On Being Eaves-Dropped

THERE are gaps in every language. To be sure, we may boast that our own English is fairly complete, that its stock of terms, phrases, and idioms is large enough to cover almost every conceivable thought, concept, or situation in the experience of life; yet unto him who is capable of detecting the subtler flavors and aromas of life’s occasion, and who observes things with a deeper sympathy, there is frequently revealed the inadequacy of our language, in thoughts that are as yet unworded, and in situations that have thus far gone unlabeled. Such a man can testify that there are gaps even in the King’s English.

For example, one could almost wish that the verb ‘to eaves-drop,’ were capable of a passive mood: ‘to be eaves-dropped.’ Such a term would meet a real deficiency in our vocabulary. Everybody knows what it is to eaves-drop, — willfully to overhear what is intended for other ears. And, alas, in these days of crowded streetand railway-cars, where men and women are brought into a contact with each other that is often undesirably close, every one can recognize the applicability of our verb in its passive mood: ’to be eaves-dropped,’ to be forced by circumstances to overhear things which are not only intended for other ears, but to the exclusive possession of which other ears are very welcome. Surely it is a situation in which we all have been placed, one which is becoming common enough in modern experience to justify its proper label.

Of course it is a situation which finds its being not alone in the realm of hearing, but in the realm of all things sensuous. Not only are we obliged to hear things to which we would fain be deaf: we are obliged to see and feel and smell things of which we would choose to remain unconscious. We are not only eaves-dropped by the tyranny of circumstances: we are made unwilling participants in a vast assortment of trivial commerce in which we are conscious of being no better than interlopers; and the fact that we are rebellious interlopers, seized by ruthless circumstance and thrust all expostulant into occasions whose privacy we have no desire to share, serves only to accentuate our intrusion.

Is it not reasonable to presume that much of our modern tragedy of overwrought nerves finds its origin in our ‘being eaves-dropped’? The normal nervous system is capable of receiving and assimilating a certain number of sensuous excitations, and up to the saturation-point it is profited by the exercise. But an overfeeding of sensuous excitation inevitably engenders a certain spiritual dyspepsia, which by the way is a great deal worse than its physical counterpart, for the simple reason that it includes its physical counterpart as one of its many manifestations.

The trouble with us is that it is beyond our power to excuse ourselves from ‘life’s full board’ when we have had enough. We must perforce sit and eat long after we are surfeited. The experience of ‘being eaves-dropped’ is but a small sample of our helplessness. We cannot, like a telephone, hang up a receiver and end the connection. The receivers of our nervous systems are always off the hooks; the connections are always open.

It may be that Nature, give her time enough, will ultimately evolve a physical organism that shall be equipped with some device akin to the electric switch, by pressing which its sensuous connection with things external can be terminated at will. Think how blithely such a creature would go through one of our nerve-shattering days! Behold him, in the early morning, issuing from his habitation, ruddy of countenance and bright of eye, full of vigor and zest after his perfect night’s repose. He goes through his daily routine, picking and choosing the sensations that shall impinge upon his receptivity. Is there a conversation conducted in his hearing, with strident tones and bad grammar, which he prefers not to hear? Does his path lead him beside some unsightly dumpingground upon whose accumulations of filth he is fain not to gaze? Does an easterly breeze bring to his nostrils the wonderful fragrances of Moon Island? Does the motorman jog his car ahead through a crowded thoroughfare by means of those diabolical starts and pauses whereof we all wot? By an abrupt exercise of the will he has but to spring the metaphorical switch, and click! the connection is broken and the offended sense lies temporarily atrophied.

O Fortunatus! we sufferers, embodiments of an early and an unperfectcd physical organism, salute thee.

Who can tell? Perhaps Nature is even now at work, theorizing and experimenting, to produce this type of human being. Meanwhile, for us of this actual present, there would seem to be left but a temporary expedient. When Jack the Giant-killer was bidden to that ominous feast with the Ogre, at which he knew he should either have to devour all that was set before him or suffer sundry disastrous consequences, he prepared himself for the ordeal by buttoning under his jacket a capacious sack. Every properly educated youngster can tell us the story: how Jack at the feast, watching his chance, slipped most of his spoonfuls of food into the mouth of the sack, and filled his own mouth only when the Ogre’s eye was upon him; and how by this ingenious trick he came triumphantly through the ordeal.

The present is an age of artificial devices. Rare indeed is the man — and rarer still the woman — in whose physical make-up there is not something false, either eyes or teeth or hair. Happy thought! Why should we not have our nervous systems equipped with a false paunch, into which we may surreptitiously dump all superfluity of sensations, and save our own nervous capacity for those which we cannot escape because the Ogre Necessity has his eye on us!

It is not all fancy. Our welfare, so far as the humble observer of life can discover, consists in our ability to cultivate a certain insensibility to outward facts and influences. Of course there was a time when such an insensibility to external conditions was fatal. Back in the Stone and Iron ages, the acuteness and alertness of the senses was of prime survival value, and the more acute and alert they were, the more was their value enhanced. But verily, it would seem that the whirligig of Time has made a complete revolution. That trait which was at one time our great safeguard would appear to have become our great handicap.

Nowadays, our health, our poise, our serenity, our length of life, are dependent, not so much upon the acuteness as upon the callousness of our senses; and one of the most valuable accomplishments which a modern man can cultivate is the power to exclude all undesirable or unnecessary senseexcitants by an elfort of self-control.