Yesterday I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Christmas Sermon,” which was “written while he convalesced from a lung ailment at Lake Sarnac in the winter of 1887.” (I, too, am doing a little convalescing, and perhaps was in the right frame of mind for it.)
He speaks, in a sense, of a cousin of the hedonic treadmill, that of the heroic treadmill, this feeling that our life must be spent in pursuit of greater and greater things or else it is being wasted.
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.
I have been thinking a lot today about the question, “And then what?”
And also of Walker Percy’s problems of re-entry.
I’ve always found the week between Christmas and New Year to be a little tricky.
“The heroism required is that of patience.”
Filed under: Christmas