Concerning Disappointment and Success

[This is taken from A.K.H. Boyd's Recreations of a Country Parson.]

Russet woods of Autumn, here you are once more! I saw you, golden and brown, in the afternoon sunshine today. Crisp leaves were falling, as I went along the footpath through the woods: crisp leaves lie upon the green graves in the churchyard, fallen from the ashes: and on the shrubbery walks, crisp leaves from the beeches, accumulated where the grass bounds the gravel, make a warm edging, irregular, but pleasant to see. It is not that one is ‘tired of summer:’ but there is something soothing and pleasing about the autumn days. There is a great clearness of the atmosphere sometimes; sometimes a subdued, gray light is diffused everywhere. In the country, there is often, on these afternoons, a remarkable stillness in the air, amid which you can hear a withering leaf rustling down.  I will not think that the time of bare branches and brown grass is so very near as yet; Nature is indeed decaying, but now we have decay only in its beautiful stage, wherein it is pensive, but not sad. It is but early in October; and we, who live in the country all through the winter, please ourselves with the belief that October is one of the finest months of the year, and that we have many warm, bright, still days yet before us. Of course we know we are practicing upon ourselves a cheerful, transparent delusion; even as the man of forty-eight often declares that about forty-eight or fifty is the prime of life. I like to remember that Mrs. Hemans was describing October, when she began her beautiful poem on The Battle of Morgarlen, by saying that, ‘The wine-month shone in its golden prime:’ and I think that in these words the picture presented to the mind of an untraveled Briton, is not the red grapes hanging in blushing profusion, but rather the brown, and crimson, and golden woods, in the warm October sunshine. So, you russet woods of autumn, you are welcome once more; welcome with all your peculiar beauty, so gently enjoyable by all men and women who have not used up life; and with all your lessons, so unobtrusive, so touching, that have come home to the heart of human generations for many thousands of years.  Yesterday was Sunday; and I was preaching to my simple rustics an autumn sermon from the text We all do fade as a leaf.  As I read out the text, through a half-opened window near me, two large withered oak-leaves silently floated into the little church in the view of all the congregation. I could not but pause for a minute till they should preach their sermon before I began mine.  How simply, how unaffectedly, with what natural pathos they seemed to tell their story! It seemed as if they said, Ah you human beings, something besides us is fading; here we are, the things like which you fade!

And now, upon this evening, a little sobered by the thought that this is the fourth October which has seen this hand writing that which shall attain the authority of print, I sit down to begin an essay which is to be written leisurely as recreation and not as work. I need not finish this essay, unless I choose, for six weeks to come: so I have plenty of time, and I shall never have to write under pressure. That is pleasant. And I write under another feeling, more pleasing and encouraging still. I think that in these lines I am addressing many unknown friends, who, though knowing nothing more of me than they can learn from pages which I have written, have come gradually not to think of me as a stranger. I wish here to offer my thanks to many whose letters, though they were writing only to a shadow, have spoken in so kindly a fashion of the writer’s slight productions, that they have given me much enjoyment in the reading, and much encouragement to go on. To all my correspondents, whether named or nameless, I now, in a moral sense, extend a friendly hand.  As to the question sometimes put, who the writer is, that is of no consequence. But as to what he is, I think, intelligent readers of his essays, you will gradually and easily see that.

