Always the Personal Note
The longer I live the more clearly I perceive the extreme difficulty reformers have to interest people in philanthropic schemes which do not place their religion, their brand of politics, or they themselves in prominent positions on the propaganda. It seems to be very much the fashion among those who desire to help others that they do so in the belief that they will thereby be themselves saved. So few, so very few, help the less fortunate on their way without cramming their own religion, or their own politics, or their own munificence down their throats at the same time. They cannot be kind for the sake of being kind; they cannot help others up without seeking to brand them at the same time with their own pet views and beliefs. And then they wonder why the poor will not be helped; why they are suspicious, or ungrateful, or allow themselves to be helped only that they may help themselves at the same time—and to something more than their individual share. Humility and tolerance—and tolerance is, after all, but one aspect of humility—are the rarest of all the human virtues. So much philanthropy merely means the giving of a "bun" on the condition that he who takes the bun will also stop to pray, to become Conservative, and to give thanks. Good is so often done for the sake of doing good, not to right a social wrong—which should be the end of all goodness. Even then, so many people are content to do good from a distance; or if, perhaps, they do come among the objects of their unselfishness, they do so with, as it were, the dividing-line well marked—with them, but not of them, and with the air of regarding themselves as being extremely kind-hearted to be there at all. It is their "bit"—not to help on the peace, of course, but to help themselves into Heaven. The poor are but the means to this end.
I always feel so sorry for clergymen—the clergymen who are inspired to their calling, not, of course the "professional" variety who are clergymen because they preferred the Church to the Stock Exchange. They carry with them wherever they go the mark of the professional servant of God, and it creates a prejudice, between them and those who really need their succour, which is almost unsurmountable. Many clergymen, I know, adore the trimmings of their profession—the pomps and vestments, the admiration of spinster ladies, and opportunity to shake the friendly finger at Mrs. Gubbins and regret that she hasn't been seen in church lately—this same Mrs. Gubbins who works sixteen hours a day to bring up a large family in the greatest goodness and comfort her mother's heart can supply, and, so it seems to me, lives her prayers—which is a far finer thing than merely uttering them in public and respectability. But the clergyman whose heart is in his work, who lives for the poor and needy, and finds no greater joy than in bringing joy into the lives of others, has to make those he wishes to forget first of all that he is a clergyman and not merely a man ready, as it were, to barter a bun for an attendance at church. Until he does this he cannot surmount that prejudice, that suspicion, and that atmosphere of unnaturalness without which no lasting comfort and good is ever done. For how can he live among the poor as one of the poor when at the same time he has to keep in the "good books" of the wealthy, who pay the pew rents, and the evil-minded "do-nothings," who are ever ready to declare that he is demeaning himself and their Church when he breaks down the barrier of caste and position in his efforts to live and suffer and work as do the men and women he wishes to make happier and better? He can do it, if he possesses the right personality, but it is a fight which, for the most part, seems so hopeless as not to be worth while. You have only to watch the restrained jollity of his flock the moment a clergyman enters the room to realise the crust which he will have to break through in order to bring to light the jewel of human nature which really shines so brightly in the hearts of the very poor.
It is so difficult for men and women, as it were, to really help the East-end while living in West-end comfort. It is so difficult for religious people to realise that the finest prayer of all is to "play the game." But the poor understand the wonder of that prayer full well; it is, indeed, I rather fancy, the only prayer that they really do understand, the only one which really and truly touches them and helps them on their way. And, when I see among the very poor the simply magnificent human material which is allowed to run to waste, misunderstood, unheeded, I sometimes feel that the only hope of real lasting good will be found by those who work outside the Church, not among those who work within it. For those who have worked within it have let so many generations of fine youth run to seed, that the time has come for practical lay-workers to take on the job. The poor need more practical schemes for their guidance and their good, and fewer prayer-meetings and sing-songs from the hymnals. For, to my mind, the very basis of all real religion is a practical basis. It is useless to live with, as it were, your head in Heaven if you stand knee-deep in filth. Of what good is your own personal salvation if you have not done your best to make the world better and happier for others? To worry about their salvation is less than useless—if that be possible. Providing they have something to live for, something to make life worth living, surroundings which bring out all that is best and bravest and finest in their natures, their heavenly salvation will take care of itself. The pity is that there is so much magnificent youthful promise which prejudice and tradition and social wrongs never allow to be fulfilled. There is only one real religion, and that is the religion of making life happier and more profitable to others. You may not make them pray in the process, you may not make them sing hymns—prayers and hymn-singing are merely beautiful accompaniments—in a practical uplifting of the human state, the human "soul." "Love"—that is the only thing which really matters, Love—with Charity, and Self-sacrifice, and Unselfishness, and Justice—which are, after all, the attributes of this Love.
