This morning when I checked my e-mail I found a rather weepy one from a minister who writes to me from time to time, always writing dolorous, self-indulgent, and overly dramatic words. This time, in lamenting several impediments in his life, he quoted Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He repined that all he endeavored seem to fail, that all his hopeful dreams were as “momentary as a sound,”
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Well, true enough, I suppose, but the sentimental preacher is wrong to take the above words and narrowly apply them to his own life. Just about anybody who knows anything about Shakespeare knows the quoted passage above, but few know Hermia’s response to Lysander:
If, then, true lovers have been ever crost,
It stands as an edict in destiny:
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love as thoughts, and dreams, and sighs,
Wishes, and tears, poor fancy’s followers.
In short, what the self-centered preacher needs to comprehend is that the tragedy of “quick bright things” fading into nothingness lies in the condition of mankind, not of a particular man. The human condition in many regards is hopeless and heartbreaking. Becker calls it a tragedy, this predicament in which we find ourselves. The truth is that the “jaws of darkness” will swallow us all, in time swallow the earth itself, and, some cosmologists say, the entire universe itself. If you’re like me you can’t think much beyond this small planet whereupon we find ourselves. We have to deal with the mess of our own lives; we can’t worry about the lives of Martians, not that Martians exist. It’s probably true that we care less about stars falling into one another, about the immeasurable cataclysms tossing galaxies as if they were match sticks; yes, we care less about these conflagrations than we do our own belly aches—and for good reason too.
I can understand my tender preacher’s grief at his lost dreams, at the sorrow rolling like a river through his life, but he’s wrong to think that life demands any more of him that it demands of any of us. I could advise him that it is futile to mourn what is not only inexorable but unavoidable. But this man doesn’t want advice; he wants consolation, wants sympathy. Of course, I won’t advise him of anything. He wants me to be complicit in his descent into self-pity, to echo him, “O God, isn’t it awful!” I will say nothing about his particular complaint. It seems as foolish to state this as to say, “The wind blows” or the “rain down does fall.” Oh, how he’d bristle with outrage did I tell him that he is drifting perilously close to solipsism.
The most I could tell him, the most I understand, is that we all have to go a hard road, often on a dark night, but we have no other option but to go it. Perhaps we should go it as cheerfully and courageously as we can. I think Samuel Johnson would agree with me. In fact, I suppose I really steal the notion from the great man. I don’t think he’d object.