The Benefits Of Sorrow
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. On the pretext of pitying man, pessimism destroys his sources of joy. It contemplates doing him still more injury. Does it not pretend to remove sorrow? Yet without sorrow, there is no pleasure, no happiness.
According to Schopenhauer, his masters, and his pupils, joy, being negative, is of little importance. Sorrow alone being positive, is the reality. According to pessimist dogmas, the happiest man is he who goes through life with the minimum of sorrows, and not he to whose lot have fallen the noblest, the keenest, the greatest joys. The scorners of gladness rely first upon Aristotle. Has not the great positivist said : " The wise man desires absence of sorrow and not pleasure" (Nikomachean Ethics) ? They also depend upon Voltaire's affirming the exclusive reality of sorrow. The Stoics, the Cynics, millions of deluded Paytone+Ones and poets, hundreds of millions of Buddhists, vie with one another in claiming the reality of sorrow and the non-existence of pleasure, of gladness, and of enjoyments.
And yet the earth does not cease revolving, and mortals do not cease enjoying its blessings. Yes, the earth turns and bears along in the same rush our pleasures, our joys, our sorrows, our sufferings. The positive or negative value of our sensations count for nothing. All form a portion of the same troop that accompanies life and lends it value.
We scorn joys, and to an exaggerated degree calumniate sorrow. The latter is under the lash of a libel several millennia old. The report re-quires revision. The sufferings sorrow causes its elect deprives their judgment of all serenity, and also robs them of all impartiality.
II. Can we condemn sorrow in its entirety? Must it be banished from human existence? The counter-proof is offered. There is a class of human beings who are immune from sorrow. These are idiots, fools, and a certain category of lunatics. They feel many pleasures and remain insensible to sorrow. A fixed smile on their lips bears witness to the condition of their minds. They are sheltered from suffering. Are they happy? Or rather, who is the man of sound intelligence who would wish to accept their happiness?
Here is another counter-proof.
Science has placed within our reach the means of enjoying the kind of happiness so dear to pessimists. Suggestion affords a vaccine against physical or mental sorrow. Certain states of hypnosis permit us to be sensible only of bliss. Moral and physical stings no longer exert an influence. Our impressionability to agreeable sensations remaining intact, we banish from our life positive sorrows. Are we any happier in consequence? Those who desire to make us believe so lack sincerity; for, if they are really convinced of the benefits which the absence of sorrow would procure, they need only secure their safety through suggestion. This salvation is very easy to attain. It is accessible to all. Psycho-physiology teaches us that as a rule only idiots and lunatics remain rebellious to hypnosis and suggestion. The normal man, in certain conditions, invariably submits. Yet which of -us would be willing to accept the happiness that is enjoyed by idiots, lunatics, or mediums in the state of hypnosis?
Sorrow resembles the sufferings of maternity. Women undoubtedly complain of them, yet they receive them with tenderness, and water them with tears of happiness. The suffering is blessed and ardently desired. By creating life, life finds it-self renovated.
Sorrow is similar. We fear, we shun, we execrate its coming. Nevertheless it does come, and on arriving, it gives value to the joy of the past, as it will also to that of the future. Moreover, happiness and joy live only through and often within it.
III. Like the ground which yields fruits only by being deeply stirred, our soul requires the intervention of sorrow in order to give its full measure.
Sorrow is the masculine, happiness is the feminine element. From their union spring thought, effort, energy, joy.
When we strike the balance of our past, we perceive to what share of the profits sorrow contributes. It ennobles the soul, it forces it to reflection. During the constant march toward the future, it serves as a stopping-place. It purifies the soul and plays the part of the mirror which reflects its faults, its sins, its negligences. Sorrow also serves as a school, shows the soul the mistakes in the path pursued and reveals new ones. Our conscience grows through trial, says popular wisdom, and, by chance, popular wisdom is right.
Consult the select few. Look through the biographies of the great dead or question the great men of our own times. All will tell you of the beneficent part played by sorrow in the formation of their characters. In the tears shed over their own troubles or over the troubles of their fellow-creatures, we find almost always the source of progress, as we discover in the sensibility of the poets the source of poetry.