Work in the East-end
It seems to me that the poor need a friend more urgently than they need a pastor, or, if they must have a pastor—then the pastor must be completely disguised as a friend. I always wonder why it is the popular fallacy that the poor need religion more than the wealthy. My own experience is that you will find more real Christianity in Shoreditch than you will ever find in Mayfair—even though the "revealers" of it may drink and swear and otherwise lead outwardly debased lives. Well, the surroundings, the "atmosphere" in which they have been forced to live, encourage them in their blasphemy. I never marvel that they are often profane; I wonder more greatly that they are not infinitely more so. But it seems to me that you will "uplift" them far more by pulling down their filthy habitations than by preaching the "Word of God" at them at every available opportunity. They are the landlords, the profiteers, the members of Society who do so little to cleanse and purify the human life among the tenements, who require the "Word" more urgently than the enforced dwellers therein. Only the other evening I paid a visit to one of the general committee of the Oxford and Bermondsey Mission in the little flat which he occupies at the top of a huge building called "flats." These flats consist of only two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen. There are no "conveniences"—except some of an indescribably filthy nature which are mutually shared by the inhabitants of several flats, to their own necessary loss of self-respect and decency. And in these two-roomed flats families ranging from three to twelve members are forced to live, and for this benefit they must pay six shillings a week. How can youth reach its full perfection amid such surroundings—surroundings which can be multiplied hundreds of times in every part of London and our big cities? And when I know the magnificent "promise" of which this same youth is capable—the war showed it in one side of its greatness—and see the surroundings in which it must grow and expand, physically as well as spiritually, I marvel at its moral achievements and I hate the society which permits this splendid human material only by a stroke of luck ever to have its chance. For what has this youth of the slums got to live for? He can have no home-life amid the pigsties which are called his "home", his strength is mostly thrust into blind alley occupations which he is forced to take, since his education has fitted him for nothing better, and he must accept them in order to live at all; and for his recreation, he is given the life of the streets and the public-house—nothing else. It is only such groups of unselfish men as are represented by the Oxford and Bermondsey Mission and by the men who run the London Working Boys' Clubs in the poorest parts of London, together with those other men and women, clergymen and laymen, who are struggling to bring a little happiness and light into the lives of the men and boys of the East-end by providing them with comfort and warmth in the club houses and with healthy recreation for their hours of freedom, who are helping to kill Bolshevism at its roots. For it seems to me that youth is the supreme charge of those who have grown old. The salvation of the world will come through the young; the glory of the old is that age and experience have taught them to perceive this fact. Give the majority of men something noble to live for, and the vast majority will live up to their "star."
Mysticism and the Practical Man
I wish the Mystics and the Practical Men could meet, fraternise, and still not yearn to murder one another. It would be of immense benefit to you and me and the rest of us who make up the "hum-drum" world. For the Practical Man who is not something of a mystic is at best a commonplace nuisance, and at his worst a clog on the wheels of progress. And the mystic who is only mystical is even less good to anyone, since his Ideals and his Theories, and often his personal example, fade away in the smoke of factory chimneys belching out the sweat of men and women's labour into the pure air of heaven. No, the Mystic who is to do any good to his brother men must be at the same time a practical man, just as the practical man must possess some Big Idea behind his commerce and his success in order to escape the ignominy of being a mere money-maker, the inglorious driver of sweated labourers. If only these two could meet—and agree—there might possibly be some hope for the Dawn of that New World which the War surely came to found and the washy kind of Peace which followed seems to have thrust back again into darkness. True, there are some business men who perceive behind their business a goal, an ideal, in which there is something more than their own personal wealth and glory, the be-diamonding of a fat wife, and the expensive upbringing of a spoilt family. They make their wealth, but they seek to make it justly, to make it cleanly, and, having amassed their fortune, strive to benefit the lot of those by whose labour they amassed it, and whose future, and the future of whose children, are at once their charge and their most profound interest. But these men are so few—they are so few that almost everybody knows their names. The great masses of practical business men possess the "soul" of a lump of lead, the ideals of little money-grubbing attorneys, the "vision" of a chimpanzee in a jungle. They are "cute," and, for the end towards which they strive, they are clever. But they are nothing more. And, because of them, there is this "eternal unrest" for which the ignorant blame "labour" and the still more ignorant blame "modern education." (Ye gods—what is it?)
Success and fame which are purely personal are always abortive in the long run. Unless a Big Achievement has some splendid Vision behind it, it is soon almost as completely forgotten as if it had never been. Or it may remain in the memory of posterity as a name only, without influencing that mind in the very slightest degree. A mystic must be a practical man as well, if his "vision" is not to be lost in the smoke of mere words and theories; just as a practical man must at the same time be something of a mystic if his labour is to live and bear fruit a hundredfold. Abraham Lincoln was a mystic as well as a practical man. That is why the ideal of statesmanship for which he lived has influenced the world since his time far more than men equally famous in their day. It was this "invisible power" behind his ideal which triumphed over all opposition at last, and which continues to triumph in spite of the pigmy-souled crowd of party politicians who still wrangle in the political arena. Nothing lasting is ever accomplished without "vision," and the spiritual, though long in coming, will yet triumph over ignorance and prejudice and selfishness, even though it comes through war and the overthrow of capitalists and autocrats. The life and the ideals of Abraham Lincoln are yet one more piece of evidence of this.
