The Grandfather's Advice
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
It was a golden sunset, which was fondly gazed upon by an old man on whose broad brow the history of seventy winters had been written. He sat in the wide porch of a large old-fashioned house. His look was calm and clear, though years had quelled the fire of his eagle glance; his silver hair was borne mildly back, by the south wind of August, and a smile of sweetness played over his features, breathing the music of contentment. His heart was still fresh, and his mind open to receive an impress of the loveliness of earth. The dew of love for his fellow-creatures fell upon his aged soul, and pure adoration went up to the Giver of every good from its altar. He lifted his gaze to the azure blue above him, and dwelt upon his future, with a glow of hope upon his heart. Then he turned to the past, and his beaming expression gradually mellowed into pensiveness — in thought, he traveled through the long vista of years which he had left behind him, and his mental exclamation was:
"There has not been a year of my life since manhood, that I might not have lived to a better purpose. I might have been more useful and devoted to my race. I might more fully have sacrificed the idol self, which so often I have knelt to, in worship more heartfelt than I offered to God. Yet have I labored to become pure in your sight, oh, my God! build your kingdom in my heart!"
A tear trembled in the aged suppliant's eye, and the calm of holy humility stole over him. The gentle look was again upon his countenance, when a young man of about twenty years, swung open the gate leading to the house, and, approaching, saluted the old man with a cordial grasp of the hand; flinging his cap carelessly down, he took a seat in a rustic chair, and exclaimed with a smile of mingled affection and reverence, which broke over his thoughtful features, making him extremely handsome: "Well, grandfather, I believe you complete seventy years today!"
"Yes, my son, and I have been looking back upon them. I do not usually dwell upon the past with repining, yet I see much that might have been better. My years have not always been improved."
The young man listened respectfully; presently he asked, with sudden interest, "Please tell me, if there ever was a whole year of your life, so perfectly happy that you would wish to live it all over again?"
"I have been perfectly happy at brief intervals," was the reply, "yet there is not a year of my long life, that I would choose to have return. I have been surrounded by many warm friends now gone to their eternal homes — I have loved, and have been loved, and the recollection yet thrills me. Still I thank God that I am not to live over those years upon earth. I have struggled much for truth and goodness, and there has not been one struggle which I would renew, though each has been followed by a deep satisfaction."
"To me, your life appears to have been dreary, grandfather," replied his young companion. "I ask for happiness for myself!" After a pause, he added with impetuosity, "If I am not to meet with the ardent happiness I dream of, and desire — I do not care to live. What is the life which thousands lead, worth? Nothing! I cannot sail monotonously down the stream — the more I 'think', and thought devours me — the more discontented do I become with everything I see. Why is an overpowering desire for happiness planted within the human breast — if it is so very rarely to be gratified? My childhood was sometimes mirthful — but as often, it was clouded by disappointments which are great to children. I have never seen even the moment, since I have been old enough to reflect — when I could say that I was as happy as I was capable of being. I have even felt the consciousness that my soul's depths were not filled to the brim with joy. I could always ask for more. In my happiest hours, the eager question rushes upon me, involuntarily, 'Am I entirely content?' And the response that rises up, is ever 'No!' I am young, and this soft air steals over a brow of health — I can appreciate the beautiful and exquisite. I can drink in the deep poetry of noble minds — I can idly revel in mirthful music, and dream away my soul — but with that bewitching dream, there is still a yearning for its realization. I cannot abate the restlessness that presses upon me — I look around, and young faces are bright and smiling with cheerful gaiety. I endeavor to catch the buoyant spirit — but I succeed rarely. If I do, it floats on the surface, leaving the under-current unbroken in its flow. Yet after I have endeavored to lighten the oppressive cares of some unfortunate creature — a sort of peace has for a time descended upon me, which has been infinitely soothing. It soon departs, and my usual bitterness again sways me. I sought for friendship, and for awhile, I was relieved — but I cannot forbear glancing down into the motives of my fellow men, and that involuntarily-searching spirit has proved unfortunate to me. I met with selfishness in the form of attachment, and then I turned to look upon the hollow heart of society, and selfishness was there."
