All Sweet Things

I

‘LIFE is sweet, brother.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Think so! There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things: there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother. Who would wish to die?’

‘ I would wish to die — ’

‘You talk like a Gorgio, which is the same as talking like a fool. Were you a Romany Chal, you would talk wiser. Wish to die indeed? A Romany Chal would wish to live forever!’

‘In sickness, Jasper?’

‘There’s the sun and stars, brother.’

‘In blindness, Jasper?’

‘There’s the wind on the heath, brother. If I could only feel that, I would gladly live forever.’ — GEORGE BORROW

It is, I think, beginning to be generally conceded that most people at some time or other in their lives consider the possibility of committing suicide. I am not now referring to the suicidal contemplation of adolescence, which is often merely a symptom peculiar to that period. I mean the deliberate weighing of suicide as the happiest solution to some problem or as a path out of some dilemma, a path which according to statistics is becoming more and more popular.

The last thirty years have certainly seen a great change in the public attitude toward suicides, along with a somewhat startling increase in their number. Whether this increase is due to our changed attitude of mind, or whether our changed attitude of mind is due to the increase in number, is an interesting though purely academic speculation. Together with this relaxing of public opinion toward selfdestruction has come a change in the causes leading to it as far as women are concerned.

Thomas Hood’s touching and, for that time, daring apology for a girl who had drowned herself presumably because betrayed by her lover takes it for granted that no woman would kill herself for any other reason. Incidentally I should like to remark that a girl in the circumstances depicted in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ was indeed in an impossible situation. It had been laid down that lovely woman after being betrayed by a man would, if she had left any slight remnant of decorum, proceed to die. But according to both secular and ecclesiastic law, if she took any steps to ensure her obedience to this dictum, she was damned both here and hereafter. So she was forced to choose between living an unjustifiable existence and violating the most sacred law of Church and State. The choice has an element of injustice in it, and perhaps a certain general laxity in both sexes is to be preferred to the unpardonably oblique moral code of an earlier generation.

At all events I imagine that very few suicides are now due to women’s betrayal by men. According to the statistics, women suicides are decidedly in the minority, and those who do kill themselves seem to be mostly unhappy wives or else women who, for differing reasons, are not satisfied with the conditions of their lives and agree with Santayana that ‘a spirit with any honor is not willing to live except in its own way.’

While not everybody may go quite so far as Santayana, there does seem to be a tendency to agree that one has the right to withdraw from life at discretion, and this brings me back to my starting point — that nearly all of us who have reached forty have at one time or another seriously contemplated such a withdrawal. I will go further and say that a fair half of us have not only contemplated such a possibility but have experienced a strong impulse to change it from a possibility into a fact — once and for all to put ourselves definitely beyond the chance of making further mistakes or of enduring more suffering or sorrow. Because I believe my own case typical, I shall use it to illustrate my contention, but first I must say that I am not in the least the type usually described as morbid, nor am I easily discouraged.

II

A few years ago I was facing one of the most difficult complications of a never-too-simple existence. Every path I tried seemed to be unmistakably marked, ‘No Exit.’ Driving home from the city late one afternoon with my small children, I was wearily pondering my problems once more, going over and over what could be done. Suicide had more than once occurred to me, but I could not reconcile it with my responsibility toward the children. Suddenly it flashed into my mind that I could take them too, thereby saving them the weariness and futility of which life seemed to be composed.

Just ahead of us lay a curve in the road where four people had recently been killed. I only needed to step a little harder on the accelerator and keep my hand steady on the wheel, and before any of us had time to be afraid we should all have escaped from living. There was a black flash before my eyes, I stepped on the brake instead of the accelerator, and came around the curve at my usual cautious speed. In less than three months the complications had resolved themselves and were succeeded by two of the happiest years of my life. Though things have a way of turning difficult every once in a while, and though I have not as much strength to encounter them as I used to have, I have not again considered suicide as a way out.

Now I believe, as I have already said, that a very large number of people have had a similar experience, and I should much like to know two things: first, whether anyone who has strongly felt that impulse without translating it into action has ever experienced its recurrence; second, what in the crisis acted as a deterrent — sheer terror of the unknown, hope for the future, reluctance to acknowledge the ultimate defeat, a sense of the essential value of life, or consideration for family and friends?

For myself, I think that I was held back, first, by consideration for my family, coupled with a doubt whether, no matter what my own feeling about life, I had the right to deprive the children of theirs although I had given it to them. As a secondary but still powerful consideration, there was even then reluctance to acknowledge once and for all that I was defeated. And while I was confusedly thinking these things we rounded the curve and came out facing the sombre beauty of the afterglow over a purple winter sea.

