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Chapter 12

A CHRISTMAS SERMON

BY the time this paper appears, I shall have been talking for
twelve months; and it is thought I should take my leave in a formal
and seasonable manner. Valedictory eloquence is rare, and death-
bed sayings have not often hit the mark of the occasion. Charles
Second, wit and sceptic, a man whose life had been one long lesson
in human incredulity, an easy-going comrade, a manoeuvring king -
remembered and embodied all his wit and scepticism along with more
than his usual good humour in the famous "I am afraid, gentlemen, I
am an unconscionable time a-dying."


I


An unconscionable time a-dying - there is the picture ("I am
afraid, gentlemen,") of your life and of mine. The sands run out,
and the hours are "numbered and imputed," and the days go by; and
when the last of these finds us, we have been a long time dying,
and what else? The very length is something, if we reach that hour
of separation undishonoured; and to have lived at all is doubtless
(in the soldierly expression) to have served.

There is a tale in Ticitus of how the veterans mutinied in the
German wilderness; of how they mobbed Germanicus, clamouing go
home; and of how, seizing their general's hand, these old, war-worn
exiles passed his finger along their toothless gums. SUNT LACRYMAE
RERUM: this was the most eloquent of the songs of Simeon. And
when a man has lived to a fair age, he bears his marks of service.
He may have never been remarked upon the breach at the head of the
army; at least he shall have lost his teeth on the camp bread.

The idealism of serious people in this age of ours is of a noble
character. It never seems to them that they have served enough;
they have a fine impatience of their virtues. It were perhaps more
modest to be singly thankful that we are no worse. It is not only
our enemies, those desperate characters - it is we ourselves who
know not what we do, - thence springs the glimmering hope that
perhaps we do better than we think: that to scramble through this
random business with hands reasonably clean to have played the part
of a man or woman with some reasonable fulness, to have often
resisted the diabolic, and at the end to be still resisting it, is
for the poor human soldier to have done right well. To ask to see
some fruit of our endeavour is but a transcendental way of serving
for reward; and what we take to be contempt of self is only greed
of hire.

And again if we require so much of ourselves, shall we not require
much of others? If we do not genially judge our own deficiencies,
is it not to be feared we shall be even stern to the trespasses of
others? And he who (looking back upon his own life) can see no
more than that he has been unconscionably long a-dying, will he not
be tempted to think his neighbour unconscionably long of getting
hanged? It is probable that nearly all who think of conduct at
all, think of it too much; it is certain we all think too much of
sin. We are not damned for doing wrong, but for not doing right;
Christ would never hear of negative morality; THOU SHALT was ever
his word, with which he superseded THOU SHALT NOT. To make our
idea of morality centre on forbidden acts is to defile the
imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a
secret element of gusto. If a thing is wrong for us, we should not
dwell upon the thought of it; or we shall soon dwell upon it with
inverted pleasure. If we cannot drive it from our minds - one
thing of two: either our creed is in the wrong and we must more
indulgently remodel it; or else, if our morality be in the right,
we are criminal lunatics and should place our persons in restraint.
A mark of such unwholesomely divided minds is the passion for
interference with others: the Fox without the Tail was of this
breed, but had (if his biographer is to be trusted) a certain
antique civility now out of date. A man may have a flaw, a
weakness, that unfits him for the duties of life, that spoils his
temper, that threatens his integrity, or that betrays him into
cruelty. It has to be conquered; but it must never he suffered to
engross his thoughts. The true duties lie all upon the farther
side, and must be attended to with a whole mind so soon as this
preliminary clearing of the decks has been effected. In order that
he may be kind and honest, it may be needful he should become a
total abstainer; let him become so then, and the next day let him
forget the circumstance. Trying to be kind and honest will require
all his thoughts; a mortified appetite is never a wise companion;
in so far as he has had to mortify an appetite, he will still be
the worse man; and of such an one a great deal of cheerfulness will
be required in judging life, and a great deal of humility in
judging others.

It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life's
endeavour springs in some degree from dulness. We require higher
tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have.
Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too
inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather
set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had
rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or
mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure
with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the
heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the
Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.

To be honest, to be kind - to earn a little and to spend a little
less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to
renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to
keep a few friends, but these without capitulation - above all, on
the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself - here is a
task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an
ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who
should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is
indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can
controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not
intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in
every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of
living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year's end or for
the end of life. Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there
need be no despair for the despairer.


II


But Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us
to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its
associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of
joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to
sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest
and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well
he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble
disappointment, noble self-denial, are not to be admired, not even
to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter
the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay
without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those
who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. Mighty men
of their hands, the smiters and the builders and the judges, have
lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this lovely
character; and among our carpet interests and twopenny concerns,
the shame were indelible if WE should lose it. Gentleness and
cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect
duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have
neither one nor other. It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom
Christ could not away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend
upon it they are wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may
be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should
spoil the lives of better and simpler people.

