Life is a great gift, and as we reach years of discretion, we most of us naturally ask ourselves what should be the main object of our existence. Even those who do not accept "the greatest good of the greatest number" as an absolute rule, will yet admit that we should all endeavor to contribute as far as we may to the happiness of our fellow-creatures. There are many, however, who seem to doubt whether it is right that we should try to be happy ourselves. Our own happiness ought not, of course, to be our main object, nor indeed will it ever be secured if selfishly sought. We may have many pleasures in life, but must not let them have rule over us, or they will soon hand us over to sorrow.
If we separate ourselves so much from the interests of those around us that we do not sympathize with them in their sufferings, we shut ourselves out from sharing their happiness, and lose far more than we gain. If we avoid sympathy and wrap ourselves round in a cold chain armor of selfishness, we exclude ourselves from many of the greatest and purest joys of life. To render ourselves insensible to pain we must forfeit also the possibility of happiness.
People sometimes think how delightful it would be to be quite free. But a fish, as Ruskin says, is freer than a man, and as for a fly, it is "a black incarnation of freedom." A life of so-called pleasure and self-indulgence is not a life of real happiness or true freedom. Far from it, if we once begin to give way to ourselves, we fall under a most intolerable tyranny. Other temptations are in some respects like that of drink. At first, perhaps, it seems delightful, but there is bitterness at the bottom of the cup. Men drink to satisfy the desire created by previous indulgence. So it is in other things. Repetition soon becomes a craving, not a pleasure. Resistance grows more and more painful; yielding, which at first, perhaps, afforded some slight and temporary gratification, soon ceases to give pleasure, and even if for a time it procures relief, were long becomes odious itself.
"As to the value of other things," says Cicero, "most men differ; concerning friendship all have the same opinion. What can be more foolish than, when men are possessed of great influence by their wealth, power, and resources, to procure other things which are bought by money—horses, slaves, rich apparel, costly vases—and not to procure friends, the most valuable and fairest furniture of life?" And yet, he continues, "every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends." In the choice, moreover, of a dog or of a horse, we exercise the greatest care: we inquire into its pedigree, its training and character, and yet we too often leave the selection of our friends, which is of infinitely greater importance—by whom our whole life will be more or less influenced either for good or evil—almost to chance.
Much certainly of the happiness and purity of our lives depends on our making a wise choice of our companions and friends. If our friends are badly chosen they will inevitably drag us down; if well they will raise us up. Yet many people seem to trust in this matter to the chapter of accident. It is well and right, indeed, to be courteous and considerate to everyone with whom we are brought into contact, but to choose them as real friends is another matter. Some seem to make a man a friend, or try to do so, because he lives near, because he is in the same business, travels on the same line of railway, or for some other trivial reason. There cannot be a greater mistake. These are only, in the words of Plutarch, "the idols and images of friendship."
To be friendly with everyone is another matter; we must remember that there is no little enemy, and those who have ever really loved any one will have some tenderness for all. There is indeed some good in most men. "I have heard much," says Mr. Nasmyth in his charming autobiography, "about the ingratitude and selfishness of the world. It may have been my good fortune, but I have never experienced either of these unfeeling conditions."
We must, moreover, be as careful to keep friends as to make them. If everyone knew what one said of the other, Pascal assures us that "there would not be four friends in the world." At any rate tries to be one of the four. And when you have made a friend, keep him. Hast thou a friend, says an Eastern proverb, "visit him often, for thorns and brushwood obstruct the road which no one treads." The affections should not be mere "tents of a night."
Time is often said to fly; but it is not so much the time that flies; as we that waste it, and wasted time is worse than no time at all; "I wasted time," Shakespeare makes Richard II say, "and now doth time waste me." The life of man is seventy years, but how little of this is actually our own. We must deduct the time required for sleep, for meals, for dressing and undressing, for exercise, etc., and then how little remains really at our own disposal! "I have lived," said Lamb, "nominally fifty years, but deduct from them the hours I have lived for other people, and not for myself, and you will find me still a young fellow." The hours we live for other people, however, are not those that should be deducted, but rather those which benefit neither oneself nor anyone else; and these, alas! are often very numerous. "There are some hours which are taken from us, some which are stolen from us, and some which slip from us." But however we may lose them; we can never get them back. It is wonderful, indeed, how much innocent happiness we thoughtlessly throw away.
Suffering may be unavoidable, but no one has any excuse for being dull. And yet some people are dull. They talk of a better world to come, while whatever dullness there may be here is all their own. Sir Arthur Helps has well said: "What! dull, when you do not know what gives its loveliness of form to the lily, its depth of color to the violet, its fragrance to the rose; when you do not know in what consists the venom of the adder, any more than you can imitate the glad movements of the dove. What! dull, when earth, air, and water are all alike mysteries to you, and when as you stretch out your hand you do not touch anything the properties of which you have mastered; while all the time Nature is inviting you to talk earnestly with her, to understand her, to subdue her, and to be blessed by her! Go away, man; learn something, do something, understand something, and let me hear no more of your dullness."
Every day gives us a succession of glorious pictures in never-ending variety. It is remarkable how few people seem to derive any pleasure from the beauty of the sky. Gray, after describing a sunrise—how it began with a slight whitening, just tinged with gold and blue, lit up all at once by a little line of insufferable brightness which rapidly grew to half an orb, and so to a whole one too glorious to be distinctly seen—adds, "I wonder whether anyone ever saw it before. I hardly believe it."
No doubt from the dawn of poetry, the splendors of the morning and evening skies has delighted all those who have eyes to see. But we are especially indebted to Ruskin for enabling us more vividly to realize these glorious sky pictures. As he says, in language almost as brilliant as the sky itself, the whole heaven, "from the zenith to the horizon, becomes one molten, mantling sea of color and fire; every block bar turns into massy gold, every ripple and wave into unsullied, shadow less crimson, and purple, and scarlet, and colors for which there are no words in language, and no ideas in the mind.....things which can only be conceived while they are visible; the intense hollow blue of the upper sky melting through it all, showing here deep and pure, and lightness; there, modulated by the filmy, formless body of the transparent vapor, till it is lost imperceptibly in its crimson and gold."
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock)