Our Contribution To Life
THERE is food for abundant thinking in that apocalyptic conception of a great human judgment in which books are to be opened. The suggestion here of a kind of celestial book-keeping, in which a debtor and creditor account is kept between us and the universe, sounds startling enough, and yet, the more we ponder it, the closer does it seem to the facts. Life, as we have known it, suggests irresistibly the idea of an unseen capitalist who has invested largely in us, and who is looking for a return. At the beginning the account is all on one side. Our existence is a passivity, a vast continuous reception. Our entrance into the world, as a tiny bundle of fates and destinies, a thin segment of the infinite, a link between nothing and everything, is in itself a momentous contribution to life, but it is not our own. The very "I" that we now cling to as most centrally ours was none of our choosing. That the new consciousness which in us came to the surface should emerge on this tiny planet instead of on a satellite of Sirius, that it should appear in the nineteenth century instead of the sixth or sixtieth, that it should be of this particular physical and mental capacity, of this precise shade of temperament, these and a thousand other decisions out of ten million "might be's," are all an affair of the Investor, who is not ourselves. One grows dizzy in thinking of the length of the chain of which we form the latest link. That palaeolithic ancestor of ours, whom we discern, rude, unkempt, groping his way in the savage conditions of the measureless past have we any affection, any filial regard for him ? Yet it is on him we hang. Had he not succeeded in bis struggle, kept the torch of life burning, spite of every adverse gust, and handed it, still glowing, to the one who came next, we had not been.
After our arrival we are, for the first part entirely, and for the after part still very largely, recipients and absorbents. Life's hoarded capital is at every turn being lavished upon us. The universe flows in through myriad open gateways of the soul, leaving deposits of all kinds from its infinite store-houses. We gulp the present and the past. All the histories, all the literatures work at us. We may not have read them, but they create the atmosphere we breathe. The agonies of martyrs, the struggles of patriots, the visions of seers,- the achievements of science, the products of adventure, help to swell the revenues we draw. In fact, there is no arithmetic can calculate the cost in thought, in effort, in suffering, in all that constitutes the ultimate values, that has gone to the equipment of the humblest of us alive to-day.
That is one side of this marvellous book-keeping. Not less remarkable is the other. We discover, as we study it, that the capitalist we have to deal with, lavish though he be, is no aimless spendthrift. He looks for a return, and insists upon getting it. Nothing is more wonderful than the way in which this demand utters itself, the way in which we are singled out and sent off to our particular spell of work. It is as though the heavens were opened and our names called. Out of our desires and our will-power, out of our circumstances, out of the impinging upon us of the unexpected, out of our successes, blunders and calamities, there emerges, as the years go on, a something, formless, mysterious, unreckonable, which, nevertheless, awed and wondering, we begin to understand as our Contribution to Life.
Formless and unreckonable we say, for we are at the furthest remove from any clear comprehension of what our output amounts to in the sum of things. We have no proper gauge of the importance of this or that. Do we imagine that St. Paul ever dreamed that his stray correspondence, written at the white-heat of the moment, addressed to the passing circumstances of a given time and place, for-gotten, may be, by himself, as our own often is, when the pen is laid down, was destined to be the leading part of a sacred book, to be regarded as the storehouse of doctrine, the centre and foundation of a world's faith ! Often it is what the man himself has thought least of that represents his largest payment. Goethe prided himself more on his theory of colours, which was a false one, than on his Faust. How little did Ken's " Evening hymn" and Newman's " Lead kindly light " bulk to the writers as compared with the sum of their activities and their interests ! And yet, as the years roll on, it seems more and more as though it were to write these hymns that these men lived.
