The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


Of Contentment

 

     ONE may say of contentment, as of happiness, that it is rather an attitude of mind than a state of being, and depends more on the outlook we assume toward life than on the actual return we receive from it. If you look for contentment in those about you, you perceive it is not a matter of fortune nearly so much as of temperament, and those who are discontented in the midst of abundance are as many as those who are happy in their poverty.

     The discontent of the poor is explicable enough, and the happiness of the prosperous; but how shall we account for the serenity of the first and peevishness of the second, when we observe it? Hardly otherwise than by attributing their happiness and their misery to [Page 14] causes which arise in the inner self, and by forgetting in every case the worldly condition of the individual. You may see any day in the park sour old age rolling by in a Victoria behind a jovial flunkey, and equally sour youth dashing madly down the bridle-path, luxurious and discontented in the hot pursuit of distraction. In the next instant appear two others of like age, sex, means and circumstance, yet each is the picture of content, so that every beholder smiles and is made happy at the mere sight of their happiness. So it is in every zone of the community; you can never tell from any story of a man whether he is happy or not. You must wait until you see him. The eye will discover him, for his own eye will betray him. If he be bankrupt in the business of life, you may know it immediately, though he were studded with sapphires and rode in a hansom of gold. But if he have an ample balance in the Bank of Joy, you may know that, too, no matter how sorry a figure he may cut in a tailor’s estimate. [Page 15] It is not being out at heels that makes a man discontented; it is being out at heart.

     To be contented is to be good friends with yourself. He who has no quarrel with himself will have no quarrel with the world; while he who is at enmity with himself will hardly have a friend on earth. We must be reconciled to ourselves if we would have the enduring affection of others. For as long as we dislike ourselves, we are put in a temper of carping and cynical uneasiness far from lovable; we breed an unamiable disposition, and affect others as we affect ourselves — as ill-natured, querulous persons. The moment we are contented — the moment we bring the distracted elements of our nature into something like order — that moment we begin to taste the happiness of peace. Having no hatred, nor disgust, nor annoyance toward self left, we can have none left toward others. We appear what we are, normal beings, full of the natural blessedness of life; and friends start up for us from every roadside. A man is his [Page 16] own worst enemy, but not his own best friend; for when he is at odds with himself, every man’s hand is hard against him; but when he has made peace with himself, he has the whole world of friends to choose from.

    “Ah, yes, but the question is,” you say, “how shall a man be friends with himself? How shall he keep on good terms with his conscience, and be reconciled to his own sane reason?”

    The question, I believe, gives a hint of the best possible answer. It implies a certain divergence of purpose between the different members of our nature — an occasional, indeed a frequent, difference of opinion between rational judgment and instinctive desire, or between imperious aspiration whose authority is not to be denied and compulsory appetite whose dictates are not to be gainsaid. I shall only be reconciled with myself when these associate powers, inherent in my being and constantly asserting themselves, are brought into order and poise. So long as either one [Page 17] of the three is allowed to wholly dominate the other two, just so long shall I suffer inward strife.

    If I live for senses alone, I shall taste the discontent of soul and mind; I shall know neither repose of spirit nor serenity of reason. I may soak myself in the luxury and beauty of all that wealth can afford, but the magic moment of happiness will still be as far off as ever.

    If I live for reason alone, devoting my life to science or philosophy or theoretical propaganda, neglecting all the good things of the world as it is, and denying myself all emotional enjoyment — all enthusiasm and generous appreciation — I shall still fail of happiness; I shall still be worrying the bone of discontent, for my nature will be ill-poised and abnormal, at war itself as of old.

    And, again, if I live for my mortal nature alone, a life of self-denial and asceticism and meditation and prayer, however lofty my ideal, I may still fail to find contentment, for [Page 18] I may have starved my love of beauty and strangled my love of truth.

    No human creature can thrive and come near perfection without equal heed to the curiosity for truth, the instinct for beauty, and the impulse for doing right. And it is only as these three great instinctive forces come into something like fair accord that we begin to know contentment. Contentment is the index of poise in a character, while discontent is an indication — nay, is the very essence — of distraction. To be distraught, to do one thing when we perceive we ought to do another, to see the truth clearly and not have heroism enough to follow it, to lead an inner life of turmoil — this is the beginning of death, the gradual dissolution of character we nearly all undergo. It may be habit or conscience or subservience to conventionality that enslaves us and undoes us at the last; it may be a faltering will and a fickle heart; it may be a dull and sleepy mind. The disaster is the same; we feel the diversity of purposes [Page 19] of the warring intuitions within us, and the goblin of discontent crouches on our door-step.

    But let me for one instant grow aware of the loveliness of poise in character, the sure serenity and happiness that come with anything like harmonious culture, and at once I am transformed. I perceive what contentment means, and how it has not a thing to do with possessions or conditions or so-called success, but abides in the individual, only awaiting development. Contentment is the peace of still currents which have joined and mingled in one superb sweep of force; discontent is the thresh of opposing tides. Having known whence contentment comes, I know well how best to secure it, and all my days must thenceforth be given to the threefold culture which alone can lead us in the perilous way toward perfection.

    But this word culture, or self-culture, does not imply selfishness. We shall find that in the spiritual life, where the will is manifest and all activities take their rise, one of the [Page 20] greatest sources of happiness is in serving others. We shall find no contentment if we do not know that. And to serve others as well as to serve ourselves, practical resources are needed — the good common necessities of life and good uncommon luxuries, too. If we would know how much luxury to allow, I dare say we shall find the answer to that question also in our threefold ideal of culture.

    We shall not limit a man’s wealth by what he can earn or make, but by what he can use. Many a man goes on multiplying his wealth just because he has not the capacity to make use of what he already has. What he really hungers for is some vent for his mental or emotional and æsthetic nature which he has been starving all his life in the pursuit of gain. He does not know this; he only knows he is discontented with what he has got, and thinks there is nothing that will satisfy him but to get more; whereas the truth is he has too much already. His character is debauched in its active and practical and executive side. [Page 21] Then if he turns to find contentment in pleasure, he only finds distraction and dissipation; he is still living wholly in the region of physical activity, whereas he really needs to live in the region of the intelligence and the spirit. He needs to know more, and to love more, and to appreciate more; not to do more. He has done too much already.

    Just the same criticism applies to the exclusive bookworm who is debauched in his mental nature and has more knowledge than he can possibly use. He, too, is discontented and thinks nothing will satisfy him but more and more learning; whereas it is not learning but life that he needs — the satisfaction of accomplishment. Of the artist, too, you may say the like. His whole nature is probably given over to appreciating the world about him, to receiving impressions and recording them, to developing and cultivating his moral nature, while very often his mind is untrained and ill-informed. His culture has been sadly ill-balanced and an enormous ennui takes hold [Page 22] of him — he does not know why. Perceiving only discontent within himself, he fancies that contentment is to be found farther on in the road he has been following, and he grows more and more emotional, more and more absorbed in the æsthetic appreciation of life, and less and less capable of though or action and, of course, less and less contented every day. To the artist, the scientist, the man of action, the danger lies in specialization: the man has become absorbed in his trade; he is no longer a man, but a tradesman, whether his trade be commerce or art or philosophy. He can never be happy until he tries to be a man first of all, and wears his profession as lightly as he would wear a flower in his buttonhole. [Page 23]