It is a great thing to write leisurely, and with a general feeling of kindliness and satisfaction with everybody; but there is a further reason why one should set to work at once. I feel I must write now, before my subject loses its interest; and before the multitude of thoughts, such as they are, which have been clustering round it since it presented itself this afternoon in that walk through the woods, have faded away. It is an unhappy thing, but it is the fact with many men, that if you do not seize your fancies when they come to you, and preserve them upon the written page, you lose them altogether. They go away, and never come back. A little while ago I pulled out a drawer in this table whereon I write; and I took out of it a sheet of paper, on which there are written down various subjects for essays. Several are marked with a large cross; these are the essays which are beyond the reach of fate: they are written and printed. Several others have no cross; these are the subjects of essays which are yet to be written. But upon four of those subjects I look at once with interest and sorrow. I remember when I wrote down their names, what a vast amount, as I fancied, I had to say about them: and all experience failed to make me feel that unless those thoughts were seized and chronicled at once, they would go away and never come back again. How rich the subjects appeared to me, I well remember! Now they are lifeless, stupid things, of which it is impossible to make anything. Before, they were like a hive, buzzing with millions of bees. Now they are like the empty hive, when the life and stir and bustle of the bees are gone. O friendly reader, what a loss it was to you, that the writer did not at once sit down and sketch out his essays, Concerning Things Slowly Learnt; and Concerning Growing Old! And two other subjects of even greater value were, Concerning the Practical Effect of Illogical Reasons, and An Estimate of the Practical Influence of False Assertions. How the hive was buzzing when these titles were written down: but now I really hardly remember anything of what I meant to say, and what I remember appears wretched stuff. The effervescence has gone from the champagne; it is flat and dead.  Still, it is possible that these subjects may recover their interest; and the author hereby gives notice that he reserves the right of producing an essay upon each of them. Let no one else infringe his vested claims.

There is one respect in which I have often thought that there is a curious absence of analogy between the moral and the material worlds. You are in a great excitement about something or other; you are immensely interested in reaching some aim; you are extremely angry and ferocious at some piece of conduct; let us suppose. Well, the result is that you cannot take a sound, clear, temperate view of the circumstances; you cannot see the case rightly; you actually do see it very wrongly. You wait till a week or a month passes; till some distance, in short, intervenes between you and the matter; and then your excitement, your fever, your wrath, have gone down, as the matter has lost its freshness; and now you see the case calmly, you see it very differently indeed from the fashion in which you saw it first; you conclude that now you see it rightly.  One can think temperately now of the atrocities of the mutineers in India, It does not now quicken your pulse to think of them.  You have not now the burning desire you once felt, to take a Sepoy by the throat and cut him to pieces with a cat-of-nine-tails. The common consent of mankind has decided that you have now attained the right view. I ask, is it certain that in all cases the second thought is the best;--is the right thought, as well as the calmest thought? Would it be just to say (which would be the material analogy) that you have the best view of some great rocky island when you have sailed away from it till it has turned to a blue cloud on the horizon; rather than when its granite and heather are full in view, close at hand? I am not sure that in every case the calmer thought is the right thought, the distant view the right view. You have come to think indifferently of the personal injury, of the act of foul cruelty and falsehood, which once roused you to flaming indignation.  Are you thinking rightly too? Or has not just such an illusion been practiced upon your mental view, as is played upon your bodily eye when looking over ten miles of sea upon Staffa?  You do not see the basaltic columns now; but that is because you see wrongly. You do not burn at the remembrance of the wicked lie, the crafty misrepresentation, the cruel blow; but perhaps you ought to do so.  And now (to speak of less grave matters) when all I had to say about Growing Old seems very poor, do I see it rightly? Do I see it as my reader would always have seen it? Or has it faded into falsehood, as well as into distance and dimness? When I look back, and see my thoughts as trash, is it because they are trash and no better? When I look back, and see Ailsa as a cloud, is it because it is a cloud and nothing more? Or is it, as I have already suggested, that in one respect the analogy between the moral and the material fails.

I am going to write Concerning Disappointment and Success. In the days when I studied metaphysics, I should have objected to that title, inasmuch as the antithesis is imperfect between the two things named in it. Disappointment and Success are not properly antithetic; Failure and Success are. Disappointment is the feeling caused by failure, and caused also by other things besides failure.  Failure is the thing; disappointment is the feeling caused by the thing; while success is the thing, and not the feeling. But such minute points apart, the title I have chosen brings out best the subject about which I wish to write. And a very wide subject it is; and one of universal interest.

