The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
How We Take Life.

by Mrs. C. W. Carrell.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 255-262

On embarking upon such a subject as that which heads this paper, one finds oneself suddenly surrounded by a sea of doubt and difficulty. In the first place, the depth of the waters to be navigated is appalling enough to daunt the most self-sufficient; in the second, there is always the danger of shipwreck by either Scylla of Platitude on the one hand, or the Charybdis of Preaching (the unpardonable sin in woman) on the other. Perhaps, however, the knowledge acquired in one human experience, however faulty the observation, may offer some trifling suggestions to others less advanced on Life's Journey; with this possibility in view the task is undertaken.

The very word "journey" seems to call up to one's mental vision the one important point in that journey, i.e., the destination. "Where are you going?" we ask at the very mention of travel; and similarly, in speaking of the journey of life we must, perforce, speak of life's end, its aim. The guide-post of Holy Writ says, "Seek first the Kingdom of God"; and, much as some would have us believe to the contrary, the majority of those with whom we daily come in contact are so seeking, whether they recognize it or not. He who admits that he is (to use his own words) "only doing the best he can for himself and his family," is seeking the Kingdom of God, just as surely as if he had donned the monastic cassock or headed a crusade; and this, in spite of his own oft reiterated assertion that "he does not profess to be religious." He and his like, who think and talk thus, are blindly or semi-blindly stumbling along in the right direction; but he alone has discovered the true art and joy of life who is conscious of co-operation and communion with his Divine Guide. "In the life of every man," says Maeterlinck, "has there been a day when heavens opened. . . . . and it is almost from that very instant that dates this true spiritual personality." Swinburne sings:--

    "Child, night is not at all
    Anywhere, fallen or to fall,
    Save in our star-stricken eyes.
    Forth of our eyes it takes flight,
    Look we but once, nor before
    Nor behind us, but straight on the skies,
    Night is not then any more."

Because of the thrice-blessed necessity there is for most of us to work, there are comparatively few who, in their heart of hearts, deliberately set out to make pleasure, riches, social advancement, fame or any other material benefit, their true and ultimate aim; for those who do see life from this Epicurean stand-point there is but one effectual teacher, viz., the silent voice of experience. To these others then, the majority, wherein lies the greatest difficulty of the journey? Is it in the road to be travelled or the traveller himself and his equipment? If it be in the road, perhaps it would be well to constantly remind ourselves that we are not the victim of luck or ill-luck, nor the sport of a relentless and arbitrary destiny; but that we are receiving our soul's finest discipline at the hands of the Supreme Love. It has been well said that, "Man's coincidence is Heaven's profound design"; perhaps the thought of this in times of unlooked for storm and stress might help us to push forward with braver, calmer, firmer effort. To some, consolation is afforded in their darkest hours by believing that this present life is but one of a series of episodes which goes to make up an eternal life, each new birth being "but a sleep and a forgetting," (for the time). Be this as it may, it is man's universal and most profound intuition that the death of the body is not finality for us; and yet it is the one truth which we are in constant danger of forgetting.

So much, then, for Life's Road, which is not of our conscious selection nor ordering, and therefore, come rough, come smooth, must be endured. Perhaps, however, a little careful consideration of the traveller, his equipment and methods of progression, may be the means of revealing impedimenta by which he is hampered unnecessarily.

Our first investigation should certainly be of our outlook, to see whether it be a true or false one. Of late years there is a large and growing class who are hindered and discouraged by colouring too highly at the outset the horizon of their future, and who in consequence start life by expecting too much of it and of human nature. For some of the causes of this false view we may not have far to seek. Parents and teachers who would make too smooth the path of youth by an over-conscientious supervision, an ever-watchful sympathy and a too careful pioneering, leaving no obstacles to be surmounted, no difficulties to be overcome, are planting in the minds of children expectations never to be realized in after life, and false convictions only to be uprooted after much heart-burning and souring disillusionment. On this subject there is, perhaps, much to be learned from the admirable tone and discipline of our Public Schools.

