Sober yourself up (Rambler No. 2)

Dear H,

Man's mind is never satisfied with the things immediately in front of it; and, in fact, it's always breaking away from the present to lose itself in plans for the future.  The only time in our power is now -- but we throw it away planning for things which, in all likelihood, we'll probably never get to experience.  

This of course makes for an easy target for both lazy jokesters and stick-up-the ass preachers; and it's been ridiculed with all the best barbs wit has to offer, and exaggerated with all the high-blown words of oratory.  Every historical example of its absurdity has been studiously collected, it's been mocked and insulted profusely; and a hundred over-used sayings have been called out to battle against it. 

Everybody loves condemning things because doing so always implies some kind of superiority.  Men stroke their egos by imagining they've made a deeper search, or taken a wider view, than their neighbors have.  They think maybe they've detected faults and follies the average man hasn't; and the fun of playing the wrecking ball on common topics is so tempting to a writer that he can't pass it up too easily.  A train-load of generally accepted ideas allows him to shine without working, and to conquer without a contest.  It's too easy to laugh at the life-miser who lives only in his plans, refuses immediate comfort for distant pleasure, and, instead of enjoying the best things in life, lets life glide away in preparation to enjoy life.  There are too many chances, in short, to point out how much of life is beyond our control, to rouse a short-lived man from a too-long-term dream, and remind them how quickly and silently time slips away -- a principle which "thinkers" are more willing to share than to question, and thus an easy one to follow.  But is an easy path necessarily an honest path? 

This tendency to look far into the future seems the unavoidable condition of our species.  Our movements are gradual, and our life is progressive.  As we lack the power to do whatever we want immediately, we use means for the attainment of ends, and this means we intend first what we perform last.  By continual advances from our first stage of existence, we're constantly varying the horizon of possibility.  We discover new reasons to act, new things to fear, and new things to chase.  Thus our goals are found, oftentimes, when we get to them, to be only one of the means to some further-off goal.  The natural flights of the human mind aren't from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.

Whoever directs his steps anywhere has to frequently turn his eyes to his goal.  Whoever puts himself through the pains of working has to take cheer, when he's worn out, by thinking about the things he'll get with his paycheck.  In agriculture, one of the most simple and necessary jobs, nobody turns up the ground unless he thinks of the harvest -- which blights could easily intercept, or floods could quickly sweep away, or which death or disaster could keep him from reaping.

But, as most trite sayings are widely accepted and remembered due to some resemblance to truth and nature, we admit that this caution, against keeping our goals too far in the future, isn't without its own wisdom -- even if it's been quoted too sloppily, and sometimes moronically.  I'm not defending passion that presses through right and wrong, or an anxiousness that forgets God's in control; but sometimes people live so much in a successful dream-future that they forget the planning necessary to secure it.  We let imagination run too wild, and the possible becomes impossible because we dreamed away the time to obtain it.       

There would, however, be few enterprises of dangerous and hard work undertaken, if we didn't exaggerate the good things we persuade ourselves to expect from them.  When the knight of La Mancha tells Sancho Panza the adventures he's going to go on, and how kings are going to call him to defend their empires, and how he's going to be asked to marry a princess, and have riches and honors to spare, and even an island to give to his squire, very few readers, even in the midst of laughter or pity, can deny they've also had dreams of the same sort.  They might not have expected equally strange things, or overrated their abilities to the same degree.  But when we pity him, he brings to mind our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts remind us that he's about as ridiculous as we are -- except that he says in public what we've only thought in private.

Even if wild hopes are necessary to great accomplishments, a hearty, boistrous man's judgment could be easily spoiled by a too-luxurious dream-life -- like some plants are burned up by the sun, which otherwise gives them their life and their beauty.

Maybe no class of people needs more caution against this wild hope than those who aim to write things professionally.  A man of lively thoughts no sooner finds a hint lurking in his mind than he makes big announcements to the whole world; and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, dreaming about the honors people will pay him -- when envy's influence has long gone extinct, and factions are long forgotten, and those lesser writers, who have friends in high places but little talent, will have given way to a whole new class of soon-forgotten nobodies.   

Those of us who've already gone so far, and appealed to the tribunal of some future time, are not likely to be cured of their delusion. Nevertheless all efforts ought to be used for the prevention of this disease.  In its acute stage, you can't even find a cure in the gardens of Philosophy -- however much she touts her remedies for all kinds of delusions.

I will, with this in mind, while I'm only lightly affected with this writer's disease, try to innoculate myself against the infection -- not without some weak hope, that my vitamins and medicines can extend their usefulness to others, whose dreams expose them to the same contagion.

It's the good advice of Epictetus that a man ought to think often on what's most shocking and terrible. That way, by these kinds of thoughts, he might be saved from wishing for too many good things, and from too much depression from real-life evils.  As such there's nothing more dreaded to an author than being ignored, compared with which outright disapproval, hatred, and opposition are preferable.  But yet, even this worst and meanest writer's fate is feared by everyone who dares to write. 

It might not be a bad idea, for anyone who makes an entrance into writing, to suspect his own abilities.   And to suspect them so far, in fact, as to believe himself worth ignoring -- that nature may not have qualified him to enlarge or embellish our knowledge, nor made him superior enough to regulate the thoughts and behaviors of everyone else.  That, even if we admit the world is ignorant, he's neither destined to dispel this cloud, nor to shine out as one of the great lights of life.  Every library gives evidence to support this suspicion.  One look will find it crammed with names of men who, though now almost entirely forgotten, were at one time no less hearty and confident as himself, as equally pleased with their own writings, equally caressed by their own patrons, and also flattered by their friends.

Even if in some cases an author really is exceptional, remember that his talents may pass entirely unnoticed, huddled in a variety of things, and classed among the general miscellany of life.  Whoever seeks after the fame of a writer seeks out the affections of the masses -- who are fluctuating in pleasures, immersed in business, and many times without time for intellectual amusements.  He appeals to judges already caught up in their own passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which keep them from celebrating any brand-new performances.  Some are too lazy to read anything until its reputation is established.  Others are too envious to promote the fame of others -- which pains them when it grows.  People who don't like learning object to new ideas simply because they don't want to be taught.  And what's well-known is rejected, because they don't consider an obvious truth: that adults need to be reminded more often than they need to be informed.  The "educated" and "learned" are afraid to announce their opinions early, at the risk of hazarding their reputations.  And the ignorant think that rejecting something, on some level, is proof of their cultured taste.

A man who finds his way to fame through all these obstructions, an honest man at least, has to admit owing less to his hard work, his learning, or his wit, and much more to other less impressive causes.

Your father,

PS: As mentioned earlier, any essays with "Rambler" in the title are translations of Samuel Johnson, a man whose writings I think are perfect, but are almost unintelligible to modern readers.  The intellectual content here is his.  The words, at least many of them here, are mine.

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