Friday’s classes were over. It was four in the afternoon and, as was their usual practice, the dozen girls who regularly attended the “Old Lecturer’s” informal discussions on “Crystallization” had gathered for tea, cookies, and chat in one of the larger rooms of The Winnington School for Girls in North Cheshire. Sometimes the Old Lecturer was in residence at Winnington all week long. Sometimes he came up from London only for the weekend, but always, in this latter case, he arrived in time for their session.
As the tea was poured and the cookies shared, everyone exchanged cordialities. Then, after all were settled comfortably, the Old Lecturer would resume telling them more of the wonders of the rocks that contained crystals, explaining how, if one examined them carefully–as they deserved!–one soon found that such stones were not only beautiful in the extreme, but that their stories were analogues of their own, that the cracks and whorls and lovelinesses and dark places in them (he brought many from his own collection for illustration) were emblematic of their own lives. (A few among the assembled occasionally thought he was being a bit far-fetched: How could rocks, however lovely, be like them?!)
But–as often happened–it was not long before the discussion slipped away from stones to issues which concerned the girls’ lives more immediately. On this day, as they were discussing the rents in rocks, it was Sybil (so nicknamed because she knew Latin well), who was brave enough to say aloud that, almost always, she felt as if she wasn’t “good enough”–sometimes she wasn’t good enough in or at this, sometimes in or at that, sometimes in or at something other, but always in or at something. In this, she said, she was like the scarred rock in the Old Lecturer’s hand. The worrisome thing was that the rock would always have its defect and she would dearly love to do something to make her unpleasant feeling of not being good enough go away. Abashed nods indicated that not a few of the other girls shared the same feeling.
The Old Lecturer listened to and watched these confessions attentively. After they had ceased, he sat silently for a few moments, as if he were an archer readying his arrow for what he knew would be an extremely important flight. Then, looking carefully at his charges, he spoke as follows: “My dear young ladies,” he began,
your wisdom and duty touching soul-sickness are just the same. Ascertain clearly what is wrong with you; and then, so far as you know any means of mending it, take those means, and have done. When you are examining yourself, never call yourself a “sinner”; that is very cheap abuse–and utterly useless. [If you do so, you] may even get to like it, and be proud of it! But [on the other hand, do] call yourself a liar, a coward, a sluggard, a glutton, or an evil-eyed jealous wretch if you indeed find yourself to be in any wise any of these. Take steady means to check yourself in whatever fault you have ascertained and justly accuse yourself of; and, as soon as you are in active way of mending, you will be no more inclined to moan over an undefined corruption.
For the rest, you will find it less easy to uproot faults than to choke them by gaining virtues. Do not think of your faults. Still less of others’ faults. In every person who comes near you, look for what is good and strong. Honor that; rejoice in it! And, as you can, try to imitate it–and your faults will drop off, like dead leaves, when their time comes.
If, on looking back, your whole life should seem rugged as a palm tree stem, never mind so long as it has been growing and has its grand, green shade of leaves, and weight of honeyed fruit at the top. And even if you cannot find much good in yourself at last, think that it does not much matter to the universe either what you were, or are. Think, instead, how many people are noble if you cannot be–and rejoice in their nobleness. An immense quantity of modern confession of sin, even when honest, is merely a sickly egotism, which would rather gloat over its own evil than lose the centrality of its interest in itself.
At this point, Mary interrupts; Mary, of whom everyone in the room, including the Old Lecturer, is in awe. As always, her perspicacity stuns them all:
But then, if we ought to forget ourselves so much, how did the old Greek proverb “Know thyself” come to be so highly esteemed?
To which the Old Lecturer replied:
My dear, it is the proverb of proverbs, Apollo’s proverb, and the sun’s! But do you think you can know yourself by looking into yourself? Never. You can know what you are only by looking out of yourself. Measure your own powers with those of others; compare your own interests with those of others; try to understand what you appear to them, as well as what they appear to you, and judge of yourselves, in all things, relatively and subordinately…starting always with a wholesome conviction of the probability that there is nothing particular about you! For instance, some of you perhaps think you can write poetry. Dwell on your own feelings and doings and you will soon think yourselves Tenth Muses! But forget your own feelings and try, instead, to understand a line or two of Chaucer or Dante, and you will soon begin to feel yourselves very foolish…which is much like the fact.
Something which befalls you may seem a great misfortune. You meditate over its effects on you personally, and [soon begin thinking] that it is a chastisement, or a warning, or a this, or that, or the other, of profound significance, and that all the angels in heaven have left their business for a little while so that they may watch [the misfortune’s] effects on your mind. But give up this egotistic indulgence of your fancy. Examine a little what misfortunes, greater a thousandfold, are happening, every second, to twenty times worthier persons, and your self-consciousness will change into pity and humility, and you will “know yourself” so far as to understand that “there hath nothing taken thee but what is common to man.”
The final aphorism is Ruskin’s. The entire passage comes from The Ethics of the Dust (1865). Some may recognize the italicized lines as some of the ones I used in the first post of this series, “Every Dawn of Morning: An Introduction to this Site” (#1) as good, if not better, here in their fuller context.
Be well out there!
Until next time.