I suppose that no one will dispute the fact that in this world there are such things as disappointment and success. I do not mean merely that each man’s lot has its share of both; I mean that there are some men whose life on the whole is a failure, and that there are others whose life on the whole is a success. You and I, my reader, know better than to think that life is a lottery; but those who think it a lottery, must see that there are human beings who draw the prizes, and others who draw the blanks. I believe in Luck, and Ill Luck, as facts; of course I do not believe the theory which common consent builds upon these facts. There is, of course, no such thing as chance; this world is driven with far too tight a rein to permit of anything whatsoever falling out in a way properly fortuitous. But it cannot be denied that there are persona with whom everything goes well, and other persons with whom everything goes ill. There are people who invariably win at what are called games of chance. There are people who invariably lose. You remember when Sydney Smith lay on his deathbed, how he suddenly startled the watchers by it, by breaking a long silence with a sentence from one of his sermons, repeated in a deep, solemn voice, strange from the dying man: His life had been successful at last; but success had come late; and how much of disappointment he had known! And though he had tried to bear up cheerily under his early cares, they had sunk in deep. ‘We speak of life as a journey,’ he said, ‘but how differently is that journey performed! Some are borne along their path in luxury and ease; while some must walk it with naked feet, mangled and bleeding.’

Who is there that does not sometimes, on a quiet evening, even before he has attained to middle age, sit down and look back upon his college days, and his college friends; and think sadly of the failures, the disappointments, the broken hearts, which have been among those who all started fair and promised well? How very much has after life changed the estimates which we, formed in those days, of the intellectual mark and probable fate of one’s friends and acquaintances! You remember the dense, stolid dunces of that time: you remember the men who sat next you in the lecture-room, and never answered rightly a question that was put to them: you remember how you used to wonder if they would always be the dunces they were then. Well, I never knew a man who was a dunce at twenty, to prove what might be called a brilliant or even a clever man in after life; but we have all known such do wonderfully decently.  You did not expect much of them, you see. You did not try them by an exacting standard. If a monkey were to write his name, you would be so much surprised at seeing him do it at all, that you would never think of being surprised that he did not do it very well. So, if a man you knew as a remarkably stupid fellow preaches a decent sermon, you hardly think of remarking that it is very common-place and dull, you are so much pleased and surprised to find that the man can preach at all. And then, the dunces of college days are often sensible, though slow and in this world, plain plodding common sense is very likely in the long run to beat erratic brilliancy.  The tortoise passes the hare.

I owe an apology to Lord Campbell for even naming him on the same page on which stands the name of dunce: for assuredly in shrewd, massive sense, as well as in kindness of manner, the natural outflow of a kind and good heart, no judge ever surpassed him. But I may fairly point to his career of unexampled success as an instance which proves my principle. See how that man of parts which are sound and solid, rather than brilliant or showy, has won the Derby and the St. Ledger of the law: has filled with high credit the places of Chief Justice of England and Lord Chancellor. And contrast his eminently successful and useful course with that of the fitful meteor, Lord Brougham. What a great, dazzling genius Brougham unquestionably is; yet his greatest admirer must admit that his life has been a brilliant failure. But while you, thoughtful reader, in such a retrospect as I have been supposing, sometimes wonder at the decent and reasonable success of the dunce, do you not often lament over the fashion in which those who promised well, and even brilliantly, have disappointed the hopes entertained of them? What miserable failures such have not infrequently made!  And not always through bad conduct either: not always, though sometimes, by taking to vicious courses; but rather by a certain want of tact and sense, or even by just somehow missing the favorable tide. You have got a fair living and a fair standing in the Church; you have held them for eight or ten years; when some evening as you are sitting in your study or playing with your children, a servant tells you, doubtfully, that a man is waiting to see you. A poor, thin, shabbily-dressed fellow comes in, and in faltering tones begs for the loan of five shillings. Ah, with what a start you recognize him! It is the clever fellow whom you hardly beat at college, who was always so lively and merry, who sang so nicely, and was so much asked out into society. You had lost sight of him for several years; and now here he is, shabby, dirty, smelling of whisky, with bloated face and trembling hand: alas, alas, ruined! Oh, do not give him up. Perhaps you can do something for him. Little kindness he has known for very long. Give him the five shillings by all means; but next morning see you go out, and try what may be done to lift him out of the slough of despond, and to give him a chance for better days! I know that it may be all in vain; and that after years gradually darkening down you may some day, as you pass the police-office, find a crowd at the door, and learn that they have got the corpse of the poor suicide within. And even when the failure is not so utter as this, you find, now and then, as life goes onward, that this and that old acquaintance has, you cannot say how, stepped out of the track, and is stranded. He went into the Church: he is no worse preacher or scholar than many that succeed; but somehow he never gets a living. You sometimes meet him in the street, threadbare and soured: he probably passes you without recognizing you. O reader, to whom God has sent moderate success, always be chivalrously kind and considerate to such a disappointed man!

