The privilege of pain
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PRIVILEGE OF PAIN
A very suggestive and intriguing titleis “The Privilege of Pain.” Those whoknow a good deal about the subject willdoubtless raise the eyebrow of incredulity,while those who have lived in blissfulignorance will be curious if not whollysympathetic. When I first heard the essay(since developed into this book) readbefore an audience of very thoughtful anddiscriminating women, I fancied, althoughit awakened the liveliest interest in allpresent, that there was not entire unanimityas to the essayist’s point of view.Several invalids and semi-invalids wore anexpression of modest pride in the eloquentplea that physical limitations had not succeededin stemming the tide of mental andspiritual achievement in the long historyof the world’s progress. Robust ladies,equal to eight hours’ work, and if advisable,4eight hours’ play, out of the twenty-four,looked a trifle aggrieved, as if thegift of perfect health had been underrated,and the laurels that had always surmountedtheir shining hair and glowingfaces might be wrested from them andplaced on paler brows. They had no wishto shorten the list of the essayist’s heroes,(Heaven forbid!) but they evidentlywished to retire to their private librariesand compile a roll of honor from themerely healthy.
However there was no acrimony in thediscussion that followed the reading of thepaper nor any desire to withhold honorwhere honor was so gloriously due.
Those who disbelieved in the validityof pain; those who were convinced thatmind is not only superior to, but able towin complete triumph over matter; thosewho felt that laying hold of the GreatSource of Healing and Power would enablethem not only to deny but to defypain, these naturally were not completelyin accord with the writer.
Myself, I have always thought that thehappy waking after dreamless sleep; theexultation in the new day and its appointedtask; the sense of vigor and ability to do5whatever opportunity offered; the feelingthat one could “run and not be weary,could walk and not faint”—that thesewere the most precious things that thegods could vouchsafe to mankind,—andyet!—What of the latent powers thatwake into life when we look into “thebright face of danger”? Our bodies arenot commonly the temples that God intendedthem to be, and yet often an unquenchablefire burns within; an inner flamethat incites to effort and achievement,turns the timid slave into the happy warrior.What if the strength born of overcomingshould rescue dormant powersequal to those that exist where there is noeffort save that engendered by aboundingvitality? After all life is an obstacle raceto most of us. Who knows whether thehorse could make a spectacular jump hadhe not often been confronted by bar, gate,hurdle and hedge? I wonder how manygreat things have been carved, painted,written, conceived, invented, where thecreative human being has never suffered,but has been sheltered, lapped in ease, theburden lifted from his shoulders? I wonderif the eye that is seldom wet with tearsis ever truly capable of the highest vision?
6I think that my own unregeneratewatchword would be: “All for health andthe world well lost!” so I am by no meansa special pleader, even yet, for the “privilegeof pain”; but Mrs. Everett’s enthusiasmand the ardor of her conviction compelsa new and more sympathetic understandingof her thesis.
I have more often seen spiritual thanintellectual exaltation follow pain, but bothwere present in one woman, half-poet,half-saint, whose verses were written inintense suffering, as indeed were most ofW. E. Henley’s.
With closed eyes and pale lips she oncequoted to me:
“How is it possible for you to say it?”I asked brokenly.
“Because,” she answered, “all dreamsand all visions have come to me, as well asall that I know of earth and heaven,through pain. It opens windows in whatwould otherwise be blank walls!”
The blind, deaf, dumb, maimed, crippled7(if so be it the soul is strong) seemto develop a splendid fighting spirit unknownto those who, apparently, have completecommand of all their powers. Takeone sense away and the others spring, full-armored,into more active service. Robthem of a right hand and the underratedleft becomes doubly skilful. These aresoldiers in the “army with banners,” andshould be led and followed by acclaiminghosts.
I have known hundreds of invalids moreor less saintly, but I have had personalfriendship with only two completely joyous,triumphant ones,—Robert LouisStevenson and Helen Keller. If “onewith God is a majority,” then two suchconquering human creatures as these furnishinspiration for our generation, andMrs. Everett in her eager search hasfound hundreds of similar examples. Forthat reason I call this a unique, gallant,courageous, helpful little book, likely togive pluck and spirit to many readershandicapped by various ills! There isnothing patient, meek, or resigned in itspages; no air of being crushed-but-still-smiling;it simply radiates a plucky, chin-in-the-airatmosphere calculated to make8an aching hand pick up its pen, brush,lump of clay or shovel and go to work; notgrimly and doggedly, with lips set, butglowing in triumph over the secret adversary.
The magnificent company marshalledby Mrs. Everett has an exhilarating effectupon the hearer or reader. As I listenedto instance after instance of weaknessgloriously transmuted into strength; ofpersonal grief and sorrow turned into joyfor the whole world; of vast knowledge,spiritual and intellectual, amassed bit bybit in the very grip of physical suffering, Iremembered the poetic pronouncement inRevelation.