I have always especially loved the time when the sky burns dark orange on the horizon, the ocean shades from ice-green to darkest purple, and the little waves near the shore are for the moment as rigid as if carved out of lapis lazuli, but the utter beauty and peace of that evening sea brought tears to my eyes. I realized then, as at intervals I have ever since, that, no matter what life does to you, there is still a refuge from which you cannot be torn. The ‘sweet things’ are still free, and there is no one of us, no matter how lonely and poor, who cannot have his share by just looking around him.

III

Since the occasion which I have described, I have read with the utmost interest what other people have said about suicide, and I have thought about it from every point of view I could compass, coming at last to the conclusion that, despite the plausible and brilliant justifications which one sees, suicide is frequently shortsighted and invariably wrong. By ‘wrong’ I mean that it somehow interferes with a fundamental purpose which is the only thing that gives coherence to an otherwise monstrous universe, and that our man-made laws, harsh and crude as they may be, are a vague and faltering recognition of this fact. I believe that the inevitable recoil from the idea of killing ourselves which most of us feel springs from this innate sense of its essential wrongness rather than, as has been suggested, the instinct of self-preservation or the willto-live. This instinct, so often referred to as supreme, seems to me among those most often disregarded. There has never been a war or a great catastrophe, a shipwreck, or even a day, when it has not been unhesitatingly violated. If in this age of pure reason one could mention such things without being laughed out of court, I should be inclined to suggest that our feeling against suicide is an instinct of the soul rather than of the body, and derives from the laws of the spiritual universe.

But, even supposing suicide to be in accordance with whatever universal plan there may be, it still seems to me as a rule shortsighted. There are exceptions to this rule: for instance, the case of the man who kills himself because of incipient or recurring insanity. But such cases are comparatively rare. On the whole, people kill themselves because they find the conditions of their lives intolerable, now — and they do not see how those circumstances can improve, or they are not willing to wait for the change which is sure to come. For if there is one merciful thing about life it is that things do change. If joy goes and sorrow comes, why, sorrow goes and peace comes, — if we will let it, — and peace is a sweeter thing than joy, and more lasting. If we will only give ourselves time, if we will live each hour, each moment, as it comes, — not trying to face in one instant’s comprehension the entire future stripped of all we may have cherished, or of everything that to us makes life worth living, — before we know it months will have rolled by, and the particular burden which made our life intolerable is softened on the horizon of memory, or else has changed and modified so that, even if it still exists, we can almost forget it.

I have known physical suffering and sorrow and I have lived through both, saying to myself, ‘I need only live one second at a time. I don’t even have to live a whole minute now, — let alone hours, or months, or years, —just this one second.’ And gradually I could turn my attention from myself to the ‘sweet things’ that were unmarred by my grief and pain, till by degrees life was bearable again and more than bearable. The law of compensation holds good in the mental world as in the purely physical — if you do not interfere with it, but give it time to operate. No matter what is taken from you, — sight, hearing, the person whom you most love, — something will be given you in its place, and though it may not be the thing you would have chosen, it will still piece out the pattern of your life if you will wait for it and use it when it comes. I have said nothing of the loss of one’s mind, for it is difficult to see what can compensate for that, and yet the man who thinks he is Napoleon is perhaps as happy as any of the rest of us.

It seems to me that the group who justify suicide fall into a certain inconsistency, for, though they say that this life is or can be so beautiful as to satisfy the most avid soul, nevertheless they refuse to accept this thing of beauty unless its conditions are to their liking. They apparently feel no obligation to see how beautiful a thing, regardless of circumstances, they themselves can make of their lives. It is not that these people desire to live on the surface of life. They are often the ones most earnestly endeavoring to make the general conditions of living conform more closely to those they consider necessary to dignified existence. With these efforts I am of course in the heartiest sympathy. I am merely trying to point out that life does not depend for its value on the conditions surrounding it. Even those who believe that it does have not, so far as I have seen, defined those conditions necessary to ‘honorable’ living. Nor, indeed, is any definition possible, since the circumstances which one person finds intolerable may well seem to another entirely satisfactory, and certainly in this matter no one spirit is entitled to judge for another