And just so far as modern Socialism possesses this "mystical power" just so far will it go—inevitably. But, personally, I always think that Socialism (so-called) is far too busy attacking the elderly and decaying, both in men and traditions. It should attack youth; or, rather, it should fight for youth, and for youth principally and almost alone. You cannot found the New World in a day, but if the youthful citizen is taken in hand, educated, inspired, and given all possible advantages both for intellectual improvement and bodily health, this New World will come without resistance, inevitably, and of its own accord and free will. To a certain extent the ideals of the British Empire succeed only for the socialistic "vision" which inspires it. But the chief fault of this "vision" is that it is so busy making black men clean and "Christian" that it has no vigour left to clean up and "Christianise" the dirt and heathenism at home. It would rather, metaphorically speaking (I had vowed never to use that expression again in the New Year, but—well, there it is!), bring the ideals of Western civilisation into the jungles of Darkest Africa than tackle the problems of the slums of Manchester. And this, not so much because a "civilised" Darkest Africa will have money in it, as because in tackling the problem of the slums it will have to fight drastically the rich and poor heathens at home—with all the tradition and prejudice, ignorance, and selfishness with which they are bolstered up and deluded with the cry of "Freedom" and "Liberty," and that still greater illusion—Legal "Justice."
Education of the mind, education of the body—to stop at the very beginning that tragic waste of human material, both physical, mental, and spiritual, which forces youth into blind-alley occupations or into occupations unworthy of physically fit men and women—that is the first stone in the foundation of the New World—a step far more important than the confiscation of capital, which seems to be the loudest cry of those who, in their ignorance, claim to be Socialists. Socialism is constructive not destructive—but the construction must have the vision of the future always before its eyes, and that future must be prepared for—drastically, if need be.
The Inane and Unimaginative
In every mixed crowd there always seems such a large percentage of the unimaginative and the inane that I am never surprised that the silliest superstitions still flourish, "the Thing" is rampant, and that, in every progress towards real civilisation, the very longest way round is taken with the very feeblest results. It is not that this percentage is wicked, nor is it strikingly good, neither is it necessarily feeble-minded, but it shows itself so entirely unimaginative and inane that it is no wonder that the charlatan in religion, politics, and education rampages over the world through a perfect maelstrom of bouquets. Nothing impersonal ever seems to stir the sluggishness of their "souls." They feel nothing that does not hit them straight between the eyes. They never perceive the tragedy behind the smile, the wrong behind the justice of the law, the piteousness and helplessness of men and women. The price of currants stirs them to revolt far more rapidly than that disgrace to civilisation which are the slums. Air raids were the greatest injustice of the war—air raids, when they never knew from one moonlight night to another if they might not join unwillingly the army of the heroic dead in heaven. That is why so many of them secretly believe that they endured far more at home than the ordinary common soldier did in the front-line trenches. They cannot realise his tragedy; they can, however, fully realise their own. That is why they talk of it with so much greater eloquence; that is why, when they listen to his recitals of dirt and hunger and indescribable pain, they do so with a suppressed yawn and a secret conviction that they have heard quite enough about the war. As for tragedy—their apotheosis of the tragic is reached in a street accident at which they can stand gaping, nursing the details for the moment when they can retail them with gusto at home; but I verily believe that, if the dying man cut rather a ridiculous figure, some of them would have to laugh. But then, this inane and unimaginative percentage among the crowd is always ready to laugh. Their special genius is that they will always guffaw in the wrong place. Or, if they do not laugh, they will let fall some utterly stupid remark—so stupid that one wonders occasionally if nature by mistake has given them a bird's brain without giving them at the same time a bird's beautiful plumage. And the worst of it is one is up against this inane percentage in every walk of life—this unimaginative army of men and women who can perceive nothing which does not absolutely concern themselves and their own soul's comfort.
Life's Great Adventure
I hope when I am old that Fate will give me a garden and a view of the sea. I should hate to decay in a suburban row and be carried away at the end of all my mostly fruitless longings in a hearse; the seven minutes' wonder of the small children of the street, who will cry, "Oo-er" when my coffin is borne out by poor men whose names I can't ever know! Not that it really matters, I suppose; and yet, we all of us hope to satisfy our artistic sense, especially when we're helpless to help ourselves. Yes, I should like to pass the twilight of my life in a garden from which there would be a view of the sea. A garden is nearly always beautiful, and the sea always, always promises adventure, even when we have reached that time of life when to "pass over" is the only chance of adventure left to us. It seems to beckon us to leave the monotonous in habits, people and things in general, and seek renewed youthfulness, the thrill of novelty, the promise of romance amid lands and people far, far away. And we all of us hope that we may not die before we have had one real adventure. Adventure, I suppose, always comes to the really adventurous, but so many people are only half-adventurous; they have all the yearning and the longing, but Nature has bereft them of the power to act. So they wait for adventure to come to them, the while they grow older and staler all the time. And sometimes it never does come to them; or, perhaps, it only comes to them too late. There are some, of course, who never feel this wild longing to escape. They are the human turnips; and, so long as they have a plot of ground on which to expand and grow, they look for nothing else other than to be "mashed" from time to time by someone of the opposite sex. These people are quite content to live and die in a row, and to have an impressive funeral is to them a sufficient argument for having lived at all. But their propinquity is one of the reasons why I should not like to grow old in a crowd. I know there are turnips—human turnips, I mean—living amid the Alps. But these don't depress you, for the simple reason that, besides them, you have the Alps anyway. And the Alps have something of that spirit of eternity which the sea possesses.