“He that hath an ear let him hear whatthe Spirit saith unto the churches; To himthat overcometh will I give to eat of thetree of life which is in the midst of theparadise of God.”
HEALTH AND STRENGTH
Several years ago one of the NewYork papers published an interview witha well-known physician, on the advisabilityof women being drafted for war. He expressedhimself in favor of their receivingmilitary training, although, he casually remarked,“a good many would undoubtedlyperish. But,” he argued, “if we blot outthe individual equation and judge from thestandpoint of race, would their perishingbe regrettable?” He thinks not. “For,objectors must remember,” he continues,“that mental and moral man gets hisstrength and efficiency only from the physical man.A sick man, just as a sick race,is the one that goes to the wall.”
This outrageous statement was publishedat the very height of the world war,when men without arms, legs, eyes, menpermanently shattered in health, men whowill hide all their lives behind masks, were10crawling home in hordes. And theworst of it is, that practically everybodyagrees with his verdict.
We offer these heroes, who have sacrificedtheir splendid young bodies on thealtar of humanity, a few fine phrases aboutglory and honor, yet are smugly contentto allow them to be crushed by our degradingconviction that the heights of achievementare no longer for them.
Now if a sick race could exist at all, itmight go to the wall as the doctor prophesies;but when he narrows his contention tothe individual, when he declares that “asick man goes to the wall,” he is venturinga statement which only a surprising ignorancecan excuse.
For what is more surprising than foran educated man, a physician, to put forwarda claim which can be refuted by anyonewho has even a superficial knowledgeof the past? Every one I have questionedhas been able to recall at least oneinvalid who has attained celebrity. Forinstance, all but the unlettered are familiarwith the fact that both Keats and RobertLouis Stevenson were diseased.
The vast majority, however, even ofcultivated people, do not seem to realize11what an extraordinarily large percentageof the greatest men and women have beenphysically handicapped. It is the joyousmission of this book to prove to all invalids,but more especially to those livingvictims of the Great War, that Keats andStevenson, far from representing isolatedinstances of achievement despite bodily infirmities,are but members of a gallantarmy, some of whom have reached evengreater heights in spite of more painfuldisabilities.
The relation of insanity to genius hasnot escaped the notice of scholars, whohave already exhaustively dealt with it. Iintend therefore to confine myself to thosegiants of the past who have suffered eitherfrom disease, mutilation or constitutionaldebility. If I have cited a few who havebeen afflicted with attacks of insanity, Ihave selected only those whose best workwas done after recovering from suchseizures, and have carefully excluded allwho have had to pay with their intellectsthe price of a too stupendous vision. Iwish furthermore to impress upon you thatof all the illustrious men and women I shallenumerate there is not one whose fullestdevelopment was not coincident with ill-health,12or reached after joining the ranksof the physically unfit.
If we scrutinize more closely this heterogeneousassemblage, we shall discoverthat it is composed of representatives ofthe most varied forms of human endeavor,—Saintand philosopher, poet and scientist,author and statesman, musician andartist, and, what is really astonishing, someof the greatest soldiers and one, at least,of the greatest sailors are among them.
SOLDIERS AND A SAILOR
Of all vocations, the profession of armsis the one for which it might be supposedthat a perfect physique is the most essential.
Yet Alexander, Cæsar, Alfred theGreat, John of Bohemia, Torstensson, LeGrand Condé and his great rival Turenne,Luxembourg, Napoleon, GeneralWolfe and finally Lord Nelson are proofsto die contrary.
Alexander the Great, singular evenamong men of action for the splendor ofhis imagination, was an epileptic. So alsowas Julius Cæsar. The latter was oftenattacked by his malady on the very fieldof battle.
Alfred, so justly called “the Great,”was stricken in his twentieth year by amysterious disease which caused him intensepain and from which he was neverafterwards free. The extent and diversity14of his activities are, however, almostincredible. He excelled as a soldier, politicianand administrator. He was also ascholar, and the revival of learning whichtook place under his reign was due solelyto his efforts.
King John of Bohemia stands outas the most romantic and chivalrousfigure of the Middle Ages. He dazzledhis contemporaries by his exploitsand his reputation for valorhas never been exceeded. He was overtakenby blindness at the age of forty-three,but, strapped to his horse, continuedto lead his armies to battle. For six yearsthis blind hero successfully resisted all theattacks of the Emperor Louis and hisallies. His heroic death at the battle ofCreçy was a fitting conclusion to a gallantlife. According to Camden, the ostrichfeathers and the motto “Ich dien,” borneever since by the Prince of Wales, originallyformed the crest of King John, andwere first assumed by the Black Prince asa token of the admiration with which hisantagonist inspired him.
Condé, known to history as “Le GrandCondé,” was so delicate in childhood thathe was not expected to reach maturity, and15his nervous system was “at no time to betrifled with.” During his innumerablecampaigns he was a constant martyr tofevers and other maladies, but these seldominterfered with his untiring energy orhis capacity for work. He had