IV

A recent article referred to the legless cripple who sells pencils as one of the types who would, if possessed of any honor, find life intolerable and so withdraw. I admit that there is something so abnormal about him, raised only a few inches above the sidewalk on his leather pads, that one’s first feeling is of repulsion. But my second feeling is one of admiration, for I believe that he has transcended his conditions and, although hopelessly handicapped, has nevertheless discovered sources of enjoyment still open to him. After all, objective values are about equal, and he probably derives as much enjoyment from a good meal as I do — though we may differ as to what constitutes a good one. Quite possibly he gets more pleasure from a movie than I do from a well-written book, since he is apt to be less critical than I. He very likely may drink whatever and wherever he can, and he may even chew tobacco. But those things are none of my business. Because I choose to consider his pleasures on a lower plane than my own, am I therefore entitled to say that he is a spirit without honor, else he would withdraw from a world that had treated him so harshly? His compensations are not those that would appeal to Santayana or to me, but, such as they are, they are his, figs plucked from thistles, and I consider him a finer spirit than if he had refused to accept his limitations and so withdrawn like a child who leaves a game because he does not like the rules or the place assigned to him.

People who commit suicide have always seemed to me something like that — children who have joined in a game but refuse to play unless they can be on the winning side. Of course the obvious flaw in this analogy is that we do not choose to enter, but willy-nilly are thrust into the game. It may well be argued that it is mere foolishness to play a game whose rules we do not like and in which we have no chance to win. Even so — and yet with all my heart I admire the child who does not complain about the rules or consider of too great importance the winning, but who, finding himself entered, plays it out as best he can to the end.

I can, however, see why people agree with Santayana in admiring the spirit that rejects life except on its own terms. In the last analysis, suicide requires a bravery beyond the reach of many reflective people. Anyone who glibly dismisses suicide as cowardly ought to set to work deliberately to kill himself. Whether or not he unsaid his words, I feel sure he would change his opinion. To face utter blankness, which is to-day what death connotes for most of us, requires the courage of real despair — much oftener prated of than seen. But, aside from the reluctance of the body to die by its own hand, there is, as I have said, a reluctance far harder to overcome — the recoil, possibly, of the soul from its own destruction. Be that as it may, it is obvious that suicide requires courage of no ordinary type. Then, too, there is undoubtedly an aura of spiritual aristocracy about the soul that disdains to cope with life except on equal terms. It is these two qualities, I think, which one admires.

There is, however, a spirit that accepts whatever conditions come to it and either moulds them to its own ends or, if this be impossible, ignores them and lives on, turning its interest into channel after channel and once and for all refusing to be balked by the merely objective. This spirit realizes that, as I have said, objective values are about equal — that is to say, you can derive only so much enjoyment from food, no matter whether it be chicken à la king at the new Waldorf or a sandwich in the automat, or even a bowl of soup on a rainy night in a bread line. The same, of course, holds for clothing, or indeed for any external. What is of vital importance is the subjective, — the capacity for enjoyment, — and this can be and often is enlarged as the objective advantages disappear. For instance, the legless cripple probably enjoys his food more than I do mine, because he has been deprived of so much else that I still possess. Certainly it is well recognized that the blind man has a keener appreciation of beautiful sound than I have, simply because he no longer enjoys the advantage of vision. It is just this capacity for enjoyment which is so intimately ours that life cannot deprive us of it except with our own consent. Knowing this, a spirit with a fine sense of honor will, it seems to me, be content to await the working of the compensatory law and choose to live rather than to die.

One recent writer who describes most vividly the mental processes leading up to suicide speaks of ‘dragging the chain of next month’s rent’ — an apt description of a fetter which at sundry times has handicapped most of us. I have often perceived it, not so much dragging at me like a chain as looming up in front of me like an insurmountable cliff; and, while I heartily sympathize with the writer’s distaste for facing the rent sensation indefinitely, I cannot help feeling that she accorded it undue importance in her scheme of existence. Overrating such responsibilities is an easy habit to fall into, especially if we are cast for the part of Martha cumbered with many cares.

But fortunately the stars in their courses do not depend upon our paying the rent, and, though the landlord may, the chances are that he would prefer to sacrifice one or even two months’ money rather than have us commit suicide on his premises. At all events we are doing him no injustice if we occasionally forget his claims long enough to let the eternal majesty of the night sky restore our sense of proportion, as it most certainly will if we give it the chance. And if we can no longer afford the comfort and convenience that have been ours, we shall often find that the lessened drag of the rent makes up for the lessened attractiveness of our surroundings, and that things ‘lovely and durable’ are still ours. The house we live in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, are only as important as we choose to make them.

