The Circumstances of Life
IT is not the circumstances of life that trouble or weigh upon us, it is the way we take them. If a man is playing a difficult game of chess, the more intricate the moves the more thoughtfully he looks over his own and his opponent’s men, and the more fully he is aroused to make the right move toward a checkmate. If, when the game became difficult, the player stopped to be depressed and disheartened, his opponent would probably always checkmate him; whereas, in most cases, the more difficult the game the more thoroughly the players are aroused to do their best, and a difficult game is invariably a good one, — the winner and the loser both feel it to be so, — even though the loser may regret his loss. But — the reader will say — a game of chess is a game only, — neither one’s bread and butter nor one’s life depend upon winning or losing it. If, however, we need to be cool and quiet and trustful for a game, which is merely an amusement, and if we play the game better for being cool and quiet and trustful, why is not a quiet steadiness in wrestling with the circumstances of life itself just as necessary, not only that we may meet the particular problem of the moment truly, but that we may gain all the experience which may be helpful in meeting other difficult circumstances as they present themselves.
We must first convince ourselves thoroughly of the truth that CIRCUMSTANCES, HOWEVER DIFFICULT, ARE ALWAYS — WITHOUT EXCEPTION, OPPORTUNITIES, AND NOT LIMITATIONS.
They are not by any means opportunities for taking us in the direction that our own selfishness would have us go; they are opportunities which are meant to guide us in the direction we most need to follow, — in the ways that will lead us to the greatest strength in the end.
The most unbelieving of us will admit that “there is a destiny which shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may,” and it is in the stupid resistance to having our ends shaped for us that we stop and groan at what we call the limitations of circumstances.
If we were quickly alert to see where circumstances had placed the gate of opportunity, and then steadily persisted in going through it, it would save the loss of energy and happiness which results from obstinately beating our heads against a stone wall where there is no gate, and where there never can be a gate.
Probably there is hardly a reader who will not recall a number of cases in which circumstances appear to have been only limitations to him or to his friends; but if he will try with a willing mind to find the gate of opportunity which was not used, he will be surprised to learn that it was wide open all the time, and might have led him into a new and better country.
The other day a little urchin playing in the street got in the way of a horse, and just saved himself from being run over by a quick jump; he threw up his arms and in a most cheerful voice called out, “It’s all right, only different!” If the horse had run over him, he might have said the same thing and found his opportunity to more that was good and useful in life through steady patience on his bed. The trouble is that we are not willing to call it “all right” unless it is the same, — the same in this case meaning whatever may be identical with our own personal ideas of what is “all right.” That expressive little bit of slang is full of humor and full of common sense.
If, for instance, when we expect something and are disappointed, we could at once yield out of our resistance and heartily exclaim, “it is all right, only different,” how much sooner we should discover the good use in its being different, and how soon we should settle into the sense of its being “all right!” When a circumstance that has seemed to us all wrong can be made, through our quiet way of meeting it, to appear all right, only different, it very soon leads to a wholesome content in the new state of affairs or to a change of circumstances to which we can more readily and happily adjust ourselves.
A strong sense of something’s being “all right” means a strong sense of willingness that it should be just as it is. With that clear willingness in our hearts in general, we can adjust ourselves to anything in particular, — even to very sudden and unexpected changes. It is carrying along with us a background of powerful non-resistance which we can bring to the front and use actively at a moment’s notice.
It seems odd to think of actively using non-resistance, and yet the expression is not as contradictory as it would appear, for the strength of will it takes to attain an habitual attitude of wholesome non-resistance is far beyond the strength of will required to resist unwholesomely. The stronger, the more fixed and immovable the centre, the more free and adaptable are the circumferences of action; and, even though our central principle is fixed and immovable, it must be elastic enough to enable us to change our point of view whenever we find that by so doing we can gain a broader outlook and greater power for use.
To acquire the strength of will for this habitual non-resistance is sometimes a matter of years of practice. We have to compel ourselves to be “willing,” over and over again, at each new opportunity; sometimes the opportunities seem to throng us; and this, truly considered, is only a cause for gratitude.
In life the truest winning often comes first under the guise of failure, and it is willingness to accept failure, and intelligence in understanding its causes, and using the acquired knowledge as a means to a higher end, that ultimately brings true success. If we choose, a failure can always be used as a means to an end rather than as a result in itself.
How often do we hear the complaint, “I could do so well if it were not for my circumstances.” How many people are held down for a lifetime by the habitual belief in circumstances as limitations, and by ignoring the opportunities which they afford.
“So long as I must live with these people I can never amount to anything.” If this complaint could be changed to the resolve: “I will live with these people until I have so adjusted myself to them as to be contented,” a source of weakness would be changed into a source of strength. The quiet activity of mind required to adjust ourselves to difficult surroundings gives a zest and interest to life which we can find in no other way, and adds a certain strength to the character which cannot be found elsewhere. It is interesting to observe, too, how often it happens that, when we have adjusted ourselves to difficult circumstances, we are removed to other circumstances which are more in sympathy with our own, thoughts and ways: and sometimes to circumstances which are more difficult still, and require all the strength and wisdom which our previous discipline has taught us.