Do you know those men and women who, to paraphrase Omar Khayyam, "come like treacle and like gall they go"? Well, it seems to me that life is rather like such as they. You may live for something, you may live for someone, but some time, sooner or later, you will be thrown back upon your own garden, the "inner plot" of land which you have cultivated in your own heart, to find what flowers thereon you may. Live for others, yes! but don't live entirely for them. No. For if you live altogether for someone, it stands to reason that they cannot well live for you—or, if they can, then they don't trouble, since you are such a certain asset in their lives. So they will begin to live for someone else. For this living for people is part of the nature of all hearts which are not the hearts of "turnips." And then, what becomes of you? No, the wise man and woman keep a little for themselves, and that "little" is barred to permanent visitors. You may allow certain people to live therein for a while, but, as you value your own joy and happiness, your own independence and peace, do not deliver up to them the key. Keep that for yourself, so that, when the loneliness of life comes to you, as come it will—that is part of the tragedy of human life—you may not be utterly desolate, but possess some little ray of hope and delight and joy to illumine the shadows of loneliness when they fall across your path. And, for what they are worth to me for consolation, I thank Heaven now for the long years which I spent practically alone in the world, so far as congenial companionship went. Solitude drove me back upon myself, and since all of us must have some joy, natural or merely manufactured, in order to go on living, it forced me to cultivate other interests, which, perhaps, had I been happy, I should have neglected for brighter but more ephemeral joys. So I am not frightened of my own society, and that, though a rather dreary achievement, is by no means to be despised. It enables me to wander about alone and yet be happy; it permits me to travel with no one but my own company and the chance acquaintances I pick up en route, and yet not be entirely depressed. It helped me to achieve that philosophy which says: "If I may not have the ideal companion, then let me walk with no one but myself"—and that is the philosophy of a man who can never really feel lonely for a long time, even though he may be quite alone.
The Enthralling Out-of-reach
Everybody knows that they could improve human nature. I don't mean, of course, that they could necessarily improve their own, nor that of the lady who lives next door, nor that of Mr. Lloyd George, nor of Miss Marie Lloyd, nor even of Lenin and Trotsky; but human nature as it is found in all of us and as it prevents heaven on this earth lasting much longer than five and twenty minutes! I know—or rather I think—that I could improve it. And I should begin at that unhappy "kink" in all of us which only realises those blessings which belong to other people, or those which we ourselves have lost. Nobody really and truly knows what Youth means until they have reached the age which only asks of men and women to subside—gracefully, if possible, and silently as an act of decency. We never love the people who love us, to quite the same extent anyway, until, either they love us no more, or love somebody else, or go out and die. We never realise the splendour of splendid health until the doctor prescribes six months in a nursing home as the only alternative to demise. We never appreciated butter until profiteers and the war sent the price up to four-and-sixpence for a pound. The extra five hundred a year which seems to stand in the way of our complete happiness—when we receive it, we realise that our happiness really required a thousand. Fame is a wonderful and beautiful state, until we become famous and find out how dull it is and what a real blessing it is to be a person of only the least importance. Life, I can understand, is never so sweet as it is to those who, as it were, have just been sentenced to be hanged. Our ideals are always thrilling until one day we wake up to find them accomplished facts; and the only real passion of our life is the woman who went off and married somebody else. I exaggerate, perhaps, but scarcely too much, I believe. For, as I said before, there is a certain "kink" in human nature which casts a halo of delight over those things which we have lost, or, by the biggest stretch of dreaming-fancy can we ever hope to possess. I suppose it means that we could not possibly live up to the happiness which we believe would be ours were we to possess the blessings we yearn for with all our hearts. All the same, I wish that human nature were as fond of the blessings it throws away unheeded, as it would be could it only regain possession of them once it fully realises they are lost. Half our troubles spring from our own fault—though they were not really our own fault, because we did not know what we were doing when we did those things which might have saved us all our tears. That is where the tragedy of it all came in. We never realised . . . we never knew! But Fate pays not the slightest heed to our ignorance. We just have to live out our mistakes as best we may. And nobody really pities us; we only pity ourselves.
