By William Lyon Phelps
I believe that the average man or woman today needs one thing more than he needs anything else-spiritual healing. I believe this is truer of the men and women of our age than of those of any preceding epoch-and I believe they need it more than they need material luxuries, increase of mechanical resources, yes, more than they need mental tonics or emotional inspiration.
The people of the United States are suffering from "nerves." Now the casualties in diseases of the nerves are large, because, as is well known, in cases of nervous prostration everybody dies except the patient.I shall not say that America won the war, but anyhow America was on the winning side. We were triumphantly victorious; we are the only rich and prosperous nation on earth.Americans are the only people in the world who are physically comfortable in bad weather. But although there is a steady increase in physical luxuries, I am not sure of a steady increase in serene happiness, in the calm that comes from mental contentment, in an approach toward universal peace of mind. What shall we say of a prosperous and rich nation whose prosperity and wealth are accompanied by an epidemic of suicide?
We are overwrought, tense, excited; our casual conversations are pimpled with adjectives; our letters are written in italics, and-a sure sign of fever-there has been an increase in cursing and swearing. Many respectable persons show a proficiency in this verbal art that used to be chiefly characteristic of lumberjacks and longshoremen.We become colossally excited about trivial things.
Sometimes when I find myself in a state of almost insane irritation over some trifle I seem to hear the quiet voice of Emerson speaking from the grave-Why so hot, little man?
In a charming comedy by Clare Kummer, in which that beautiful and accomplished actress the late Lola Fisher took the leading part, one of her speeches explained that when she was a child her mother told her that whenever she felt herself rising to a boiling point she must stop for a moment and say aloud, "Be calm, Camilla." That was the name of the play, "Be Calm, Camilla"-and there are many Camillas who need that relaxation.
It is characteristic of the American temperament that it needs mental sedatives more than spurs; and yet thousands of Americans are looking around all the time for something with a "kick" in it. How often we hear in casual conversation the phrase, "I got a fearful kick out of that." What they need is not a kick, but a poultice; not a prod, but a cool, healing hand. Although Americans need healing more than the men and women of any other nation, there are times when ahnost any person would profit by such treatment. The experience of John Stuart Mill is not unusual. He was carefully brought, up by his father without religious training.When he was twenty-five years old he fell into a state of profound depression. A cloud of melancholia settled on his mind and heart, so that he not only lost interest in life but felt that the world had no meaning.We know that King Saul was relieved from the evil spirit of nervous melancholy by music; but Mill loved music, and yet in his crisis music failed him.
Fortunately, he turned to the poetry of Wordsworth. Now of all the great poets Wordsworth is the best healer, because he drew balm from objects within everybody's reach. The "Nature" that Wordsworth writes about does not require a long and expensive journey, like going South in winter or travelling to distant mountains. This poet wrote about the simple things in nature-the things that can be seen from the front door or from the back yard.
The novelist George Gissing, who had been chronically tortured by two desperate evils, grinding poverty and ill health, was, owing to a fortunate circumstance, able to live in solitude for a time in the charming county of Devon, in southwest England. The result of his meditations appeared in a book, first published in 1903, called The Private Papers o f Henry Ryecroft. This is a book of healing, and I recommend it to everybody, for I do not know any one who could not profit by it. As Mill had suffered from intellectual depression and been cured by Wordsworth, so Gissing, who had suffered from poverty and sickness, cured himself by preserving the fruit of his communion with nature:
I had stepped into a new life. Between the man I had been and that which I now became there was a very notable difference.In a single day I had matured astonishingly; which means, no doubt, that I suddenly entered into conscious enjoyment of powers and sensibilities which had been developing unknown to me.
"I had matured astonishingly." Isn't that what is really the matter with us, that we haven't grown up? We are like children crying for the moon, when the riches of the earth are within our reach. Our pursuit of excitement and our resultant sufferings are largely childish. It is unfortunate to suffer from infantile diseases when we are old.
I have been reading a new novel, a book of healing, which most new novels are not. It is curious that so many are eagerly reading new novels and seeing new plays whose only purpose is to stimulate animal instincts which need no stimulation. Or they are reading new novels which distress and torment a mind already tumultuously confused. Be calm, Camilla.
The book I allude to was published in 1927. It is called Winterwise and is written by Zephine Humphrey. It describes a winter spent in a lonely farmhouse in Vermont, a State not yet famous as a winter resort-except for those who think only of winter in connexion with violent athletics. The book is full of deep, tranquil wisdom. It points out sources of abiding happiness-happiness that no disaster can permanently remove.