There is also deserving of attention another prominent factor in the creation of this particular kind of false outlook. Since the birth of the novel, fiction has, perhaps, played a more important part than we are apt to assign to it in the formation of the character of civilized humanity. Great as has been its advantage in "revealing to us the soul of man by showing how it thinks, feels, wills, acts, under carefully devised conditions of fictitious circumstances," yet it has its disadvantages in putting before us as real, life under unusual and manufactured conditions. In the novel as in the drama that pleases, poetic justice is nearly always done to all its characters; vice fails, virtue, if not always triumphant, is generally recognised by the world as virtue. All personal histories are finished up and neatly rounded off; then the hero and heroine are generally presented in dramatic situations which form an artistic picture of either the extremes of joy or of grief. Ought it to be a matter of surprise, then, that the youths and maidens who devour novels indiscriminately during their impressionable years, find life disappointing and insipid, and that they are constantly on the alert for dramatic situations, which, not arriving, cause the would-be "stars" on life's stage to magnify the most common-place occurrences into an occasion for some favourite pose. Unfaith or disappointment, they tell us, has "altered all the purpose of their lives." Without the heart's desire they (in imitation of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) like the palm "stand upright in a realm of sand"; so they unconsciously assume a pose, and it becomes a creed with them to live up to it, producing the artificiality and want of back-bone so commonly met with in what is known as the artistic temperament. One is tempted to contemplate whether this love of pose is not responsible for some of the (so-called) romantic double suicides so deplorably common of late, though the problem-play may also have had something to do in the matter in offering suggestion to the neurotic. How can we as parents or teachers correct the obliquity of vision which gives rise to this false outlook? It would be impossible and undesirable to regulate the whole of a child's reading, but probably it would be wise to occasionally make an admired book or play the subject of conversation, say, at meal-times; to point out its beauties or weaknesses unsparingly; if posturing makes its appearance, a little good-natured "chaff" sometimes has a discouraging effect. Encourage a study of the lives about one, comparing the intensity of the joys and sorrows of others with one's own; never forget to take note of compensations. Read history and biography, noticing the apparently jagged edges and "sideways endings"; above all cultivate a sense of humour and a habit of quickly changing the point of view, so that apparently intentional injustice may be observed not only from the opposite side, but with the promotion-of-good-in-the-world in view, thereby making the aim not so much the perfecting of self as the glorifying of "the God of things as they are."

A story is told of a godly Scotchwoman who, after giving herself in matrimony to an elder of the kirk, discovered her pious spouse to be merely a whiskey-loving toper with "leanings to religion." Questioned about her feelings when this fact first became known to her, Janet replied, "Weel, I just laughed to mysel' to think what a mighty fine opeenion the dear Lord must hae o' a puir body to gie her sic a hard nut to crack as my Tam, but He will na be disappointed in His trust o' me, for if I dinna convairt t' owd mon leastways I can show him the Lord Himsel', that is a love."

Here indeed was an impersonal and humorous view of a very personal and lasting trouble. No posing as a martyr; no running about for commiseration and sympathy; only a delighted recognition of the Divine co-operation in the saving of a soul by love.

To return the outlook, there is yet another and quite opposite point of view to that which asks too much of life; this is that held by the pessimist who expects the worst of it; speaks of it as the "Vale of tears," and who

    "Seeks thorns in life
    And finds them there,
    But never heeds the violet flower
    That blooms his path beside."

These are they, too, who would start youth on its pilgrimage encumbered with an armour of precautions and suspicious enough to impede the fleetest foot. When the boy, thus equipped, enters the world of school he expects to find his form colleagues monsters of sensuality and vice, and his school career one long battle for right. What could the cottage girl do but look for the worst when, on being sent for the first time to school in a neighbouring town, was cautioned thus:--"Now don't pick wildflowers and berries by the hedges or you will be poisoned; don't pat dogs on the road for they might be mad; if you meet any cows jump over the hedge in case they toss you; and if a strange man speaks to you, don't answer, but run for your life back home!" The feelings of that poor infant on its outward journey are better imagined that described; one can quite realise, too, that all its after life would be dulled and its enjoyment blunted by unreasonable fears and suspicious.

Happily, pessimism is on the decrease among us, probably because it is usually the outcome of a childhood of repression and too severe discipline. Certainly the attitude is to a degree excusable when one recounts the various gloomy ethical systems that have been sprung upon society during the last half-century. For example, when a so-called philosopher worries himself and his readers by gravely conjuring up the fate of poor humanity a few ages hence, when our sphere will be cooling from the poles to the equator, "Punch" is quite justified in his picture of the old lady who is shivering to think the British coal-fields will be exhausted in a thousand years!

A gloomy outlook is sometimes engendered by disappointment at the non-success of our efforts for good. There are some to whom "the heavens have opened," and the moment they recognise that they must be "about their Father's business," become extravagantly public-spirited and would, Atlas-like, shoulder the world. There is no better example of this than is found today in third-rate, though popular, literature. Existing evils are brought so prominently out of focus that the reader's mental landscape becomes utterly distorted and out of drawing. Then are suggested as remedies forms of religion and philosophical systems which, in their original guise, were tried and found wanting centuries back in the history of the world.

I think it is George Eliot who says:--"The boy who has a hankering for infinity usually finds the greatest difficulty in getting his sums right." Similarly the would-be reformer often fails in accuracy in dates, statistics, and even the most elementary facts of everyday life.

Nevertheless, popular literature is not by any means the only representative of Mrs. Jellyby [from Dickens' Bleak House]in existence, though it would be going away from our subject to enumerate them.

