On one of my vacations up in the hills I used to sit under a tree with a picturesque old-timer, and I would get him to talk for the pure pleasure of listening. The kindly old fellow had had a varied experience, and in the course of a fortnight he had practically given me his entire life-story. It was a chronicle of hard knocks; but what impressed me most was that the old man told his tales without a hint of resentment or self-pity, and in his clear eyes was the light of a homely philosophy. When I would exclaim indignantly at his account of some tough experience he had suffered, his answer would be, "Well, I figure I had it coming." He obviously had the deepest trust in an ultimate and merciful justice.
All this started a train of thought that developed itself later as I drove along home through the quiet hills.
We have no patience nowadays with self-pity. To yield to it is one of the things that "isn't done." That is, when it takes a recognizable form. Some of the elegant and tender emotions of former years that went by the name of "sensibilities," have since been mercilessly unmasked, and called by their less flattering names, and we abhor them, and
crush them, like a vice of blood,
Upon the threshold of the mind.
But maybe self-pity lurks within our consciousness even yet, in unsuspected ways. Perhaps it is always there whenever we think we are the victims of circumstance or of another's wrongdoing. Some psychiatrists convince the patient (who has become discouraged because he has found himself inadequate to face life normally) that all his troubles are due to his having suffered some injustice or some fright in childhood, or maybe his mother made him get out of the right side of the bed when he should have got out of the left, or served him cold porridge in the morning. And so when he grew up he suffered from a warped personality or a withered psyche. And the patient is comforted, and gains confidence, and is helped, because he has found that, after all, somebody else was to blame.
Perhaps as far as this goes it is helpful, as tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. But as we grow in strength of mind and largeness of soul, we may be able to take a different stand, a stand that comes from a deep sense of justice not depending on small human dealings alone, but taking in the larger world where Cause and Effect are the great realities. It would be seen then, with calm finality, that the ultimate responsibility for all our griefs and inadequacies lay with ourselves. And without bitterness, or resentment against fate or the human hand, the answer would always be, on looking back upon a stern experience, "I figure I had it coming." In other words, it belonged to us. It need not necessarily have been a come-back from some former wrong we had done; it could belong to us by way of growth and experience perhaps; but take it or leave it, all that happens to us, pleasant or unpleasant, is our appropriate portion and is part of ourselves.
Well, that much may be granted, if it concerns acts of ours that were committed after we reached years of responsibility; but what of childhood and its frequent misfortunes? We were innocent enough then, and knew not what we did. If ever a certain self-compassion were justified, it would be in looking back upon the struggles of the child we once were. We do not think the less of Dickens because throughout his life he could never recall without tears his experience as a sensitive, terrified child-laborer in the blacking-factory. Nor do we look down our noses at Kipling for his moving story of "Black Sheep" — a story of himself as a stubborn unloved little outcast, sent back from India to school in England with the blackest of records for being so completely uncooperative. And then someone discovered that the little fellow was almost blind from an unsuspected malady, and his sight was saved only just in time.
These are famous examples out of the thousands of unsung childhood tragedies known best to their own chief actors in later years, and remembered always with an unappeased hunger to know why the young soul should have felt the heavy hand of affliction almost before its body was out of swaddling-clothes. — Or was it a young soul?
We take for granted the daily miracle of childhood, as we take for granted so many other marvels of our life; but looked at subjectively, imaginatively, the child is a mystery from the day it is born. The records of men's thoughts are filled with wonderings about the infant's real nature and what might have been its erstwhile home. In his lovely poem, "The Retreate," Henry Vaughan, the Welsh mystic, recalls how as a small boy he had
felt through all this fleshly dresse
Bright shootes of everlastingnesse.
And Thomas Traherne wonders how he as an infant with all a human being's magical endowments could have come out of nothing:
A Stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange Glory see,
Strange Treasures lodg'd in this fair World appear,
Strange all & New to me:
But that they mine should be who Nothing was,
That Strangest is of all; yet brought to pass.
We cannot think that the newborn child is a blank page; it comes upon the scene with its own special temperament tailor-made; with its first cry it shows what stuff it is made of. It apparently has come to tackle problems that are peculiarly its own and represent its special needs, and as it grows, teachers and parents help it to meet these needs, and to find and strengthen the weak places in its nature. It seems impelled by some inner urge to undertake this struggle. And for the most part it embarks upon the effort with courage.
On a forty-minute bus-ride out from one of our large cities, I sat one day with a gray-haired nurse who told me she had been employed for many years in the Incurable Ward of the General Hospital. She described case after case of the children who were there, grievously handicapped — but gamely carrying on. One little one had been born minus part of its spine, and would never rise from its bed, but it was growing up cheerful and bright, and was going to school and working hard at its studies right there in its bed.
Was this child a new soul, and if so, why should it have had a fate so abnormal? It might be suggested here, in accordance with half the world's traditional beliefs, that it was not a new soul — that it was a being newly returned to the scene of many former life-dramas. It knew that it had a debt to pay, and was losing no time in getting it paid. When we realize how many people die with their spiritual affairs in the greatest possible confusion, we can see how inevitable it is that they should have some means and some opportunity of coming back and setting things right, for only they can do that.
One of the greatest safeguards to our native courage, and a prime neutralizer of the lifelong resentment that places blame on others for our failures, is the calm realization that it is we ourselves who "had it coming." The very antithesis of self-pity is the energy of creative initiative welling up from within, and the knowledge that the soul is competent to deal with whatever situation it faces. Thus the soul grows toward diamond-strength and purity. And just in proportion as it views with a certain indifference its own "throes and sorrows," just so does it grow in pity for the throes of others. It is almost beyond belief that something like this in embryo is actually happening in our present supposedly "tough" civilization. Its very toughness and scorn of showing the white feather is only matched by its abounding readiness to extend help for others in need or in the grip of disaster.
Applied to ourselves individually, it is a reassuring thought that as we reinforce our own character by denying sympathy to its weaker side, we are the more able to be a source of strength and confidence to others. We think the game is worth the candle, and salute the Old-Timer for proving it so.
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Who — what — are we, in consciousness, before we come to birth in human form in this world?
When we find ourselves living here, restricted to the functions of a human body — and know them as restricted — whence comes the consciousness that can recognize this? And whence the realization that while in this human form one is placed within the range of the conditions of world-life, obliged to adjust to them, with no evasions or special privileges — a prisoner of the world?
To find oneself so is like the consciousness in a dream that declares the dream unreal and charges the dreamer to awake. The dream has a momentary degree of reality, but the wakening consciousness is clearly capable of directing one's participation in both dreaming and waking states. This new awakening presents a challenge unimaginable before, for the outer-seeming self is seen as a fleeting, changing image that must in time disappear, while the inner-feeling-self has become more real and permanent. How have these two come together? — and why? Is it possible that the inner consciousness can survive the separation from the outer image called death? The challenge is imperative: to solve this mystery!
Surely others seek answers to such questions, seek a convincing explanation of the combination of visible and invisible energies in their own organisms. Is there not a rational correspondence between the consciousness that wakes the dreamer and that which perceives the temporary imprisonment of a higher consciousness within the fleeting image we think of as ourselves? — Gertrude Hockinson