The Things which are not Dreamed of in Our Philosophy
The other day I received a most extraordinary spirit picture anonymously through the post. I cannot describe this picture—it is well-nigh indescribable. The effect is wonderful, though the means are of the simplest. Apparently the artist had upset a bottle of ink over a large piece of white cardboard, and then, with the aid of a sharp penknife, cut his way across it in long narrow slashes until the effect is that of rays of light which, seen from a distance, have the effect of luminosity in a most extraordinary degree. In the corner there is the figure of Christ on the Cross, to which this method has given the most marvellous effect of light and shadow. Indeed, the whole picture is almost uncanny in its effectiveness and in the simplicity of the means to this end. You ask me if I believe it to be really and truly a spirit picture? Well, honestly, I do not know. I realise the beauty of the picture—everyone must realise this who sees it; but, whether the artist who designed it and transmitted his idea through a human hand be a spirit I should not like to declare, for the simple reason that I understand so little of spiritualism—except that side of spiritualism which I do not believe—that I should be foolish to be dogmatic when all the time I realise that I am yet in ignorance. But of the genuineness of the "medium" through whose hand the spirit picture was transmitted I am certain. He thoroughly believed in the phenomenon that a spirit from another world was using him to convey messages to the inhabitants of this. You ask me why I believe in his conviction—well, my answer would be so mundane that you might perhaps laugh at my logic. But one at least I can give, and it is this; that, in my experience of mediums and professional spiritualists, one always, as it were, hears the rattle of the collection-box behind the "messages" from another sphere—either that, or the person is so eccentric that "mediumship" in his case has become merely another form of mental affliction. Well, the artist who sent me this picture is, except for this fixed idea that he is a medium between this world and the next, as normal as you or I, and his belief not only is making him poorer each day—the "spirit" firmly forbidding him either to sell or exhibit his pictures—but is gently, yet inevitably, leading him straight towards the workhouse.
A few days after the receipt of the picture I discovered the artist and went to "beard him in his den." While I was talking with him, he declared that he had just received a "message" from this spirit to draw me a picture which, it was inferred, would convey some "recollection" to me. Sitting at the other side of an ordinary desk, the artist picked up one piece of chalk after another, making a series of circular marks over the paper. This went on for nearly an hour-and-a-half. Occasionally something like a definite design seemed to come out of all this chaos in chalk, if I may so express it, only to be rubbed out again immediately, the circular movements still continuing. Then at last, a few vigorous strokes, and suddenly a definite picture came out, a picture which was continued until it was finally complete. This picture represented a tall arch, through which the artist had painted the most beautiful effect of evening sky—the evening sky when sunset is fading into blue-green and the first stars are twinkling. And around this arch was chalked a kind of heavy festoon of drooping ostrich feathers. The picture when finished was certainly very beautiful, and I have it in my possession at the present moment. But it conveyed absolutely nothing to me, and certainly brought back no recollection to my memory of a previous life whatsoever. But the "medium" so thoroughly believed in his "power to convey" that I felt quite unhappy about having to confess my unfamiliarity. In fact, I left the studio—if studio it could be called—convinced by the beauty of the pictures, but still unconvinced that they were really pictures painted by a spirit artist. The only belief I did come away with was the belief that the "medium" thoroughly believed in himself and the reality behind his belief. And, in a way, I envied him; yes, I envied him, even though his faith may prove but illusory after all. For I have reached the age when I realise that I am not at all sure that men and women do really want truth, and that a faith which gives comfort and happiness is, for the practical purpose of going through life happily and dying in hope, a far more comforting philosophy. I, alas! cannot believe what I am not convinced is a scientifically proved fact; but I am to be pitied far more than envied for my—temperamental limitation—shall I call it? The man or woman who possesses a blind faith in something above and beyond this world is the man and woman to be envied, even though everybody cannot emulate their implicit trust.
All the same, I do not think I shall ever dare to become a spiritualist. If you can understand my meaning, so much, so very much depends upon the truth and veracity of its tenets that I cannot go blindly forward, as so many people seem to be able to do, because I realise that disillusion would mean something so terrible that a kind of instinctive faith in another life, without reason, without scientific demonstration, seems far safer for the peace of mind. To believe in spiritualism, and then to be deceived, would be so unsettling, so devastating to the "soul," that, in my own self-defence, I prefer to be sceptical unreasonably than to be equally unreasonably believing. So many people, who have loved and lost, rush towards spiritualism demanding no real evidence whatsoever, bringing to it a kind of passionate yearning to find therein some kind of illusion that their loved ones, who are dead, still live on waiting for reunion in another world. Such a yearning is very human, very understandable, very forgivable; but these people are the enemies of true spiritualism as a new branch of scientific speculation. I would not rob them of the glamour of their faith, since, as I have just written, I have reached that time of life when I realise that humanity does not necessarily want truth for the foundation of its happiness, but a whole-hearted faith, a belief sufficiently sublime to make the common Everyday significant in the march forward toward the Great Unknown. But I, alas! am not one of those who can merely believe because without belief my heart would be broken and my life would be drearier than the loneliest autumn twilight. I find a greater comfort in uncertain hope and a more uncertain faith. If I ever really and truly believed in spiritualism and then found, as so many people have done, alas! that the prophet of it was himself a fraud, I should be cut, as it were, from all my spiritual bearings, to flounder hopeless and broken-hearted mid the desolate wastes of agnosticism. I cannot give myself unless I am convinced that the sacrifice is for something which I must believe in spite of all doubt; not entirely what I want to believe because belief is full of happiness and comfort. I am of those who demand "all, or not at all." I cannot go on struggling to find security by just holding on to one false straw after another. I prefer to hope and to trust, and, although it is a dreary philosophy, I could not, if I would, exchange it for something which is false, however wonderful and beautiful.