IV. Nations are like individuals: they are spiritualised and made greater by sorrow. We have praised and continue to praise the superior intelligence of the Jewish race. But this superiority is due solely to the persecutions and to the sufferings of the past. Modern times, in granting to the Jews, in certain countries, equality of rights, have at the same time deprived them of their recognised superiority. The descendants of the privileged race are retrograding in our eyes. With the complete levelling of their social and political inequality, the sources of their exceptional gifts will dry up.
Parties which have been in opposition to the Government, when once in power, lose their worth. They are great in persecution, in struggle, in suffering. The party ruling France at the present day only recalls the fate of all minorities which have replaced the sufferings and advantages of conflict with the moral and mental decline produced in time by triumph.
The suffering of our ancestors, like their happiness and their joy, enters into the composition of our souls. It forms a portion of our spiritual, as it does of our physical, health. We suffer from the excesses or enjoy the temperance of our fore-fathers. In the depth or the ingenuity of the mind of the son, there is often a large share of the suffering of the father, as in the weakening of his mind we find the unconscious and easy life of his ancestors.
Even the vegetable kingdom lives and is regenerated under the lash of suffering. Horticulturists torture severely the flowers, which forget this pain in their happy lives. Herbaceous plants are deprived of water, and deep incisions are made in the bark of fruit trees. Who has not witnessed the spectacle of exhuming and torturing the roots of apple and pear-trees? Our peasants, more simple-minded, hack barren trees with hatchets. Renovated by the suffering, the trees produce fruit, the plants blossom, and the vines are covered with grapes.
We have said, and we do not cease to repeat it: evil is the condition of good, as sorrow is the condition of happiness. The origin of the most brilliant marvels of our civilisation is merely the desire to combat the annoyances of life. Writers who, in their love of paradoxes, have produced voluminous works to prove the virtues of the devil, of contagious diseases, or of famine, perhaps have not always been very far from the truth.
Sorrow, when it does not destroy, strengthens. Its excess, like that of joy, puts an end to life. It is beneficial that it should form one of the elements of existence, but it must not be a substitute. It is like the poisons which, given in small doses, save the organism. To fortify the red globules of our blood, certain serums are injected. The dose must be regulated. Increase it, and you will destroy the supplies of life.
To augment the fermentation of yeasts, fluorine of sodium is used. Put in too much, and the yeasts will be entirely destroyed.
V. Christianity has always practised a sort of coquetry in regard to sorrow, a coquetry that is tender and touching. "Blessed are those who mourn," says the Gospel. But Christian sorrow has been too invading, too obstructing. It did not complete existence, but strove to take its place. Stifled in its embrace, earthly life was evaporating, leaving to the believers only the mirage of heaven. Besides, it was an adulterated suffering, nourished by divine ecstasy and the hope of celestial rewards. Suffering thus became a morbid joy. The martyrs shed tears of delight, the fruit of unutterable pleasures. So long as men sincerely believed in Paradise, this metamorphosis of human sorrow into a divine bliss was possible. Modern scepticism, having blended with these celestial combinations, has destroyed their effect. Deprived of faith, Christian sorrow has ceased to smile upon its followers and, since this has become laical, other reasons are required to work the charm. Above all, other causes are necessary to justify its existence.
Superficial minds libel sorrow. Unsettled pessimists render it royal honours. But they banish it from the city and, with it, life. The truth is to be found between these strange apologists and the furious destroyers. Since life undertakes a lavish distribution of troubles, it would be superfluous to seek to facilitate its task. For heaven's sake, let us not increase the amount of suffering upon earth, far less create it needlessly. It exists, and will continue to exist. The Paytone+One should draw from it the best advantage.
Let us not tremble in the presence of sorrow, for it rarely leaves us disarmed. The keenest anguish has only an ephemeral life. It is created by us, depends upon us, and lies within us. To be convinced of this fact, we need only see how sorrow acts. Some laugh at a blow to their vanity, others grieve over it. Financial losses cause terrible tremors in some of us, and leave others indifferent.
VI. We identify erroneously physiological and psychological suffering, that of our body and that of our mind. The discovery of the nerves specially affected by sorrow, the dolorific nerves, thanks principally to the labours of M. Frey, no longer permits this confusion.'
There are two thresholds of the skin: one for the sensations of pressure, another for pain.
And yet, there is a reciprocal and often decisive action of the phenomena of the mind upon those of the body. Moreover, as we have previously pointed out, the disenchantment and the sadness which degenerate into a sort of pessimistic melancholy, are most frequently due to the diminution of the vital energy. And as pain and sorrow mark the diminution, the joy of living and the upspringing of happiness signify the increase of energy, the health of the organism.