I have heard of an eminent man who, when well advanced in years, was able to say that through all his life he had never set his mind on anything which he did not succeed in attaining. Great and little aims alike, he never had known what it was to fail. What a curious state of feeling it would be to most men to know themselves able to assert so much! Think of a mind in which disappointment is a thing unknown! I think that one would be oppressed by a vague sense of fear in regarding one’s self as treated by Providence in a fashion so different from the vast majority of the race. It cannot be denied that there are men in this world in whose lot failure seems to be the rule. Everything to which they put their hand breaks down or goes amiss. But most human beings can testify that their lot, like their abilities, their stature, is a sort of middling thing. There is about it an equable sobriety, a sort of average endurableness.  Some things go well: some things go ill. There is a modicum of disappointment: there is a modicum of success. But so much of disappointment comes to the lot of almost all, that there is no object in nature at which we all look with so much interest as the invariably lucky man—the man whom all this system of things appears to favor. You knew such a one at school: you knew him at college: you knew him at the bar, in the Church, in medicine, in politics, in society. Somehow he pushes his way: things turn up just at the right time for him: great people take a fancy to him: the newspapers cry him up. Let us hope that you do not look at him with any feeling of envy or bitterness; but you cannot help looking at him with great interest, he is so like yourself, and at the same time so very unlike you. Philosophers tell us that real happiness is very equally distributed; but there is no doubt that there is a tremendous external difference between the man who lives in a grand house, with every appliance of elegance and luxury, with plump servants, fine horses, many carriages, and the poor struggling gentleman, perhaps a married curate, whose dwelling is bare, whose dress is poor, whose fare is scanty, whose wife is careworn, whose children are ill-fed, shabbily dressed, and scantily educated.  It is conceivable that fanciful wants, slights, and failures, may cause the rich man as much and as real suffering as substantial wants and failures cause the poor; but the world at large will recognize the rich man’s lot as one of success, and the poor man’s as one of failure.

This is a world of competition. It is a world full of things that many people wish to get, and that all cannot get at once; and to say this is much as to say that this is a world of failure and disappointments. All things desirable, by their very existence imply the disappointment of some. When you, my reader, being no longer young, look with a philosophic eye at some pretty girl entering a drawing-room, you cannot but reflect, as you survey the pleasing picture, and more especially when you think of the twenty thousand pounds—Ah! my gentle young friend, you will some day make one heart very jolly, but a great many more extremely envious, wrathful, and disappointed. So with all other desirable things; so with a large living in the Church; so with any place of dignity; so with a seat on the bench; so with the bishopric; so with the woolsack; so with the towers of Lambeth. So with smaller matters; so with a good business in the greengrocery line; so with a well-paying milk-walk; so with a clerk’s situation of eighty pounds a year; so with an errand boy’s place at three shillings a week, which thirty candidates want, and only one can get. Alas for our fallen race! Is it not part, at least, of some men’s pleasure in gaining some object which has been generally sought for, to think of the mortification of the poor fellows that failed?