On Reality in People
My one great grievance against people in the mass is that they are so very seldom real. I don't mean to say, of course, that you can walk through them like ghosts, or that, if they "gave you one straight from the shoulder," you wouldn't get a black eye. But what I mean is, that they are so very rarely their true selves; they so very rarely say what they think—or indeed think anything at all! They are so very rarely content to be merely human beings, and not some kind of walking-waxwork figure with a gramophone record inside them speaking the opinions which do not belong to them, but to some mysterious "authority" whom it is the correct thing to quote. Have you ever watched the eyes of friends talking together? I don't mean friends who are real friends, friends with whom every thought is a thought shared—but the kind of familiar acquaintance who passes for a friend in polite society, and passes out of one's life as little missed in reality as an arm-chair which has gone to be repaired. In their eyes there is rarely any "answering light"—just a cold, glassy kind of surface, which says nothing and is as unsympathetic and as unfamiliar as a holland blind. You can tell by their expression that, in spite of all their apparent air of friendly familiarity, they are merely talking for talking's sake, merely being friendly for the sake of friendship; that, if they were never to see each other again, they would do so without one heartbreak. Perhaps I am unsociable, perhaps I am a bit of a misanthrope; but those kind of friends, those kind of people, bore me unutterably. I am only really happy in the society of bosom friends, or in the society of interesting strangers. The half-and-halves, the people who claim friendship because circumstances happened to have thrown you together fairly frequently—and one of us has a beautiful house and the other an excellent cook—these people press upon my spirit like a strait-waistcoat. I gabble the conventional small-talk of polite sociability, and I thank God when they are gone! They are called "friends," but we have absolutely nothing in common—not even a disease!
So much polite conversation is merely "polite," and can by no stretch of imagination be rightly called "conversation." It consists for the most part in exaggerated complimentary remarks—which, it is hoped, will please you—or in one person waiting impatiently while the other person relates all he and his family have been doing until he, in his turn, can seize a momentary pause for breath to begin the whole recent history of his own affairs in detail. But neither of them is really at all interested in the story of the other's doings—you can see that in their eyes, in the kind of fixed smile of simulated interest with which they listen, the while they furtively take note of the grey hair you are trying to hide, the shirt button which will leave its moorings if something isn't done for it before long, the stain on your waistcoat denoting egg-for-breakfast and an early hurry—all the things, in fact, which really interest them to an extent and are far more thrilling anyway than the things you are telling them in so much thraldom on your own part and with so much gusto.
Some people are artificial through and through; it may be said of them that they are only really real when they are having a tooth pulled. But the majority of people only hide themselves behind a kind of crust of artificiality; beneath that crust they were real live men and women. And the war—thank God! (that is to say, if one ever can thank God for the war)—cracked that crust until it fell away, and was trampled under the feet of real men and women living real lives, honestly with themselves and vis-a-vis the world. That is one of the reasons why the war has made social life a so much more vital and interesting state. Of course, there are some people who still strive to revive the social life of "masks," but they are the people whose crust of artificiality was only cracked—or rather chipped—by the horror and reality of war. War never really reached them, except through their stomachs and their motor cars, or perhaps in the excuse it gave them for flirting half-heartedly with some really useful human labour. They never went "over the top" in spirit, and their point of view still reeks of the point of view of the farthest back of the base. These people will be more real when they are dead than while they are alive—if you can understand my meaning? But thank Heaven! their ranks are thinned. They belong to the "back of beyond," to the "frumps," the "washouts," and the "back numbers."