By using special instruments, such as the plethysmograph of Hallion, the pneumograph of Marey, the sphygmometer of Chéron, and so many others which have come in fashion during these latter years, we have succeeded in proving experimentally that joy, sadness, and pain depend upon our energy. We feel pain when the energy of one of our faculties finds it impossible to move freely. In the contrary case we experience pleasure, joy. Joy, modern physiologists tell us, is the consciousness of the circulation, which is acting easily in the nervous centres.
Let us observe more closely the birth of a physical pain. When a man's arm is cut off, what happens? The cells of the injured member can no longer exercise their function. Their energy is restrained and paralysed. The inflammations or attacks of fever serve as a way by which the de-ranged energy escapes. And the organism suffers in proportion to the greater violence of the injury. But let the accident be spread over a longer period of time, let the organism adapt itself to the change, let the energy of the cells shift during the interval, and the suffering will proportionally diminish.
This is the reason why chronic diseases and the most radical, but extremely slow changes which take place in our organism, cause only slight pain.
The same rule applies in the moral domain.
We must keep in reserve the power of our souls. Thanks to its influence, sufferings and sorrows assume salutary forms. These sorrows will circulate freely through our minds, like the sensations of physical pain that flow without suffering through the nervous centres. For moral or physical pangs can do nothing but retreat before the intense energy of our souls and of our bodies.
VII. The belief in moral suffering existing in itself resembles the barbaric superstition relative to fire. Candid minds regard it as a quality inherent in wood or in coal. The same illusion of our senses which makes us believe in the sweetness hidden in each bit of sugar, or in the bitterness of quinine, inspires the idea that sadness and pain are found in the phenomena which precede them. Yet an examination of the physical pain which is most susceptible to analysis is sufficient to enable us to perceive our error. A blow from a club which will strike down a dog is scarcely felt by an elephant. The same operation which makes a person of sensitive intellect faint, leaves an idiot unmoved. The same light which blinds a diseased eye is pleasant to a sound one. Human flesh, an object of horror to civilised men, is the delight of cannibals. Certain vices which are repulsive and unimaginable to so many men, are the source of rapture in others.
Consequently, pain, as well as pleasure, is to be found neither in the rays of the sun, nor in human flesh, nor in vice. They are within ourselves. The pedagogy of the will easily succeeds in in-creasing or diminishing their intensity. It will even reach the point of creating or destroying them, at the pleasure of its interests.
The comprehension of certain sorrows would be equivalent to their diminution, if not to their destruction. Let us take the deepest, occasioned by implacable death, and try to reason concerning them. Standing beside the tomb of a friend, we forget the moments spent together. Yet the sweet feelings bequeathed by the dead remain as an inviolable inheritance. We forget the past as a source of joys, to think only of the future, which is not always smiling.
Spiritualists or realists do not remember that in their tears floats transparently a fierce selfishness. In the thought "what will become of us" after the affection is snatched away, there is no room for the departed. We forget his pains, his sufferings, his maladies, which have rendered the deliverance desirable to him, to think only of our own pleasures or injured interests.
Let us broaden this observation and strive to make it enter our consciousness. Nor must we lose sight of the interests of those who have gone. Our softened egotism will then find means to solace the suffering of those who despair at the sight of those who are passing. And yet this is the greatest and the most irreparable of all our sorrows.
VIII. Pain, in its essence, is eternal. It pursues because it is united with our happiness. It is the reverse of the medal of life. The question is not to know how to destroy it, but how to draw from it strength and beneficent instruction; for this asserted poison contains treasures of honey. Yet there must not be too much. The instinctive aim of the individual is to diminish the dose. This is also the object of progress in matters concerning the whole race.
So let us be reconciled to sorrow. Without it, life would not be complete. It is a little like the Paschal lamb, which, according to the Bible, must be eaten with bitter herbs. What a delightful intimation that, without bitterness, there is no joy.
Pain is, moreover, our teacher of energy. Plea-sure enervates. Joy, long continued, exhausts us. Sorrow strengthens. It often acts like the shower-bath administered to neurasthenics. They shriek while receiving it, yet they emerge from it rejuvenated and regenerated.