Out of Tune
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1868
"If only I had leisure time, and quiet, repose! If I could only escape from this fret and fever of life — from this daily contact with things which chafe and worry; which hurt and agitate. Ah, my friend! There is something wrong. Something out of joint in the constitution of society — when its action is so painfully felt. If I were as immovable as stone; or if my nerves were steel — then I might pass through the world with unruffled feelings. But I am a bundle of sensitive fibers, which answer, like a finely-strung instrument, to every touch — giving melody to soft-falling and skillful fingers, and discord whenever a rough hand invades."
"A living soul, fearfully and wonderfully made," I answered. "A delicately-wrought instrument, created for choral harmonies."
My friend looked at me with a face that questioned as to the meaning of what I had said.
"It is not escape from society which you need," I remarked.
"The chording of your instrument with the grand life-chorus. Drop out of your place — go away by yourself — and you will be as a solitary oboe, a trombone, a flute, or whatever the instrument may be, to which you correspond in the living orchestral world."
"Ingenious and fanciful. But, accepting your thought as true, how can an instrument, finely strung, find its true relation and power — where all is discord?"
"Impossible in the nature of things," was my reply. "But there is a grand life-chorus, into which all human instruments, if in tune, may come, each in its turn giving increase to the harmony."
"My senses are not acute enough to perceive this harmony," returned my friend. "I listen; but to my ears come shocks of discord, which send thrills of pain along the strings of my soul. For me there is no hope, but in escape from this Babel of sounds. I must get away, and live closer to nature. I must talk with the babbling streams; with the birds; with insects; with sweet airs, perfume-laden; with forest and sky; with all things, in fact, which are in the order of their creation, and so image the Creator. Oh, how I am longing to escape! And I will escape!"
My friend was in earnest, and so, seeking for opportunity, he made his escape, going from the city in which his life had been passed, far away into the country, that he might stand face to face with nature, and so be in harmony with her. He found leisure time, quiet, repose. The stream which had, almost from its source, moved along in a free current — now hurrying past flowery banks, now flashing back the sunlight in silvery gleams as it swept over stony places or down rocky heights — composed itself to sleep in a tranquil lake.
He found it very pleasant and peaceful for a time. The rush, the hurry, the change — were over. No more discords — no more strivings — no more contact with rudeness and coarseness, with all-absorbing selfishness.
"I am at one, with nature," he wrote me, soon after the change. "All her peace, and order, and harmony — flow into my life. She speaks to me, and I understand her language. She takes me by the hand, and leads me into green pastures and beside still waters. I never understood life before."
The smooth, tree-encircled lake, impresses you with a sense of tranquility. You look upon its calm surface, and feel its quiet influence pervading your soul. But, as you gaze down into its bosom, you begin to have an impression of something hidden and hurtful; of a place in which evil things may be at work. Though the water looks clear, it has nothing of that crystalline life so beautiful in the flowing stream. Dark masses of something you cannot make out, lie at the bottom. Around the edges, weeds grow in wild luxuriance. You begin to feel a sluggishness in the air, and to perceive stifling odors from rank vegetation. How deep and exhilarating is every breath, as you come into the open fields or ascend some mountain paths again! An hour by the still lake, has sufficed. It would be death in life, to dwell there.
Very pleasant for a time, my friend found it in his new dwelling-place, far away from the great centers of humanity. The agitations which swept, sympathetically, from circle to circle of life, did not find him out in his calm retreat — never stirred his heart, reminding him that he was a member of the great body of the people. He was the still lake, reflecting sky and tree, and holding peace in his bosom. The still lake of the soul, is affected by moral laws in strict correspondence with natural laws. As it was with the lake on the lower and material plane, so it must be on a higher and spiritual plane. There was no escape for him. Reason would have taught him this, if he could have gone so far above his sensuous self as to comprehend her clear inductions.
I did not meet him again for years after he dropped away from our social and business world, lost to us as an instrument from an orchestra, or a fine voice from a choir. There was gain on neither side, I think; but loss to both. A few letters had passed between us; then communication ceased. Our minds were not in harmony — they did not chord in the music of life.
Two or three months ago, I was in a neighboring city. The call for a public meeting attracted my attention, and I went to note the proceedings. The organization was going on as I entered the hall, and greatly to my surprise, I saw my friend take the chair. I could not be mistaken in him, for his physique was peculiar. If I had been in doubt, his voice would have assured me. Time, and life, had been at work with him, and through both, his true manhood was coming out. There was an air of strength about him — of self-poise — of will which knows no hindrance. I lost half my interest in the meeting, because of interest in my friend. How quietly, yet with a full consciousness of what the assembling involved, did he, as chairman, hold all its proceedings in the bonds of that rational order, out of which so much right action comes. He gave rhythm to the whole.