The only real difference between chicken àa la king at the Waldorf and the sandwich in the automat is that the Waldorf chicken tastes better and its environment is, if less interesting, more attractive. But the difference is not worth killing one’s self over. Not, of course, that anyone ever does kill himself for so trivial a reason. I believe, however, that a great many suicides are caused by a heaping up of just such trivial differences, — the difference between riding in taxis and using the subway, the difference between buying your clothes in the uptown specialty shops and in the downtown help-yourself department stores, the difference between living in an apartment and in a light-housekeeping room, — all of which differences are due to money or the lack of it. Instead of living from triviality to triviality, instead of waiting to see how much difference it makes in the essential value of life to give up this thing altogether or to find a cheaper substitute for that other, the type of person of whom I am speaking gives one horrified glance at a life stripped — not only for himself, perhaps, but for his family — of all the adjuncts which he has come to believe are necessary to dignified living, and promptly withdraws from existence.

It may be that such a withdrawal is justified — that his self-respect really demands to be bolstered up with the outward and visible signs of ‘ success, ’ so that when these signs are taken from him he really loses his belief in his essential worth. Perhaps he does; and yet it seems to me that, in spite of what has been said, life cannot destroy your self-respect any more than it can deprive you of your capacity for enjoyment, — only you yourself can do that, — and, so long as you respect yourself, life is worth making the most of, more especially since you may be among those who believe that this is the only opportunity you will have to see what you can make of existence.

V

Nowadays it seems to be the vogue to call egotistic those who prefer the idea of some sort of personal survival to that of extinction, and I have heard people say that they have no dread of oblivion, but only of the mere act of dying. I freely admit that I am afraid of death both for those I love and for myself, but my fear is not by any means fear of the mere physical act. It is a deep-seated recoil from the idea of utter annihilation — and I do not believe that this recoil indicates that I am egotistic, which is bad, or avid, which is worse. If I have any fundamental instinct or feeling about these matters, it is that I have, with infinite pains and perhaps through infinite ages, built up a something — individuality, personality, soul, call it what you will — unique in a universe which contains many wonders and yet nothing living that exactly duplicates any other living thing. Since I have, through experience, welded my little bit of the cosmic into something that is unique; above all, since I feel that this process is not yet complete and cannot be completed in this life, am I avid because I find repugnant the idea of the absolute blotting out of what it seems to me I have so laboriously wrought?

While I cannot win to any definite conviction of personal survival, I find it utterly impossible to feel that all my hopes and fears, and more particularly my thoughts, are absolutely nothing but chemical processes. Nor can I believe that a universe so admirably ordered from the mechanistic point of view came to pass by chance or coincidence. It really seems to me that to believe that everything is accidental requires a more credulous mind than is required to see behind the universe some tremendous purpose, primal cause, or transcendent intelligence which we have chosen to call ‘God.’

Now the acceptance of an intelligence behind the universe does not imply that such an intelligence has any interest, beneficent or otherwise, in the fate of the individual or of the race. But the fact that through the ages, slowly, painfully, with many setbacks and retrogressions, mankind is lifting itself higher and higher in the scale indicates to me the probability that the force behind Nature is beneficent, at least as regards the race.

As regards the individual, perhaps the beneficence is harder to perceive. Certainly the unnecessary and unjust suffering in the world is hard to reconcile with the idea of universal kindness, and yet, ‘we are kept keen on the grindstone of pain.’ H. G. Wells, in one of his earlier stories, shows us what might very well happen in a world freed from the curse of Adam. His little people, charming though they are, have slipped back to a type more lovable but mentally and morally no more advanced than our hairy and chattering ancestors. It is obvious that most of us require the ‘sting that bids nor sit nor stand, but go’ if we are to do anything at all or to develop mentally. Since human development absolutely requires some form of pain and hardship, where are we going to draw the line between what is necessary for development and what is so overwhelming as to justify refusal to bear it? I suppose this decision can only be left to the spirit concerned, since the heart alone knoweth its own bitterness. But I repeat that the strong spirit cannot be overwhelmed. It is the house founded upon a rock.

Leaving out of the question the necessity of the grindstone of pain, it is possible, I think, to conceive of Intelligence as allowing us to evolve our own souls through the ages as our bodies have evolved from the primordial slime. If we are given life after life and chance after chance to correct our mistakes and follies and to avoid repeating our tragedies, it becomes entirely possible for us to think of God as eternally and unfailingly kind. Yet, though such a plan seems to me both logical and pleasant to contemplate, I cannot whole-heartedly accept it any more than I can accept the idea of a purely mechanistic universe. One seems to be born with the belief in life after death or else not to have it at all, for those who have it do not seem to need logic or reason, and those who do not have it seem unable to be convinced.