Disappointment, in short, may come and must come wherever man can set his wishes and his hopes. The only way not to be disappointed when a thing turns out against you, is not to have really cared how the thing went. It is not a truism to remark that this is impossible if you did care. Of course you are not disappointed at failing of attaining an end which you did not care whether you attained or not; but men seek very few such ends. If a man has worked day and night for six weeks in canvassing his county, and then, having been ignominiously beaten, on the following day tells you he is not in the least degree disappointed, he might just as truly assure you, if you met him walking up streaming with water from a river into which he had just fallen, that he is not the least wet. No doubt there is an elasticity in the healthy mind which very soon tides it over even a severe disappointment; and no doubt the grapes which are unattainable do sometimes in actual fact turn sour. But let no man tell us that he has not known the bitterness of disappointment for at least a brief space, if he have ever from his birth tried to get anything, great or small, and yet not got it. Failure is indeed a thing of all degrees, from the most fanciful to the most weighty: disappointment is a thing of all degrees, from the transient feeling that worries for a minute, to the great crushing blow that breaks the mind’s spring for ever. Failure is a fact which reaches from the poor tramp who lies down by the wayside to die, up to the man who is only made Chief Justice when he wanted the Chancellorship, or who dies Bishop of London when he had set his heart upon being Archbishop of Canterbury; or to the Prime Minister, unrivalled in eloquence, in influence, in genius, with his fair domains and his proud descent, but whose horse is beaten after being first favorite for the Derby. Who shall say that either disappointed man felt less bitterness and weariness of heart than the other? Each was no more than disappointed; and the keenness of disappointment bears no proportion to the reality of the value of the object whose loss caused it. And what endless crowds of human beings, children and old men, nobles and snobs, rich men and poor, know the bitterness of disappointment from day to day. It begins from the child shedding many tears when the toy bought with the long-hoarded pence is broken the first day it comes home; it goes on to the Duke expecting the Garter, who sees in the newspaper. at breakfast that the yards of blue ribbon have been given to another. What a hard time his servants have that day. How loudly he roars at them, how willingly would he kick them! Little reckons he that forenoon of his magnificent castle and his ancestral woods. It may here be mentioned that a very pleasing opportunity is afforded to malignant people for mortifying a clever, ambitious man, when any office is vacant to which it is known he aspires. A judge of the Queen’s Bench has died: you, Mr.  Verjuice, know how Mr. Swetter, Q. C., has been rising at the bar; you know how well he deserves the ermine. Well, walk down to his chambers; go in and sit down; never mind how busy he is—your time is of no value—and talk of many different men as extremely suitable for the vacant seat on the bench, but never in the remotest manner hint at the claims of Swetter himself. I have often seen the like done. And you, Mr. Verjuice, may conclude almost with certainty that in doing all this you are vexing and mortifying a deserving man.  And such a consideration will no doubt be compensation sufficient to your amiable nature for the fact that every generous muscular Christian would like to take you by the neck, and swing your sneaking carcass out of the window.

Even a slight disappointment, speedily to be repaired, has in it something that jars painfully the mechanism of the mind. You go to the train, expecting a friend, certainly. He does not come. Now this worries you, even though you receive at the station a telegraphic message that he will be by the train which follows in two hours.  Your magazine fails to come by post on the last day of the month; you have a dull, vague sense of something wanting for an hour or two, even though you are sure that you will have it next morning.  And indeed a very large share of the disappointments of civilized life are associated with the post-office. I do not suppose the extreme case of the poor fellow who calls at the office expecting a letter containing the money without which he cannot see how he is to get through the day; nor of the man who finds no letter on the day when he expects to hear how it fares with a dear relative who is desperately sick. I am thinking merely of the lesser disappointments which commonly attend post-time: the Times not coming when you were counting with more than ordinary certainty on its appearing; the letter of no great consequence, which yet you would have liked to have had. A certain blankness—a feeling difficult to define—attends even the slightest disappointment; and the effect of a great one is very stunning and embittering indeed.  You remember how the nobleman in Ten Thousand a Year, who had been refused a seat in the Cabinet, sympathized with poor Titmouse’s exclamation when, looking at the manifestations of gay life in Hyde-park, and feeling his own absolute exclusion from it, he consigned everything to perdition. All the ballads of Professor Aytoun and Mr. Theodore Martin are admirable, but there is none which strikes me as more so than the brilliant imitation of Locksley Hall, And how true to nature the state of mind ascribed to the vulgar snob who is the hero of the ballad, who, bethinking himself of his great disappointment when his cousin married somebody else, bestowed his extremest objurgations upon all who had abetted the hateful result, and then summed up thus comprehensively:--