When I stood face to face with him, grasping his hands, and looking into his clear, thoughtful eyes, I saw that he was a new man. That there had been deaths and births — losses and gains — the laying aside of lower things, and the putting on of things which were higher and purer.
"I thought you were vegetating in your country hermitage," I said to him, "and lo! I find you in the very heart, as it were, of the world of action.''
"Come home with me," he answered. "We must talk about that. I have thought of you a great many times."
I went with him and passed the night. He was in business again. The fret and fever of life were all about him. He was once more in contact with things which chafe and worry, which hurt and agitate — if we will let them.
"Tell me," I said, "of your states and experiences during the time you lived separate from the world, and alone with nature. You wrote me that you were 'at one' with her; that all her peace and harmony and order flowed into your life; that she spoke to you in a language clearly understood; that she was leading you in green pastures and beside still waters."
He dropped his eyes, and looked thoughtful.
"Mere imagination," he replied. "You know in what state of mind I broke away from society — dropped out of the orchestra, to use your own figure, and went away with my solitary instrument, to enjoy its music alone. An athlete, exhausted in the arena, finds sweet repose on a soft bed in a quiet chamber. It fills, for a time, his idea of Heaven. But, when the weary limbs have rested, and every organ and fibre is flushed with blood and energy, the chamber becomes as a prison. He could not live there. He would grow sick for lack of freedom and action. A similar state was mine. The peaceful retreat into which I withdrew myself, was as the bed and chamber to the strained athlete.
"There was far more of imagination than experience," he continued, "in those fine words about my intelligent fellowship with nature. I expressed what I believed possible, rather than what I had experienced. It seemed to me that I was standing at the door opening into the arena of nature, and that a hand was moving it on the inner side. My heart bounded in confident anticipations — which were not realized. The door never turned on its hinges — the mystery of nature was not revealed. I soon wearied of asking vague questions of the trees and stones — of the birds and brooks — of the earth and sky. If they answered me, I did not comprehend their language. The peace, the beauty, the order of external life, did not long transfuse themselves into my soul — nay, transfuse is not the word — did not long reflect themselves from the surface. The old disquiet came back upon me; and I awoke, gradually, to the truth, that disturbing causes were within me, rather than in the world; that my instrument was not in tune. It was a painful awakening. After this, nature, which at first seemed flushing with intelligence, grew silent and dumb. I knew nothing of botany, of mineralogy, of entomology; and the science lacking, there was no basis for a true interest in things below or above the earth's surface.
"A few years of dull, weary, soul-corroding life, and I came back into the world again, something wiser than when I went away to live by myself. I do not see that we have changed in anything since my first experience; and yet I find my action accordant with the general action in hundreds of cases where it was discordant before.
The change is in myself; my instrument is in better tune, and chords more perfectly with other instruments in the grand chorus of life. There is, I find, a great deal around us that we speak of as discord — when the fault is in ourselves. Of one thing I am satisfied, and that is, that in the great social body, marred and diseased as it is, there is a life as harmonious and reciprocal as in the single body of a man. We see this in the effort of every community to get just laws, and have them executed for the common good; in the devotion of men to useful employment, each in his sphere; in concerted benevolent, sanitary and corrective movements, by which diseased and hurtful things may be cast out. Now, just in the degree that each individual brings himself into harmony with this higher circle of life, which is common to the whole, will he find discord and obstruction ceasing. The world will put on a new face for him. She will speak to him in a different language. He will not need to go away into the still places of nature to find rest and peace, for they will abide with him. But, if he narrows his life down to the merest selfish ends, seeking, as some disordered member of the body, to appropriate only, and not to give — to act for himself alone, and not in concert with the whole for the health and well-being of the whole — then he will be out of tune. His life will be jarred by perpetual discords, and he will vainly imagine that he is suffering from defect of harmony in society — when the defect is in himself.
"This," added my friend, " is the lesson I have learned. Taking my peculiar mental construction, there was no way for me to learn it, but by the hard one of experience. I had to drop out of the orchestra and try my instrument alone. What poor music I made, sitting afar off in solitary places by myself! I thought it quite sweet at first; but its thinness and monotony soon wearied, and at last disgusted me. I longed for choral harmonies. How they ravished my ears when their chorded delights broke into them again!"