Life is rather like a rocket; it shoots into the sky, flares, fades, and falls to the ground in dust so unnoticeable that you can hardly find its remnants, search how you may. Of course, I know that our lives don't really shoot upwards towards the stars to illumine the heavens by their own resplendent beams, but we usually think they're going to, sometimes we think they do, and then, when our dreams settle down to reality, we discover that our fate has been scarcely different from the crowd, and that our life stands out about as unique as one house is in a row of houses all built on the same pattern. But I sometimes think that our dreams are our real life, and that what we do is a matter of indifference to what we think and suffer and feel. Some days, when you sit in a railway carriage on the underground railways and gaze at the rows of stodgy, expressionless, flat kind of faces which the majority of the travellers possess, you say to yourself, "These people can have had no history; these people cannot have really lived; they cannot have suffered and struggled and hoped and dreamed and renounced, renounced so often with the heart frozen beyond tears." And yet you know they must have done—perhaps they are living a whole lifetime of mental agony even as you watch them, who can tell?—because you have been "through the mill" too, you too have walked to Amaous, sat desolate in the Garden of Gethsemane, seen all your fondest dreams crucified on the Cross of Reality, and risen again, lonelier, sadder, wiser maybe, but with a wisdom which is more desolate than the wilderness. You have been through Hell, and no one has guessed, no one has seen, no one has ever, ever known. And these people, so stodgy, so expressionless, so dreary and conventional, must have been through it too. For it seems to me that we must all go through it some time or other, and the bigger, the braver your heart the greater the Hell; the more sensitive, the more susceptible you are to the love which links one human being with another, the greater your pain, the more desolate your renunciation. And, as I said before, nobody guesses, nobody believes, nobody ever, ever knows.
So very, very few people can see beyond the outward and visible signs of pain. They see the smile, the fretfulness—and yet they think the smile means happiness and the fretfulness an ugly, tiresome thing. They do not perceive that often the smile is as a cry to Heaven, and that fretfulness is but the sign of a soul breaking itself against the jagged rocks of hopelessness and doubt. I often listen to the people speaking of blindness and the blind. They only see that the eyes are gone, that the glory which is spring is for ever dead; they perceive the hesitating walk, the outstretched groping hand which, to my mind, is more pitiful than the story of the Cross, and inwardly they murmur, "How awful!" and sometimes they turn away. But they have never seen the real tragedy which lies behind the visible handicap. Only their imagination is stirred by the outward and visible side of the tragedy; never—or rather, very rarely—is it haunted by the realisation of the despair which is struggling to find peace, some solution of the meaning of it all, struggling to bring back some reasoned hope and gladness, some tiny ray of light in the mental and physical darkness, without which we none of us can believe, we none of us can live. Perhaps they are wise to see so little of the real sorrow which dogs so many lives, but they, nevertheless, are blind in their turn. They are wise, because there is a whole wise philosophy of a sort in being deaf to the song within the song, blind to the tears which no one sees, to the trembling lip which is the aftermath of—oh, so many smiles. The philosopher perceives just enough of the heart-beat of the world to keep the human touch, but not enough to kill the outbursts of unreasoned joy which make the picture of life so exhilarating and jolly. And yet . . . and yet . . . oh yes, happiness does lie in remembering little, perceiving less, and in pinning your love and faith in God—in human love, in human gratitude, in human unselfishness scarcely at all. Happiness, I say, lies thus—but alas! not everybody can or ever will be happy. They feel too greatly—and if in intense feeling there is divine beauty, there is also incalculable pain. When the "ingrate" is turned out of Heaven they do not send him to Hell, they send him to Earth and give him imagination and a heart.
Dreams and Reality
So many people imagine that their love is returned, that their innermost thoughts are appreciated and understood, when lips meet lips in that kiss which brings oblivion—that kiss which even the lowliest man and woman receive once in their lives as a benediction from Heaven. So many people imagine that they have found the Ideal Friend when they meet someone with an equal admiration for the poems of Robert Browning; or the Russian Ballet, or one who places the music of Debussy above the music of Wagner. But, I fear, they are often disappointed. For the longer I live, the more convinced I become that Love and Friendship are but "day dreams" of the "soul,"—that all we can ever possess in Life is the second-best of both. Nobody in Love, or in the first throes of a new friendship, will believe me, of course. Why should they? There are moments in both love and friendship when the "dream" does seem to become a blissful reality. But they pass—they pass . . . leaving us once more lonely in the wilderness of the Everyday, wondering if, after all, those splendid moments which are over were ever anything more than merely the figments of our own imagination and had nothing whatever to do with the love we believed was ours, the friendship which seemed to come towards us with open arms—that the Dream and the Hope, and the fulfilment of both, merely lived and died in our own hearts alone—in our own hearts and nowhere . . . alas! nowhere else. I often think it must be so. Our love is always the same; only the loved-one changes. God alone is a permanent Ideal because He lives within us—we never meet Him as a separate entity. Thus we can never become disillusioned.
Love of God
Yet, it seems to me sometimes that even our ideal of God changes with the fleeting years. When we were young, and because He was thus presented to us by our spiritual pastors and masters, we figured Him as some tragically revengeful elderly gentleman, who appeared to show His love for us by always being exceedingly vindictive. Then when Fate, as it were, thrust us from the confines of our homes into the storm of life alone, we came to think of the God-Ideal in blind anger. We cried that He was dead, or deaf; that He was not a God of Love at all, but cruel . . . more cruel than Mankind. Sometimes we denied that He had ever existed at all; that all the Church told us about Him was so much "fudge," and that Heaven and Hell, the punishment of Sin, the reward of Virtue, were all part of the Great Human Hoax by which Man is cheated and ensnared. "We will be hoaxed no more!" we cried, little realising that this is invariably the Second Stage along the road by which thinking men approaches God.
