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A Characteristic or Two
“The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (August 19, 1911) : 26 : link
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      Words being the treacherous chameleon things they are, it is small wonder they hypnotize us into all manner of beliefs regardig them, and trick us into a dozen absurdities of action by their lack of definition in our minds. Just what we suppose “interest” to mean it is very difficult to say, yet from the way we act we allow it a very big claim indeed. A person says, “You know I’m so interested,” and then asks for all the details of your intimate affairs. You say to yourself, “It is a little annoying, and a shade impertinent, but then, as they say, they are so interested,” and on this vague ground we tell them all they ask. The phrase, “I am so interested,” seems to work magic, and on inspection one is more than ever put to it to know why. Perhaps it is a very human realization of the fact that to have people interested is not so common as to warrant a too scurvy treatment of curiosity coming in the guise of interest. If any one is genuinely interested it is so clearly good of him that he deserves all we can give of interested matter. And so the word “interest,” over-worked, ill-used as it is, still has power for the human warmth it suggests. It is to this we pay a tribute when we lay ourselves open to intrusive questions, trusting that our good behavior may act as a magnet to draw toward us next time the thing aped, the interest that has real claims.

      The belief is forced upon us that to protect perfection too closely is the wrong way to conserve it. The instinct is so natural to enclose completely that which seems so lovely that an infinitesimal change would spoil it. High courage is needed to leave it exposed to life and changing circumstances. Hermetically sealed, perfection undergoes a change, and the fewer open crevices in its case the more quickly its perfection escapes. A great truth, which has seemed to its worshipers so far above discussion that they felt justified in putting it out of the reach of questioning, is adored for a time; then that which has gathered about it becomes vicious in its power, feared, and final revolt discloses the fact that the great truth, because covered, has vanished, and must be looked for and found afresh. China had her apex, and conscious of possessing all in the teachings of Confucius, she shut out the rest of the world, dreading contamination for what could not be bettered, and awoke to find she had nothing. Women considered too pure and beautiful for the uses of the world were incarcerated from reality, and on a reinspection they were found to be not fit for the world’s uses. And so the conclusion is reached that what we hold most precious must be held lightly, and it is not to be wondered at if our hearts sink at so high a command. Yet only by poising it on our open palm, with never so much as a finger closing over it, can we hope to retain that which we most wish to grasp tightly. That which is precious must be exposed to comparison, to combat, if need be, to the rigor that alone keeps it precious, and it remains ours just so long as we lay no possessing hand upon it.

      Those terrible occasions, which are generally connected with a railway station, when every one supposes that the other person understood something else from that which he did in reality understand, would be so much more easily recovered from if it were ever possible to blame anyone. A chaotic rendezvous, where no one meets any one but each misses all the others, is terrible from any point of view, but the most maddening sting comes from every one being implicated so impartially that no one can exonerate himself and derive that exquisite relief of pointing at an undeniable delinquent, and fastening the vexation of the entire matter on him. It is blame alone that would ease sufficiently; nothing but blame soothes and calms in quite the identical way. There are people, of course, who snatch this comfort, who will have it in direct opposition to the dictates of honesty, and who extricate themselves by the most curious angles of vision. There is apt to be one of this type in every railway station predicament. They constitute an item to be borne. Irritating as they are, they are not quite so trying as the fact that without an exception each person was evenly stupid in misunderstanding, but evenly well-intentioned and evenly distressed. Each apologizes to all and berates himself, with a wronged sense in the back of his brain that some one really might have had the decency to have been a little stupider than the rest. It would have made it pleasanter all round.

29 August 2022