But surprises of this kind are only a small part of the matter. The marvellous fortune of a Paul's letters, hidden from himself, is visible to us. But the greater part of our contribution to life, whether it be that of an apostle or a drayman, is hidden, not only from us and our contemporaries, but from all posterity, so long as it keeps on this side the veil. In trying to unravel the riddle of men's destiny we are apt to catch at the illumined and splendid points, as though we have here the explanation of the parts of it that are dark and troubled. It is nothing of the kind. Do we find, for instance to take a stray historical example that the great after career of a John Knox, as evangelist and reformer, is any sort of explanation of his sombre years as a Dominican monk, or of the horrible experience when he toiled as a slave at the galleys ? The prosperity of one period of life or of one part of the world is no answer concerning the suffering of another part. That so large a portion of our contribution to life takes the form of sheer endurance, the doing of things that are irksome and that supply no visible reward, demands a deeper solution. And there is surely one to hand. The pessimistic interpretation of life commits the mistake of supposing that our seemingly unprofitable and disastrous experiences have been transacted once for all ; that this is their final form, about which nothing more is to be done but the lamenting. Whereas all the probabilities are that such experiences have only begun their history ; that these seeming unprofitables and wearinesses are the rough out-lines, the first stages in a series of immense transformations and results that are yet to be revealed.
It is only along that line, the ancient line of faith, that we are able to make any satisfactory terms with our past. Viewed in this light our very blunders and failures receive a consecration which makes us at peace with them. The joy we missed and the pain that came instead are seen to form the cross, the manful bearing of which may turn out to be our chief, preordained, contribution to life. In the centre of the trial stand we, glad in the midst of it to know that our Commander has assigned us so difficult a post, and determined that the trust reposed in us shall not be betrayed.
When I was young I deemed that sweets are sweet ;
But our contribution to life is still in progress ; with some of us it is as yet only a beginning. 'What form the unfulfilled part of it is to take is a secret ; so many factors that enter into it are hidden from us. Yet of one factor we can make sure, and that is our own will. No combination of all the natural forces in the planet can vie for one moment with the potentialities of the human volition. In its secret chamber we can forge destinies. The combination of freedom and necessity that goes on there is a mystery we shall probably never explain. The nearest approach to it, perhaps, is in the formula of Hegel : "It is only as we are in ourselves that we can develop ourselves, yet is it we ourselves that develop ourselves." Despite the dense sophistical webs that have been woven round this subject man has always believed in his freedom. Plutarch well represents this age-long faith when, speaking of Homer, he says, "The poet never introduces the Deity as depriving man of the freedom of the will, but as moving the will. He does not represent the heavenly power as producing the resolution, but the ideas that lead to the resolution."
But this life-determining power to be of any service to us has to be trained, and to be reinforced. The supreme human achievement is to make resolutions and to keep them. If a man cannot resolve for a lifetime, let him resolve for one day. His will-power for the morrow will be perceptibly stronger for the effort. The world's emancipation, its advent to an earthly paradise, depends not on the accumulation of capital, but on the rescue of its will-power and the concentration of it on noble living. Imagine the lift toward human felicity if this magnificent sentence in Tertullian were made into a fixed resolve : " To wish ill, to do ill, to speak ill or to think ill of any one we are equally forbidden without exception."
Here is a contribution to life, the noblest conceivable, which we can every one make. It may not be ours to add to the world's wealth by great inventions or works of genius. We may be prevented from doing the thing we had most set our hearts on. But in one direction lies a sphere of glorious freedom. It is that of helping the world to its new, its Christian temper. When as a daily discipline we resolutely crush within us the first beginnings of unloving thought towards our fellow, when we help him by bathing the facts of each day's life in the radiant atmosphere of our own faith, when by God's grace and our inner struggle we have produced that noblest and most delightful of products, a richly developed inner life, we shall have taken the best possible means of paying back our debt. The world's greatest asset is the souls it is producing. Let us see to it that our own becomes a worthy addition.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
The Soul's Voice
Of Sex In Religion
Of False Conscience
Religion And Medicine
On Being Inferior
Our Contribution To Life
The Gospel Of Law
Of Fear In Religion
Life's Healing Forces
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