"Alfred, you make me sad," said the old man, in a solemn and deeply pained voice. "This is the first time I knew that your heart was such a temple of bitterness."
"If I have saddened you, I wish I had not spoken: but the thoughts rushed over me, your kind heart is always open, and I gave them expression. You have lived long, and there is more sympathy in your experience, than in the laughing jest of those near my own age. Pardon me, grandfather, I will not pain you again!" Alfred turned his eyes upon his aged friend; he caught the look of kindness upon that honored face, and it fell warmly upon his soul.
"It is right to think deeply," said the revered adviser, "but one must think rightly, also. You must not look out upon the world, from the darkened corners of your soul — or the hue is transferred to all things which your glance falls upon. Take the torch of truth and heavenly love to chase away the dimness within you, then powerful changes will be wrought in your vision. You will begin to regard your fellow man with new feelings of interest. I am a plain and blunt old man, Alfred — but you know that my only desire is for your good; so bear with my remarks if they be unpalatable."
"Certainly, sir, I value frankness before flattery."
"You may say that you have never been 'perfectly' happy," continued the old gentleman; "that is neither strange nor uncommon, for I have met with few thoughtful people of your years, who, upon close reflection, could say that their souls could desire no more than had been granted to them. You must seek for resignation — not entire bliss upon earth — although it is possible that you may enjoy it for a season."
"Why is joy so transitory — and unquiet so lasting?" demanded the young man impatiently.
"The fault is not in the transitoriness of the joy — but in the very soul itself — it is in a state of disorder; its nature must be changed before it can receive forever only the image of gladness. In a chaos of the elements — can a smiling sky be always seen? Lay aside all unruly elements in your heart — and a pure Heaven of brightness will then greet your uplifted glance."
"But how can all this be done, grandfather — with the unruly elements you speak of? What can I do; for instance? If my soul be in disorder, I do not know in what it consists, or how to bring it to order. I am weary of its unsatisfied desires; my soul is continually in search of something which it has never caught sight of — and the fear, that that unknown, yet powerfully desired something may never come to quench my thirst, falls with the coldness of death upon my bosom."
"That something may be found by every human being, if sought for in the right way. Those yearnings are not given us, that they may fall back and wither the fountain from which they spring. But the question is — do we seek for happiness in the right way? Do we not rather ask for an impossibility — when we ask for permanent bliss, before we have laid a foundation in our souls for it? You wish to take this life too easy by far, my son; rouse up all your strength, look around you with the keenness of a resolved spirit, and seek to change your whole being — let that be your object, and let the desire for happiness be subservient to it. You will clasp joy to your breast, as an everlasting gift, at the end of the race.
"What are your aims and objects? You hardly know; you are in pursuit of that which flees before you as a shadow, and your restless spirit sinks and murmurs — you have no grand object in view, to buoy you up steadily and trustfully through every ill which life has power to bestow. Those very ills are seized upon, and become instruments of glory to the devoted and heaven-strengthened spirit — they prepare for a deeper draught of all things dear and desired. And though the soul droops beneath the weight of human suffering — yet the rod that smites is kissed with a prayer. Turn away from your individual self, as far as you can — and regard the broad world with a philanthropic eye, "
"Impossible — impossible!" interrupted Alfred, hastily, "I defy any person to turn from himself, and look upon the world with a more interested gaze than he casts upon his own heart. One may be philanthropic in his feelings and devoted to alleviating the distresses of less fortunate beings — but I hold it to be impossible that our individual selves will not always be first in interest. A sudden and powerful impulse may carry us away for a time — but after that rushing influence leaves us — we see ourselves again, and, find that we had only lost our equilibrium briefly. I say only what I sincerely think, and what thousands secretly know to be the case, even while advocating views quite opposite. There is no candor in the world!"
