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Maeterlinck : Sorrow and Happiness

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949)

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Maurice Maeterlinck

Wisdom and Destiny 


"There are some profound thinkers, such as Pascal, Schopenhauer, Hello, who seem not to have been happy, for all that the sense of the infinite, universal, eternal, was loftily throned in their soul. But it may well be an error to think that he who give voice to the multitude’s sorrow must himself always be victim to great personal despair. The horizon of sorrow, surveyed from the height of a thought that has ceased to be selfish, instinctive, or commonplace, differs but little from the horizon of happiness when this last is regarded from the height of a thought of similar nature, but other in origin.

And after all, it matters but little whether the clouds be golden or gloomy that yonder float over the plain ; the traveller is glad to have reached the eminence whence his eye may at last repose on illimitable space. The sea is not the less marvellous and mysterious to us though white sails be not for ever flitting over its surface ; and neither tempest nor day that is radiant and calm is able to bring enfeeblement unto the life of our soul. Enfeeblement comes through our dwelling, by night and by day, in the airless room of our cold, self-satisfied, trivial, ungenerous thoughts, at a time when the sky all around our abode is reflecting the light of the ocean.

But there is a difference perhaps between the sage and the thinker. It may be that sorrow will steal over the thinker as he stands on the height he has gained ; but the sage by his side only smiles — and this smile is so loyal, so human and natural, that the humblest creature of all must needs understand, and will gladly welcome it to him, as it falls like a flower to the foot of the mountain. The thinker throws open the road "which leads from the seen to the unseen" ; the sage throws open the highway that takes us from that which we love to-day to that which we yet shall love, and the paths that ascend from that which has ceased to console to that which, for long time to come, shall be laden with deep consolation.

It is needful, but not all-sufficient, to have reflected deeply and boldly on man, and nature, and God ; for the profoundest thought is of little avail if it contain no germ of comfort. Indeed, it is only a thought that the thinker, as yet, does not wholly possess ; as the other thoughts are, too, that remain outside our normal, everyday life. It is easier far to be sad and dwell in affliction than at once to do what time in the end will always compel us to do ; to shake ourselves free from affliction.

He who spends his days gloomily, in constant mistrust of his fellows, will often appear a profounder thinker than the other, who lives in the faith and honest simplicity wherein all men should dwell. Is there a man can believe he has done all it lay in his power to do if, as he meditates thus, in the name of his brethren, on the sorrows of life, he hides from them — anxious, perhaps, not to weaken his grandiose picture of sorrow — the reasons wherefore he accepts life, reasons that must be decisive, since he himself continues to live ?

The thought must be incomplete surely whose object is not to console. It is easier for you to tell me the cause of your sorrow than, very simply, to speak of the deeper, the weightier reasons that induce your instinct to cling to this life whose distress you bemoan. Which of us finds not, unsought, many thousands of reasons for sorrow ? It is doubtless of service that the sage should point out those that are loftiest, for the loftiest reasons for sorrow must be on the eve of becoming reasons for gladness and joy. But reasons that have not within them these germs of greatness and happiness — and in moral life open spaces abound where greatness and happiness blend — these are surely not worthy of mention.

Before we can bring happiness to others, we first must be happy ourselves ; nor will happiness abide within us unless we confer it on others. If there be a smile upon our lips, those around us will soon smile too ; and our happiness will become the truer and deeper as we see that these others are happy. “It is not seemly that I, who, willingly, have brought sorrow to none, should permit myself to be sad,” said Marcus Aurelius, in one of his noblest passages. But are we not saddening ourselves, and learning to sadden others, if we refuse to accept all the happiness offered to man ?"

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