Cursed be the foul apprentice, who his loathsome fees did earn;
Cursed be the clerk and parson; CURSED BE THE WHOLE CONCERN!

It may be mentioned here as a fact to which experience will testify, that such disappointments as that at the railway station and the post-office are most likely to come when you are counting with absolute certainty upon things happening as you wish; when not a misgiving has entered your mind as to your friend’s arriving or your letter coining. A little latent fear in your soul that you may possibly be disappointed, seems to have a certain power to fend off disappointment, on the same principle on which taking out an umbrella is found to prevent rain. What you are prepared for rarely happens. The precise thing you expected comes not once in a thousand times. A confused state of mind results from long experience of such cases. Your real feeling often is: Such a thing seems quite sure to happen; I may say I expect it to happen; and yet I don’t expect it, because I do: for experience has taught me that the precise thing which I expect, which I think most likely, hardly ever comes. I am not prepared to side with a thoughtless world, which is ready to laugh at the confused statement of the Irishman who had killed his pig. It is not a bull; it is a great psychological fact that is involved in his seemingly contradictory declaration—‘It did not weigh as much as I expected, and I never thought it would!’

When young ladies tell us that such and such a person ‘has met with a disappointment,’ we all understand what is meant. The phrase, though it is conventionally intelligible enough, involves a fallacy: it seems to teach that the disappointment of the youthful heart in the matter of that which in its day is no doubt the most powerful of all the affections, is by emphasis the greatest disappointment which a human being can ever know. Of course that is an entire mistake.  People get over that disappointment not but what it may leave its trace, and possibly color the whole of remaining life; sometimes resulting in an unlovely bitterness and hardness of nature; sometimes prolonging even into age a lingering thread of old romance, and keeping a kindly corner in a heart which worldly cares have in great measure deadened. But the disappointment which has its seat in the affections is outgrown as the affections themselves are outgrown, as the season of their predominance passes away; and the disappointment which sinks the deepest and lasts the longest of all the disappointments which are fanciful rather than material, is that which reaches a man through his ambition and his self-love,--principles in his nature which outlast the heyday of the heart’s supremacy, and which endure to man’s latest years. The bitter and the enduring disappointment to most human beings is that which makes them feel, in one way or other, that they are less wise, clever, popular, graceful, accomplished, tall, active, and in short fine, than they had fancied themselves to be. But it is only to a limited portion of human kind that such words as disappointment and success are mainly suggestive of gratified or disappointed ambition, of happy or blighted affection; to the great majority they are suggestive rather of success or non-success in earning bread and cheese, in finding money to pay the rent, in generally making the ends meet. You are very young, my reader, and little versed in the practical affairs of ordinary life, if you do not know that such prosaic matters make to most men the great aim of their being here, so far as that aim is bounded by this world’s horizon. The poor cabman is successful or is disappointed, according as he sees, while the hours of the day are passing over, that he is making up or not making up the shillings he must hand over to his master at night, before he has a penny to get food for his wife and children. The little tradesman is successful or the reverse, according as he sees or does not see from week to week such a small accumulation of petty profits as may pay his landlord, and leave a little margin by help of which he and his family may struggle on.  And many an educated man knows the analogous feelings. The poor barrister, as he waits for the briefs which come in so slowly—the young doctor, hoping for patients—understand them all. Oh what slight, fanciful things, to such men, appear such disappointments as that of the wealthy proprietor who fails to carry his county, or the rich mayor or provost who fails of being knighted!


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