Beyond the ugly actual, lo, on every side,
Imagination’s limitless domain.
He that too much refines his delicacy will always endanger his quiet.
The great refinement of many poetical gentlemen has rendered them practically unfit for the jostling and ugliness of life.
It has been my fortune as a physician to deal much with the so-called nervous temperament. I have come both to fear and to love it. It is the essence of all that is bright, imaginative, and fine, but it is as unstable as water. Those who possess it must suffer—it is their lot to feel deeply, and very often to be misunderstood by their more practical friends. All their lives these people will shed tears of joy, and more tears of sorrow. I would like to write of their joy, of the perfect satisfaction, the true happiness that comes in creating new and beautiful things, of the deep pleasure they have in the appreciation of good work in others. But with the instinct of a dog trained for a certain kind of hunting I find myself turning to the misfortunes and the ills.
The very keenness of perception makes painful anything short of perfection. What will such people do in our clanging streets? What of those fine ears tuned to the most exquisite appreciation of sweet sound? What of that refinement of hearing that detects the least departure from the rhythm and pitch in complex orchestral music? And must they bear the crash of steel on stone, the infernal clatter of traffic? Well, yes,—as a matter of fact—they must, at least for a good many years to come, until advancing civilization eliminates the city noise. But it is not always great noises that disturb and distract. There is a story told of a woman who became so sensitive to noise that she had her house made sound-proof: there were thick carpets and softly closing doors; everything was padded. The house was set back from a quiet street, but that street was strewn with tanbark to check the sound of carriages. Surely here was bliss for the sensitive soul. I need not tell the rest of the story, how absolutely necessary noises became intolerable, and the poor woman ended by keeping a man on the place to catch and silence the tree toads and crickets.
There is nothing to excuse the careless and unnecessary noises of the world—we shall dispose of them finally as we are disposing of flamboyant signboards and typhoid flies. But meanwhile, and always, for that matter, the sensitive soul must learn to adjust itself to circumstances and conditions. This adjustment may in itself become a fine art. It is really the art by which the painter excludes the commonplace and irrelevant from his landscape. Sometimes we have to do this consciously; for the most part, it should be a natural, unconscious selection.
I am sure it is unwise to attempt at any time the dulling of the appreciative sense for the sake of peace and comfort. Love and understanding of the beautiful and true is too rare and fine a thing to be lost or diminished under any circumstances. The cure, as I see it, is to be found in the cultivation of the faculty that finds some good in everything and everybody. This is the saving grace—it takes great bulks of the commonplace and distils from the mass a few drops of precious essence; it finds in the unscholarly and the imperfect, rare traces of good; it sees in man, any man, the image of God, to be justified and made evident only in the sublimity of death, perhaps, but usually to be developed in life.
The nervous person is often morose and unsocial—perhaps because he is not understood, perhaps because he falls so short of his own ideals. Often he does not find kindred spirits anywhere. I do not think we should drive such a man into conditions that hurt, but I do believe that if he is truly artistic, and not a snob, he may lead himself into a larger social life without too much sacrifice.
The sensitive, high-strung spirit that does not give of its own best qualities to the world of its acquaintance, that does not express itself in some concrete way, is always in danger of harm. Such a spirit turned in upon itself is a consuming fire. The spirit will burn a long time and suffer much if it does not use its heat to warm and comfort the world of need.
Real illness makes the nervous temperament a much more formidable difficulty —all the sensitive faculties are more sensitive—irritability becomes an obsession and idleness a terror.
The nervous temperament under irritation is very prone to become selfish—and very likely to hide behind this selfishness, calling it temperament. The man who flies into a passion when he is disturbed, or who spends his days in torment from the noises of the street; the woman of high attainment who has retired into herself, who is moody and unresponsive,—these unfortunates have virtually built a wall about their lives, a wall which shuts out the world of life and happiness. From the walls of this prison the sounds of discord and annoyance are thrown back upon the prisoner intensified and multiplied. The wall is real enough in its effect, but will cease to exist when the prisoner begins to go outside, when he begins to realize his selfishness and his mistake. Then the noises and the irritations will be lost in the wider world that is open to him. After all, it is only through unselfish service in the world of men that this broadening can come.
There is no lack of opportunity for service. Perhaps the simplest and most available form of service is charity,—the big, professional kind, of course, —and beyond that the greater field of intimate and personal charity. I know a girl of talent and ability—herself a nervous invalid—sick and helpless for the lack of a little money which would give her a chance to get well. I do not mean money for luxuries, for foolish indulgences, but money to buy opportunity—money that would lift her out of the heavy morass of poverty and give her a chance. She falls outside the beaten path of charity. She is not reached by the usual philanthropies. I also know plenty of people who could help that girl without great sacrifice. They will not do it because they give money to the regular charities—they will not do it because sometimes generosity has been abused. So they miss the chance of broadening and developing their own lives.
I know well enough that objective interest can rarely be forced—it must usually come the other way about—through the broadening of life which makes it inevitable. Sometimes I wish I could force that kind of development, that kind of charity. Sometimes I long to take the rich neurasthenic and make him help his brother, make him develop a new art that shall save people from sorrow and loss. We are all together in this world, and all kin; to recognize it and to serve the needs of the unfortunate as we would serve our own children is the remedy for many ills. It is the new art, the final and greatest of all artistic achievements; it warms our hearts and opens our lives to all that is wholesome and good. This is one of the crises in which my theory of “inspiration first” may fail. Here the charity may have to come first, may have to be insisted upon before there can be any inspiration or any further joy in life. It is not always charity in the usual sense that is required; sometimes the charity that gives something besides money is best. But charity in any good sense means self-forgetfulness, and that is a long way on the road to nervous health. Give of yourself, give of your substance, and you will cease to be troubled with the penalties of selfishness. Then take the next step—that gives not because life has come back, but because the world has become larger and warmer and happier. When the giver gives of his sympathy and of his means because he wants to,—not because he has to do so,—he will begin to know what I mean when I say it is better to have the inspiration first.