"Softly, my good friend," said the grandfather, mildly smiling. "I also hold it to be impossible that we can lose either our individuality or our interest in ourselves — but I believe it possible that we may love others just as well, if not better than ourselves. I do not refer to one or two particular people whom we may admire — but I speak of the mass of our fellow-creatures."
"I cannot even conceive of such a love!" returned the young man, shaking his head. "I cannot see how I could love a person who possesses no attractive qualities whatever — I always feel indifference, if not dislike. I think I could sacrifice my life to one I loved, if thrown into sudden and imminent danger; still, I think I might give pain to that same person many times, by gratifying myself. For instance, grandfather — suppose you were to be led to the stake, to be burned tomorrow — I would take your place to save you; yet I do not now do all I possible can, to add to your happiness. I gratify whims of my own; I idle away hours in the woods, or by some stream — when I fully know that it would be more pleasing to you, to see me bending patiently over my school books."
"Very true!" sighed the old man. "You prove your own position, which is that your ruling love — is self-love."
Alfred lifted up his eyebrows, as if he had heard an unwelcome fact. We are often willing to confess things, which we do not like to have old us. He fell into deep thought. Finally he said, "It is universally allowed that virtue is lovely; those who practice it, appear calm and resigned, and often happy — but, to tell the truth, such enjoyment seems rather tame and flat. I wish to be in freedom, to let my burning impulses rush on as they will, without a yoke. I love, and I hate, as my heart bids me — and I scorn control of any kind."
"Yet you submit to a yoke, my son; one which is not of your own imposing either."
"What kind of a yoke?"
"The yoke of society — you bow to public opinion in a measure. You avoid a glaring act, often, more because it will not be 'approved', than because you have a real disinclination for it. Is not that the case sometimes?"
Alfred did not exceedingly relish this probing — but he was too candid to cover up his motives from himself. He answered a decided "Yes!" but it was spoken, because he could not elbow himself out of the self-evident conviction forced upon him.
"Do you think it degrading for a man to conquer and govern the strongest, as well as the weakest impulses of his soul?" pursued his grandfather.
"Certainly not degrading — it is in the highest degree worthy of praise. It is truly noble! I acknowledge it."
"And yet you deem such enjoyment as would result from this government, tame and flat."
"I beg pardon; when I spoke of virtue, I referred to that smooth kind which is current, and seems more passive than active — that soft amiability which appears to deaden enthusiasm, and to shut up the soul in a set of opinions, instead of expanding it widely to everything noble and generous, wherever it may be found."
"It was not genuine virtue, you referred to, then — it was only its resemblance."
"It was what passes for virtue. But to come at the main point, grandfather — where is happiness to be found, if we are to be warring with ourselves during a lifetime, checking every natural spring in the soul?"
"Stop there, Alfred! We only quench the streams, which prevent the spirit's purest wells of noble and happy feelings from gushing forth in freedom. We must wage a warfare, it is true; why conceal it? But it does not last forever, and intervals of gladness come to refresh us, which the worn and blunted spirit of the man of pleasure in vain pants for. An exquisite joy, innocent as that of childhood, pervades the bosom of truth's soldier in his hours of peace and rest, and he lifts an eye of rapture to heaven — to God."
Alfred dwelt earnestly upon the noble countenance of the speaker, and his bosom filled with especial emotion, as the heavenly sweetness of the old man's smile penetrated into his inward soul. Goodness stood before him in its wonderful power, and he bowed down his soul in worship. How insignificant then seemed his selfish yearnings after present enjoyment — instead of that celestial love which can fill a human soul with so strong a power from on high. He reflected upon that venerable being's life — so strong and upright; he dwelt upon his large and noble heart, which could clasp the world in its embrace. He remembered months of acute suffering, both physical and mental, which had been endured with the stillness of a martyr's inward strength; and then, too, he recalled times when that aged heart was more truly and deeply joyful than his own young spirit had even been.