A strange temptation attends upon man: to keep his eye on
pleasures, even when he will not share in them; to aim all his
morals against them. This very year a lady (singular iconoclast!)
proclaimed a crusade against dolls; and the racy sermon against
lust is a feature of the age. I venture to call such moralists
insincere. At any excess or perversion of a natural appetite,
their lyre sounds of itself with relishing denunciations; but for
all displays of the truly diabolic - envy, malice, the mean lie,
the mean silence, the calumnious truth, the back-biter, the petty
tyrant, the peevish poisoner of family life - their standard is
quite different. These are wrong, they will admit, yet somehow not
so wrong; there is no zeal in their assault on them, no secret
element of gusto warms up the sermon; it is for things not wrong in
themselves that they reserve the choicest of their indignation. A
man may naturally disclaim all moral kinship with the Reverend Mr.
Zola or the hobgoblin old lady of the dolls; for these are gross
and naked instances. And yet in each of us some similar element
resides. The sight of a pleasure in which we cannot or else will
not share moves us to a particular impatience. It may be because
we are envious, or because we are sad, or because we dislike noise
and romping - being so refined, or because - being so philosophic -
we have an over-weighing sense of life's gravity: at least, as we
go on in years, we are all tempted to frown upon our neighbour's
pleasures. People are nowadays so fond of resisting temptations;
here is one to be resisted. They are fond of self-denial; here is
a propensity that cannot be too peremptorily denied. There is an
idea abroad among moral people that they should make their
neighbours good. One person I have to make good: myself. But my
duty to my neighbour is much more nearly expressed by saying that I
have to make him happy - if I may.


III


Happiness and goodness, according to canting moralists, stand in
the relation of effect and cause. There was never anything less
proved or less probable: our happiness is never in our own hands;
we inherit our constitution; we stand buffet among friends and
enemies; we may be so built as to feel a sneer or an aspersion with
unusual keenness, and so circumstanced as to be unusually exposed
to them; we may have nerves very sensitive to pain, and be
afflicted with a disease very painful. Virtue will not help us,
and it is not meant to help us. It is not even its own reward,
except for the self-centred and - I had almost said - the
unamiable. No man can pacify his conscience; if quiet be what he
want, he shall do better to let that organ perish from disuse. And
to avoid the penalties of the law, and the minor CAPITIS DIMINUTIO
of social ostracism, is an affair of wisdom - of cunning, if you
will - and not of virtue.

In his own life, then, a man is not to expect happiness, only to
profit by it gladly when it shall arise; he is on duty here; he
knows not how or why, and does not need to know; he knows not for
what hire, and must not ask. Somehow or other, though he does not
know what goodness is, he must try to be good; somehow or other,
though he cannot tell what will do it, he must try to give
happiness to others. And no doubt there comes in here a frequent
clash of duties. How far is he to make his neighbour happy? How
far must he respect that smiling face, so easy to cloud, so hard to
brighten again? And how far, on the other side, is he bound to be
his brother's keeper and the prophet of his own morality? How far
must he resent evil?

The difficulty is that we have little guidance; Christ's sayings on
the point being hard to reconcile with each other, and (the most of
them) hard to accept. But the truth of his teaching would seem to
be this: in our own person and fortune, we should be ready to
accept and to pardon all; it is OUR cheek we are to turn, OUR coat
that we are to give away to the man who has taken OUR cloak. But
when another's face is buffeted, perhaps a little of the lion will
become us best. That we are to suffer others to be injured, and
stand by, is not conceivable and surely not desirable. Revenge,
says Bacon, is a kind of wild justice; its judgments at least are
delivered by an insane judge; and in our own quarrel we can see
nothing truly and do nothing wisely. But in the quarrel of our
neighbour, let us be more bold. One person's happiness is as
sacred as another's; when we cannot defend both, let us defend one
with a stout heart. It is only in so far as we are doing this,
that we have any right to interfere: the defence of B is our only
ground of action against A. A has as good a right to go to the
devil, as we to go to glory; and neither knows what he does.

The truth is that all these interventions and denunciations and
militant mongerings of moral half-truths, though they be sometimes
needful, though they are often enjoyable, do yet belong to an
inferior grade of duties. Ill-temper and envy and revenge find
here an arsenal of pious disguises; this is the playground of
inverted lusts. With a little more patience and a little less
temper, a gentler and wiser method might be found in almost every
case; and the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel-scene in
private life, or, in public affairs, by some denunciatory act
against what we are pleased to call our neighbour's vices, might
yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy.


IV


To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven
and to what small purpose; and how often we have been cowardly and
hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day
and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness; - it may
seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a
certain consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a
man's vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with
a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of
rewards and pleasures as it is - so that to see the day break or
the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when
he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys - this world is yet
for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails,
weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly
varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly
process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go,
there need be few illusions left about himself. HERE LIES ONE WHO
MEANT WELL, TRIED A LITTLE, FAILED MUCH: - surely that may be his
epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at
the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field:
defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius! - but if there is
still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured. The
faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long
disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality
of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones;
there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and
the dust and the ecstasy - there goes another Faithful Failure!

From a recent book of verse, where there is more than one such
beautiful and manly poem, I take this memorial piece: it says
better than I can, what I love to think; let it be our parting
word.

"A late lark twitters from the quiet skies;
And from the west,
Where the sun, his day's work ended,
Lingers as in content,
There falls on the old, gray city
An influence luminous and serene,
A shining peace.

"The smoke ascends
In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
Shine, and are changed. In the valley
Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
Closing his benediction,
Sinks, and the darkening air
Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night -
Night, with her train of stars
And her great gift of sleep.

"So be my passing!
My task accomplished and the long day done,
My wages taken, and in my heart
Some late lark singing,
Let me be gathered to the quiet west,
The sundown splendid and serene,
Death."

[1888.]

Robert Louis Stevenson

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