Of Serenity

    SERENITY is a sort of spiritual capital; it is that residuum of spiritual production which remains over to assist future production. If we have no serenity left after a spiritual experience of any kind, we may be sure that our life, to that extent at least, has been in vain.
    Do you read, do you smoke, do you dine, do you take a walk, do you visit a picture show? What is the residue of impression left on your mind when the hour is past? If it is one of pleasurable content, an increment of quiet happiness, the experience has been worth while. If it is one of uneasy excitement, you have gained nothing. You have toiled unprofitably. For the spirit, like the body, must see the result of its labour; and that result [Page 233] is a fund of abiding serenity. How else are we to face the future and the unknown without perturbation? If our whole existence is to be made up of excitement, how shall fortitude survive? Those people who think to lose their unhappiness in a chain of endless activity, accomplish only a temporary alleviation for themselves. The more engrossed they become in mere activity for its own sake, the more futile will it seem to them at last. Rather than increasing their store of serenity against the foul weather of poverty or age or decrepitude, they have been spending it lavishly in the thousand channels of strenuous activity.
    As Emerson has it somewhere, our real life is in the silent moments. It may be in the pauses of conversation, during the midday rest by a running water, or after the guests are gone and the coals settle in the grate; but the inner life does not receive its pleasure or its nourishment in the doing of things; its normal joy is in accessions of serenity; it subscribes [Page 234] willingly to Stevenson’s saying that gentleness and cheerfulness are above all morality, – are the greatest virtues.
    Yet this is no plea for idle shiftlessness. The inert and careless, who are incorrigible bystanders at the great pageant of life, seldom taste true serenity. They are for ever infected with a feverish dissatisfaction. The slow malaria of inefficiency is in their bones. Too supine for effort or accomplishment, they miss the zest of relaxation, and dribble away their days in a woebegone dyspeptic indolence. They have no proper conception of the joys of leisure; they are as unfortunate as those who must be for ever on the go. It has never occurred to them to take hold of this life sturdily in their two hands, to work with a will, to play with a will, to loaf with a will.
    But the wise man yields himself to the moment; he is glad of the relish in toil, glad of the serenity in rest. He does not belong to the leisure class nor yet to the working class; for in his philosophy there should be no leisure [Page 235] class; leisure should be common as air or water, for men to take as they need; and work should be as delightful as leisure. There are thousands of men who do not know how to rest, who have almost no faculty of enjoyment; but there never yet was a man who did not love work, – his own proper work in the natural exercise of his powers.
    In any case, to be serene does not mean to be idle. For serenity of spirit may be kept in the midst of activity; and the most effective workers are those who are never hurried, never flustered, but retain in the thickest turmoil of daily life an imperturbable demeanour and steadiness of mind. Your nervous individual, whose fund of serenity is low, rushes about in a frenzy of fussy excitement, achieving nothing but his own destruction. In that most detestable of all vulgarisms, he is a “hustler.” God help him! He is distraught with a mental rabies; he has been bitten by the greed or envy of commercialism, or some other of the black dogs of modern civilization [Page 236], and his finish will not be a wholesome thing to see.
    Our day has almost made it seem true that to live without madness, one must live without haste. The man engaged in active business, as it is called, is very much in the position of a ranchman in a stampede. If he loses his head through a moment’s agitation, his doom is written. He must preserve in the irrational whirl around him at least a remnant of serenity. To be wholly engrossed in his surroundings, to lose his self-command, is destruction.
    Serenity is the atmosphere of poise, the still air in which the nicely adjusted balance of all our powers may be maintained. To preserve it we should be willing to sacrifice everything but life itself. Yet it is not to be had in exchange for any possession or characteristic. It is a habit, a moral attribute, a mode of thinking; it is one of the tides of the mind. And like so many of the best things in our mortal existence, it is greatly a matter of [Page 237] temperament. All men are born in bondage and unequal; and some are blessed by the fairy godmother with happier dispositions than others. Still there is no despair for any of us; if we have not the benign temper, the temperament which makes for happiness, if is our first business to acquire it. Why go through this world perpetually disgruntled, when men will concede so much to a smile? He who is serene commands a digestive that defies dyspepsia and will carry the buoyancy of youth into the ruts of old age.
    When you pass from the realm of actual life into the realm of art, serenity becomes the noblest of all attributes. In the world of beauty, where every line, every shade, every tone, is adjusted in considerations of permanence, how shall we tolerate anything that is not serenely alive? An art in which there is no serenity can no more mirror nature and human life for us, than a ruffled stream can reflect the trees above it [Page 238].