The pessimist not only would order the world's future, but generally meets his own troubles half-way, and exhibits a great desire to mark out the arrangement of his coming life for himself, forgetful of the truism, "there is a divinity that shapes our ends," and that the carving of one's own career is not half so important or conducive to its success as watching for that tide which should be "taken at the flood." Emerson, too, has something to say to him, and, perhaps, it would be well to let his be le dernier mot:--

    "Some of your hurts you have cured,
         And the sharpest you still have survived;
    But what torments of grief you endured
         From evils which never arrived!"

Having spoken of the outlook, which in reality treats of our attitude towards our Maker, it is time to speak of our duty to our fellow-man, and we can hardly do better than by beginning with those who, to a certain extent, are under our control. The mistake of expecting others to have the same standard of right and wrong as oneself is a common one; though this state of things could not be possible where there are differences of age, of education, and of environment, causing a variety in the moral as well as in the intellectual standards. It would be an absurdity to expect a coal-heaver, for example, to be proficient in Latin, and yet we look for his principles to be on a par with our own, and thus, much in advance of his intellectual status. If the moral tone is gradually rising with the education there can be no cause for alarm, and it is surely all we can expect. In judging this the "blind eye" very often does better work than the organ which is over keen. "Shut-eye sentry" has been the means of preserving many a promising young soldier to bring honour to his name and country, while he has at the same time kept the national coffers better filled by preventing the creation of the wastrel [a wasteful spendthrift]. It is open to conjecture whether such an agent is not far more powerful for good than any investigation of public or private morals can ever be. In this respect, men, whether by nature or training (I am inclined to think the latter), do "hang together" better than women; they are more public-spirited, making more for the well-being of the whole than the perfection of the individual. Time fails to go into the causes of this difference, or to discuss which is the better method of promoting good, or to consider whether, if each sex emulated the other to a certain degree general improvement might not be the result, but the fact is apparent that many an employee (be it a too convivial workroom "hand," a pilfering cook, or a flighty housemaid) receives the greatest impetus on the downward road from dismissal without character consequent upon the over-rigidity of the employer's standard of right.

Then, in regard to those not under our control, but of our own status, do we not sometimes err in judging too severely not so much conduct as motive?

As we were reminded at last year's Conference, in Mr. Montefiore's admirable address, it is not well to be too critical or condemnatory of motives which we do not consider absolutely pure. "What is not against morality is for it--a prudential motive, if in its proper place of dependence, is not the enemy of virtue, but its ally"; and again:--"If the honour of the village, the credit of the name, point in the same direction as general morality it is surely desirable to begin with these narrower motives."

No consideration of our duty to others would be complete without touching upon the human emotions which affect socially. Time was when a display of uncontrolled passion was counted a token of force of character. Walter Besant, in his London, bids us remember that at this time men loved more violently and hated more bitterly. At this period extravagance of feeling manifested superiority to the bulk of mankind, who were "as dumb driven cattle," indifferent alike to love and hate. Since then, the mind of man has had the benefit of centuries of training, with its resultant improved hereditary tendencies; indifference, even in the lowest grades of society, has given place to feeling more or less acute; but in advanced personalities the control of the emotions rather than their display has become the aim. Some there are, however, who are slow to grasp this, and thus make bad masters of what should be good servants. If women are the chief offenders in this, it is men who generally uphold and defend their attitude. An eminent physician, I am told, has gone so far as to attribute the increasing hysteria of our times to "suppressed emotion"! Another doctor, however, writing on the subject, uses these words, which surely apply to both sexes:--"The objective mind, the mind of which the sole function is that of inductive reasoning, is the judicial tribunal--the court of Oyer and Terminer--which hears and determines all questions pertaining to the welfare of man in this life. When properly cultivated, it sits in judgment upon every act of our lives, regulates every emotion, restrains every passion, and directs it into legitimate channels. In short, it is the tenure by which man holds his free moral agency, and the power which enables him to fit his soul for eternity." Divine Pedigree of Man, Thompson Hudson.) Finally, a note of warning may be sounded to those who would take life more soberly, more consistently to their faith. Valuable as sympathy may be in times of bereavement and severe trial, it should be borne in mind that the soul is usually called upon to face its Gethsemane alone; how it faces it depends upon its previous training. Surely, then, it would be well to regulate our desire for constantly expressed sympathy with the most trivial of our joys and sorrows. After all, it is difficult for any other person, however intimate, to see quite from our stand-point; more often than not we "ask for bread" and are, with the most praiseworthy intentions, "given a stone."

[Oyer and Terminer: Anglo-French "to hear and determine."]

In this inordinate craving for sympathy, then, we are cultivating an enervating habit, instead of allowing a resolute, silent endurance to draw us nearer to our Maker.

(To be continued.)

Typed by happi, Mar 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020