I wonder if the Presbyterians did not acquire their ideas of Predestination and Foreordination from these inherent convictions. One’s certainty of personal survival may well be another term for the certainty of salvation, and, since the belief in one’s own life after death does not at all depend on the kind of life one happens to be living, it is easy to see how the idea arose that God had chosen to save some and let others burn, and how brilliant minds apparently saw no vexatious inconsistency in a plan that made no allowance for individual good works or good faith.

It is interesting to note that belief in survival is found among all types of minds. The most brilliant and lucid mind that I know, and the one least apt to be influenced by its own preferences, has that absolute conviction which I so conspicuously lack and which I should prize above rubies. The rest of my acquaintances and friends divide fairly evenly between those who believe in life after death and those like myself who do not know what they believe. There are only a few, and those, in my particular group, not the most brilliant or most deeply read, who believe definitely that there is nothing.

As a rough generalization it seems to me that there are two classes which are most apt to believe in a spiritual universe and the definite existence of the soul. First, those people who lead the simplest lives and the ones nearest to the earth — the farmers, for example. Perhaps, after all, God is found in gardens. These people are not very articulate when it comes to discussing their beliefs and their reasons therefor, but they do seem to have something on which they rest, and so are to be envied. The second group which inclines to the same beliefs is composed of those who have read much, studied much, and thought deeply. Once again extremes meet. The group that denies all meaning to the universe and believes only in what can be defined and dissected seems to me composed of those who have just begun to think for themselves and, perceiving the falsity of the old dogmas and the worn-outness of some of the creeds, have not yet perceived that there is still something which creed and dogma inchoately attempt to put into words.

VI

One thing more and then I have finished. One writer has said that she cannot understand how parents who have lost a dearly beloved healthy child can look around at the cripples, the deficient, and the unwanted children who survive and still believe in a divine Providence. I have lost such a child — the youngest, our only girl, a baby of three who, running to meet me, was struck down by a car and died in my arms on the way to the hospital. How far divine Providence was responsible I do not pretend to say, but it is easier for me to believe that there was some reason for her being taken. I can most truly declare that if I really believed this universe so aimless and so haphazard as blindly to crush out such lives as hers, forever ending them, then indeed I do not know whether, in spite of all I have here written, I could longer endure it.

The hardest thing about such a loss is, not the agony of separation, not the knowledge that never again in this world shall I feel her tiny trusting hand in mine or hear her say confidently, ‘Oo won’t let it hurt me, will oo, Mommie?’ — not even the memory of that last afternoon when I washed her face and hands and sent her happily off to the playground with her two older brothers. The thing that is with me night and day is the uncertainty whether all the lovely potentialities that were hers have been completely erased. If I could only feel sure that somewhere she still lives, perhaps under more favorable circumstances, developing her own little portion of the world soul as she gave every promise of doing here, I could count my own personal loss as negligible. I could even hope that her early death indicated that she did not need to be kept sharp on the grindstone of pain. But the conviction that she still lives does not seem likely to be mine.

In spite of a sorrow which for me has changed the face of the world, I can still realize how much has been left, and I am occasionally struck by the fact that everyday life seems somehow to have taken on a deeper meaning. I am often surprised to find how interesting and sometimes how lovely are the little things of every day. The amount of good nourishing food I can get out of a dollar, the success of a new recipe, my hitherto unsuspected ability as a handy man, the increasing tameness of the pigeons, the constant thrill of discovering how many hens laid to-day, the ever-recurring curiosity as to who or what Pal’s pups are going to resemble — all these usual trivialities interest me as much as did any of the varied activities which have been mine, and seem in the long run to be almost as important.

For everyday beauty I have the poinsettias against my neighbor’s house, the purple on the neck of my own gray pigeon, the exquisite exactness with which the feathers of the white pigeons overlap, the humming bird, a gold and green song in the hibiscus, and the eloquent liquid eyes of Fluffy, our absurdly sentimental mid-Victorian dog. Behind and around and over these, there is the beauty of the ‘sweet things,’ of day and night, of dawn and sunset. More particularly there is the beauty of the stars, which I never seemed really to see until night after night I searched them for an answer to the question, ‘Has she indeed perished like the grass, which to-day is and to-morrow is cast into the oven?’ Though there came no answer from their vast and silent spaces, there was help in their solemn beauty and in the realization that they have seen countless thousands undergo my sorrow. I learned too that, lonely as one’s individual grief must be, it still brings one into kinship with those who have lived and suffered before and those who will live and suffer after. This feeling of beauty and this close kinship with humanity are mine as long as I choose to keep the vision of them. And while I have them I can say with Jasper: ‘There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things: there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother. Who would wish to die?’