The Third Stage, when it came, found us older, wiser, far less inclined to cry "Damn" in the face of the Angels. We began to realise that through pain we had become purified; through hardship we had become kind; through suffering, and in the silence of our own thoughts we had become wise; through our inner-loneliness—that inner-loneliness which is part of the "cross" which each man carries with him through Life, we had found the blind necessity of God.
And in this fashion he returns to us. He is not the same God as of old (we listen to the pictures of this Old God as He is so often described from the pulpit, in contemptuous amazement, tinged by disdain), but a far greater God than He—greater, for the reason that we have become greater too. We no longer seek to find Him in our hours of happiness—the only hours when, long ago, we sought to feel His presence. We know that we shall only find Him in our hours of loneliness, in our hours of desolation, in our hours of black despair. Now at last we realise that God is not some Deity apart, but some spirit within us, within every man and woman whose "vision" is turned towards the stars. He is the "Dream" which is clearer to us than reality, none the less clear because it is the "Dream" which never in life comes true. He belongs to us and to the whole world. He is everywhere, yet nowhere. He is the "soul" in Man, the silent message in beauty, the miracle in all Nature. He is not a Divinity, living in some far off bourne we call the sky. He is just that "spirit" in all men's hearts which is the spirit of their self-sacrifice, of their charity, of their loving kindness, of their honesty, their uprightness and their truth. It is the "spirit" which, if men be Immortal, will surely live on and on for ever. Nothing else is worthy immortality.
The Will to Faith
I wish that the great Shakespeare had not written that "immortal" line:
"The wish is father to the Thought."
It haunts you throughout your life. Like a flaming sign of interrogation it burns upon the Altar of Faith Unquestioning, before which, in your perplexity, Fate forces you—at least once in your life—to bow the head. It makes us wonder if we should believe all the evidences of Immortality we do—were Immortality really a state of Punishment and not of Happiness unspeakable. It is so hard, so very hard, to disentangle our own desires from our own beliefs; so easy to confuse what we ought to believe with what, beyond all else, we want to believe. It sometimes makes one chary of believing anything—in questions Human as well as Eternal. The "Personal Bias"—ever in our heart of hearts can we at all times decide where it ends and impartiality begins? Even our so-called impartiality is tinged by it—or what we fondly believe to be our impartial Faith. Doubt strikes at the root of Justice and of Love—not the doubt that is the half-brother to Disbelief, but the doubt which wonders always and always if we believe most easily what we want to believe, and if our firmest conviction against such Belief is not, more than anything else, yet one more manifestation of what we desire so earnestly to doubt.
Sometimes I am in despair regarding the whole question of my own individual Faith.
I am firmly convinced that there ought to be a God and a Life Hereafter. But my faith in such facts is paralysed by the haunting doubt that they may both be such stuff as dreams are made of, after all.
On the whole, I believe the best way is not to think about them at all—or as little as we may. The one question which really and truly concerns us—and most certainly only concerns God, if there be a God—in His relation to ourselves, is this life and what we make of it for ourselves and for other people. Don't ask yourself always and for ever if there be a God? Act as if He existed! So far as possible, play His part on earth. Then all will surely be well with your Immortal Soul in the Long Here After!
And, if the reward of it all—if "reward" is what you seek—be but a Sleep Eternal, do not weep. If you have done your best, you will have left the world happier and better, and so more beautiful. To those around you, to those who walked with you a little way along the Road of Life, you will have brought Hope where before you came there was only resignation and despair; you will have brought laughter to eyes long dimmed by tears; you will have brought Love into lives so lonely and so desolate until you came. God surely can ask of no man more than this.
That, at least—is my Faith. That is also my "religion." Theology is unimportant: FACTS, concerning the reality of God and a Life Hereafter—matter little or nothing at all.
What is all-important is that here on Earth—in the world of men and women around us—there are many less happy than we; many infinitely lonelier, poorer, more desolate and depressed. To these—even the lowliest among us can give comfort, bring into their darkness some little ray of "light"—however small.
Let the "Christian" Churches quarrel as they may. The uproar of their differences in Faith, each seeking to be justified, is stilled before the Great Reality of those really and truly in Human NEED. Let us do all the good we may—nor ask the reason why, nor seek a heavenly reward. At every step we take along the Road of Life—there is someone we can help, someone we can succour, someone we can forgive. A truce to violent controversy around and around the Trivial. True religion is an Act—even more than a Belief, infinitely more than mere articles of Faith. By the greatness of our sacrifice, by the unselfishness of our Love; by the way we have tried to live up to "the best" within us; by our earnest wish at all times, and with all men—to "play the game"—surely by these things alone shall we be judged?