Both relapsed into the eloquent silence of absorbing thought. It was evident from the softened and meditative cast of Alfred's features, that his bitterness had given way to the true tenderness of feeling it so often quelled; he revolved in his mind all that had been advanced by his grandfather, and he dwelt upon every point with candor and serious reflection. A strong impression was made upon him — but he was entirely silent in regard to it — he waited to try his strength, before he spoke of the better resolutions that were formed, not without effort, in his mind. He felt a conviction that a change from selfishness to angelic charity might be accomplished, if he were but willing to co-operate with his Maker — the conception of universal love slowly dawned upon his soul, now turned heavenward for light — his duties as a responsible being came before him, and a sigh of reproach was given to the past. Then golden visions of delight thronged up to his gaze, and it was with a severe pang he thought of losing his hold upon the dear domains of idle imagination — he had so reveled for hours and hours, in intoxicating dreams, which shut out the world and stern duty. He felt his weakness — but he resolutely turned from dwelling upon it.
The evening air was refreshing after the warm sunset — but old Mr. Monmouth would not trust himself to bear it. Alfred went into the house with him, and made a brief visit, then left, and wended his way a short distance to his own home, which was a very elegant mansion, surrounded by every mark of luxury and taste. He immediately sought his chamber, and took up a neglected Bible which his mother had given him when a child — he turned over its leaves, and his eyes fell upon the one hundred and nineteenth psalm, "Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light upon my path. I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep your righteous judgments."
He read on, and the exceeding beauty and touching power of the Holy Word had never so deeply affected him — he wept, and all that was harsh in his nature melted. He prayed, and God approached, filling his uplifted soul with heavenly strength. Sweet was the thrill of thanksgiving, that arose from that hitherto restless spirit — quiet and blessed the peace that hushed him to deep, invigorating slumber.
People of an enthusiastic temperament are apt to fall into extremes; such was the case with Alfred Monmouth. He so feared that he would fall back into his former states of feeling, that he guarded himself like an hermit. For three months he abstained from going into company, and even reasonable enjoyment he deprived himself of. He threw aside all books but scientific and religious ones; even poetry he shut his ears against, lest it might beguile him again to his dreamy — but selfish musings. No doubt this severe discipline was very useful to him at the time, in strengthening him against the besetting faults of his character; but it could not last long, without starting other errors. During this time he had been, perhaps, as happy as ever in his life; his mind had been fixed upon an object, and a wealth of new thoughts had crowded upon him — he rejoiced with a kind of proud humility in his capability for self-government. He thought he was rapidly verging towards perfection.
But "a change came o'er the spirit of his dream" at last, and an unusual melancholy grew upon him, until it settled like a pall over his heart. An apathy in regard to what had so lately interested him, stole over him, and indeed a cold glance fell upon almost every pursuit he had once prized. Plunged in deep gloom, he one evening sought his grandfather's dwelling, hoping, by a conversation with the cheerful old man, to regain a more healthy state of mind; to his great satisfaction, Alfred found him alone reading.
"Well, my boy, I am glad you have come!" was the salutation, with a most cordial smile, for Mr. Monmouth had silently remarked the late alteration in his somewhat reckless grandson. He also detected the present gloom upon his fine countenance, and the earnest hope of dispelling it, added an affectionate heartiness to his manner. Alfred made several common-place remarks, then, with his usual impatience, he flung aside all preamble, and said,
"I am gloomy, grandfather, even more so than I have ever been, and I cannot explain it. The last serious conversation I had with you, produced a strong effect upon me, and for a long time after I was unusually cheerful and vigorous in mind. I seemed to have imbibed something of your spirit — I delighted in the hope of changing myself, through the aid of Heaven; it seemed as if angels hushed my restless spirit to repose, and I tried in humility to draw near my God. Yet I feared for myself, and I withdrew from temptation, from all society which was uncongenial to my state of mind. I was 'content' for a long time — but now the sadness of apathy overwhelms me."