If we are alive to our own true freedom, we should have an active interest in the necessary warfare of life. For life is a warfare — not of persons, but of principles — and every man who loves his freedom loves to be in the midst of the battle. Our tendencies to selfish discontent are constantly warring against our love of usefulness and service., and he who wishes to enjoy the full activity of freedom must learn to fight and to destroy the tendencies within himself which stand in the way of his own obedience to law. But he needs, for this, the truthful and open spirit which leads to wise self-knowledge; a quiet and a willing spirit, to make the necessary sacrifice of selfish pride. His quiet earnestness will give him the strength to carry out what his clear vision will reveal to him in the light of truth He will keep his head lifted up above his enemies round about him, so that he may steadily watch and clearly see how best to act. After periods of hard fighting the intervals of rest will be full of refreshment, and will always bring new strength for further activity. If, in the battle with difficult circumstances, we are thrown down, we must pick ourselves up with quick decision, and not waste a moment in complaint or discouragement. We should emphasize to ourselves the necessity for picking ourselves up immediately, and going directly on, over and over again, — both for our own benefit, and the benefit of those whom we have the privilege of helping.
In the Japanese training of “Jiu Jitsu,” the idea seems to be to drop all subjective resistance, and to continue to drop it, until, through the calmness and clearness of sight that comes from quiet nerves and a free mind, the wrestler can see where to make the fatal stroke. When the right time has arrived, the only effort which is necessary is quick, sharp and conclusive. This wonderful principle is often misused for selfish ends, and in such cases it leads eventually to bondage because, by the successful satisfaction of selfish motives, it strengthens the hold of our selfishness upon us; but, when used in an unselfish spirit, it is an ever-increasing source of strength. In the case of difficult circumstances, — if we cease to resist, — if we accept the facts of life, — if we are willing to be poor, or ill, or disappointed, or to live with people we do not like, — we gain a quietness of nerve and a freedom of mind which clears off the mists around us, so that our eyes may see and recognize the gate of opportunity, — open before us.
It is the law of concentration and relaxation. If we concentrate on being willing, on relaxing until we have dropped every bit of resistance to the circumstances about us, that brings us to a quiet and well-balanced point of view, whence we can see clearly how to take firm and decided action. From such action the re-action is only renewed strength, — never painful and contracting weakness. If we could give up all our selfish desires and resistances, circumstances, however difficult, would have no power whatever to trouble us. To reach such absolute willingness is a long journey, but there is a straight path leading nearer and nearer to the happy freedom which is our goal.
Self-pity is one of the states that interferes most effectually with making the right use of circumstances. To pity one’s self is destruction to all possible freedom. If the reader finds himself in the throes of this weakness and is helped through these words to recognize the fact, let him hasten to shun it as he would shun poison, for it is progressively weakening to soul and body. It will take only slight difficulties of any kind to overthrow us, if we are overcome by this temptation.
Imagine a man in the planet Mars wanting to try his fortunes on another planet, and an angel appearing to him with permission to transfer him to the earth.
“But,” the angel says, “of course you can have no idea of what the life is upon the new planet unless you are placed in the midst of various circumstances which are more or less common to its inhabitants.”
“Certainly,” the Martian answers, “I recognize that, and I want to have my experience on this new planet as complete as possible; therefore the more characteristic and difficult my circumstances are the better.” Then imagine the interest that man would have, from the moment he was placed on the earth, in working, his way through, and observing his experience as he worked.
His interest would be alive vivid, and strong, from the beginning until he found himself, with earthly experience completed, ready to return to his friends in Mars. He would never lose courage or be in any way disheartened. The more difficult his earthly problem was, the more it would arouse his interest and vigor to solve it. So many people prefer a difficult problem in geometry to an easy one, then why not in life? The difference is that in mathematics the head alone is exercised, and in life the head and the heart are both brought into play, and the first difficulty is to persuade the head and heart to work together. In the visitor from Mars, of course, the heart would be working with the head, and so the whole man would be centred on getting creditably through his experience and home again. If our hearts and heads were together equally concentrated on getting through our experience for the sake of the greater power of use it would bring, — and, if we could trustfully believe in getting home again, that is, in getting established in the current of ordinary spiritual and natural action, then life would be really alive for us, then we should actually get the scent of our true freedom, and, having once had a taste of it, we should have a fresh incentive in achieving it entirely.
There is one important thing to remember in an effort to be free from the bondage of circumstances which will save us from much unnecessary suffering. This has to do with the painful associations which arise from circumstances which are past and over.
A woman, for example, suffered for a year from nervous exhaustion in her head, which was brought on, among other things, by over-excitement in private theatricals. She apparently recovered her health, and, because she was fond of acting, her first activities were turned in that direction. She accepted a part in a play; but as soon as she began to study all her old head symptoms returned, and she was thoroughly frightened, thinking that she might never be able to use her head again. Upon being convinced, however, that all her discomfort came from her own imagination, through the painful associations connected with the study of her part, she returned to her work resolved to ignore them, and the consequence was that the symptoms rapidly disappeared.
Not uncommonly we hear that a person of our acquaintance cannot go to some particular place because of the painful events which occurred there. If the sufferer could only be persuaded that, when such associations are once bravely faced, it takes a very short time for the painful effects to disappear entirely, much unnecessary and prolonged discomfort would be saved.
People have been kept ill for weeks, months and years, through. holding on to the brain impression of some painful event.
Whether the painful circumstances are little or great, the law of association is the same and, in any case, the brain impression can be dropped entirely, although it may take time and patience to do it. We must often talk to our brains as if we were talking to another person to eliminate the impressions from old associations. Tell your brain in so many words, without emotion, that the place or the circumstance is nothing, nothing whatever, — it is only your idea about it, and the false association can be changed to a true one.
So must we yield our selfish resistances and be ready to accept every opportunity for growth that circumstances offer; and, at the same time, when the good result is gained, throw off the impression of the pain of the process entirely and forever. Thus may we both live and observe for our own good and that of others; and he who is practicing this principle in his daily life can say from his heart: — “Now shall my head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me.”