to suppose that the serious temperament is as keenly aware of the ills without the alleviation which humor offers to the more fortunate few, is to create a confusion of issues. Rather, on consideration, one perceives that since to the serious mind all things are serious, that mind is not overwhelmed by the contrasts of life, which drive the more volatile spirit to drug its sensibilities with its sense of humor.
Take, for example childhood — the period which all serious souls aver is the happiest of our lives. Are we happy then because we are possessed of a perception of the ridiculous which compensates us for fate’s buffets in the form of bruises and bee-stings? Far from it! I have yet to see the small boy who considers his own bumped head a fit subject for mirth, or even for an ironic smile; nor, if his eye be closed by an irate and vindictive wasp, does he find the situation even potentially humorous. At that early and superlatively serious age even a fellow-sufferer is an added misery; it does not mitigate, but rather intensifies, Tommy’s woes, to be told that Johnny Jones has been stung so badly that he cannot see out of either eye. “In kindness,” he begs you, “if I must bear this, let me at least bear it without the attempted alleviations of your odious comparisons — let me have the comfort of being a splendid and solitary sufferer — let me, in short, take it seriously.” And he takes it seriously, untrammeled by the noxious certainty that even a rudimentary sense of humor must have thrust upon him — the certainty that other boys have been worse stung, and yet have borne it.
And if the small and serious boy is more glorious in his affliction, certainly he is more radiant in his joys. Captain at last of the small town’s smallest ballteam, does he find himself suddenly oppressed by the conviction that even the sweets of such achievement cloy? — Not he! He swells visibly with pride as he enters the door that evening; with judicious inquiry, or even without it, the great news is presently brought forth — “The fellows elected me captain to-day.” Even the jeer of an unsympathetic elder brother does not show him that the situation has an element of humor; nor do efforts to point out to him that had he been elected President of these United States he could hardly be prouder, depress him. He knows, lucky, serious youth, that the being President would not compare with this; and, O fortunate, he is probably right; since few climb to the presidential chair uncursed by a sense of humor.
Why does an Englishman seem able to enjoy himself to such an unlimited extent, and to such a green old age ? Solely, I assert, by virtue of the gift of taking things seriously. Not himself, so please you, but things, — life, love, even hunting, and the responsibilities of a landed proprietor. They tell us that we Americans take our sports seriously — as a matter of fact, we do nothing of the sort. We take them strenuously, avidly; pursued by the demon of humor that tells us, grinning, that life is short, and that when we have done our little deeds and made our little records, some one will follow us who will ride a stiffer course, or make a better landlord. “If then,” we meditate, “we are to do this at all, let us do it strenuously; for the night comes when our chance will be over, and nothing left us but an easy chair before the fire — and a sense of humor.”
Who is the man who marries and lives happily ever after, but he whom no ludicrous similarities hinder from repeating to Jane or Susan the vows and protestations which failed to win him Mary ? Who is the man who lives a lonely bachelor because of one woman in the long ago, but he who will quote you with a twinkle in his eye, the adage that men have died, and worms have eaten them — but not for love? To take success seriously, and so struggle for it; to take failure seriously, and so avoid it; to take aches and pains seriously, and so achieve sympathy and the doctor; to take living seriously, and so make the most of it, and dying so seriously as to defer it to the last possible moment, and then, when that last moment comes, to die — not frivolously, with apologies for being a long time about it, but in the glorious confidence of having earned a serious and everlasting reward; it is this, and not an over-valued, overworked sense of humor, that brings energy, achievement, — and peace.