"Endeavor, without murmuring, to bear this state of mind, and it will soon pass off," remarked Mr. Monmouth. "We must not always fly from temptation in every form, my boy — but we must arm ourselves against its attacks, otherwise our usefulness will be greatly lessened. If those who are endeavoring to make themselves better, do so by shunning society — they are rather examples of selfishness than benevolent goodness — the selfishness is unconscious, and such a course may be followed from a sense of duty. But the glance which discovered this to be duty was not wide enough; it took in only the claims of self, yet I would not convey the idea, that we have no one's evils to take care of but our own. We need society, and, however humble we may be, society needs us. We need to be refreshed by the strength of good beings, and we must also contribute our slight share to those whom Providence wills that we may benefit. The life of Heaven may thus circulate freely, and increase in power among many hearts. Go forward, Alfred, unmindful of your feelings, and pray only to trust in Providence, and to gain a deep desire for usefulness."
"Ah! yes," returned the young man, earnestly. Light broke in upon his darkness. "I am glad that I have spoken with you, grandfather, for your words give me strength to persevere. I never knew that I was weak until lately."
"Such knowledge is precious, my dear son. We are indeed strongest — when the hand of humility removes the veil that hides us from ourselves."
"Probably such is, the case — but I cannot realize it. It is with effort that I drag through the day; I am continually looking towards the future, and beholding a thousand perplexing situations where my besetting sins will be called into action. I see myself incapable of always following out the noble principles I have lately adopted."
"As your day is — so shall your strength be!" said Mr. Monmouth. "Be careful only to guard yourself against each little stumbling-block as it presents itself, and your mountains will be changed to mole-hills. Never fear for the future — do as well as you can in the present."
"But it is so singular that I should feel thus, when I have been trying as hard as a mortal could to change my erroneous views, and to regard all the dispensations of Providence with a resigned heart. I have cast the selfish thought of my own earthly happiness from my mind as much as possible."
"And yet there is a repining in your gloominess. You are not satisfied to bear it."
"Well, perhaps not. I am wrong — I think that I could submit with true fortitude to an outward trial — but there seems so little reason in my low spirits. Have you ever felt so, grandfather?"
"Often; and at such times, I devote myself more earnestly than ever to anything which will take my thoughts from myself."
"I will do so!" replied Alfred, firmly. "If my purposes are right in the sight of Heaven, I will be supported."
"True, my son."
Alfred left the home of his grandsire, more at rest with himself and all the world. Fresh peaceful hopes again sprang up within him, and he began to see his way clear. He reasoned himself into resignation, and, as day after day went on, he grew grateful for the privilege and opportunity offered to school his rebellious spirit to order.
Four years passed; Alfred was engaged in the busy world, and he shrunk not from it — but rather sought to do his duty in it. One summer evening, he was called to enter the large, old-fashioned house of his grandfather. His brow was thoughtful — but calm and resigned — he sought a quiet room; it was the chamber of death — yet was its stillness beautiful and peaceful; he knelt by the dying couch, and clasped the hand of his aged grandsire — then he wept — but the unbidden tears were those of gratitude. The serenity of Heaven was upon the countenance of the noble old man.
"My hour has come, Alfred," he said, placing one hand upon the beloved head bowed before him, "and I go hence with thankfulness. Ah! even now, there is a heavenly contentment in my bosom. The angels are bending over me, and wait to take my spirit to its home: there is no mist before my sight, all is clear. The Father of love lifts up my soul in this hour — our parting will be short, my son," the old man's voice trembled, an infinite tenderness dwelt in his eyes, and Alfred felt that there was a reality in the peace of the dying one. All the good that he had done him rushed before him, and he exclaimed with humility,
"How can I ever repay you, dear grandfather! for all your noble lessons to me?"
"I am repaid," was the low reply; "they have brought forth fruit, and I have lived to see it. I trust that you will leave the world with all the peace that I do, and with deeper goodness in your spirit. My blessing be upon you, my son!"
"Amen!" came low from Alfred's fervent lips.
The eyes of the aged one closed in death, and his young disciple went forth again into the world, made better by the scene he had witnessed.