Editor's note:

What bet­ter way to begin a week of grat­i­tude than with our good friend G.K. Chester­ton? He joins us here with a whim­si­cal and wise essay on grum­bling and grat­i­tude, moun­tains and mole­hills, and draw­ing poet­ic plea­sure” from those innu­mer­able acci­den­tal lim­i­ta­tions” that fall across our path. Gilbert Kei­th is recov­er­ing from a sprained foot caus­ing him to stand, when he does, on one leg. Being Chester­ton, he turns this incon­ve­nience into an adven­ture right­ly con­sid­ered” and draws soul-stir­ring impli­ca­tions from his tem­po­rary loss.

Here at Ren­o­varé, GKC is some­one for whom we are infi­nite­ly grateful. 

—Renovaré Team

A friend of mine who was vis­it­ing a poor woman in bereave­ment and cast­ing about for some phrase of con­so­la­tion that should not be either inso­lent or weak, said at last, I think one can live through these great sor­rows and even be the bet­ter. What wears one is the lit­tle wor­ries.” That’s quite right, mum,” answered the old woman with empha­sis, and I ought to know, see­ing I’ve had ten of em.” It is, per­haps, in this sense that it is most true that lit­tle wor­ries are most wear­ing. In its vaguer sig­nif­i­cance the phrase, though it con­tains a truth, con­tains also some pos­si­bil­i­ties of self-decep­tion and error. Peo­ple who have both small trou­bles and big ones have the right to say that they find the small ones the most bit­ter; and it is undoubt­ed­ly true that the back which is bowed under loads incred­i­ble can feel a faint addi­tion to those loads; a giant hold­ing up the earth and all its ani­mal cre­ation might still find the grasshop­per a bur­den. But I am afraid that the max­im that the small­est wor­ries are the worst is some­times used or abused by peo­ple, because they have noth­ing but the very small­est wor­ries. The lady may excuse her­self for revil­ing the crum­pled rose leaf by reflect­ing with what extra­or­di­nary dig­ni­ty she would wear the crown of thorns — if she had to. The gen­tle­man may per­mit him­self to curse the din­ner and tell him­self that he would behave much bet­ter if it were a mere mat­ter of star­va­tion. We need not deny that the grasshop­per on man’s shoul­der is a bur­den; but we need not pay much respect to the gen­tle­man who is always call­ing out that he would rather have an ele­phant when he knows there are no ele­phants in the coun­try. We may con­cede that a straw may break the camel’s back, but we like to know that it real­ly is the last straw and not the first.

I grant that those who have seri­ous wrongs have a real right to grum­ble, so long as they grum­ble about some­thing else. It is a sin­gu­lar fact that if they are sane they almost always do grum­ble about some­thing else. To talk quite rea­son­ably about your own quite real wrongs is the quick­est way to go off your head. But peo­ple with great trou­bles talk about lit­tle ones, and the man who com­plains of the crum­pled rose leaf very often has his flesh full of the thorns. But if a man has com­mon­ly a very clear and hap­py dai­ly life then I think we are jus­ti­fied in ask­ing that he shall not make moun­tains out of mole­hills. I do not deny that mole­hills can some­times be impor­tant. Small annoy­ances have this evil about them, that they can be more abrupt because they are more invis­i­ble; they cast no shad­ow before, they have no atmos­phere. No one ever had a mys­ti­cal pre­mo­ni­tion that he was going to tum­ble over a has­sock. William III died by falling over a mole­hill; I do not sup­pose that with all his var­ied abil­i­ties he could have man­aged to fall over a moun­tain. But when all this is allowed for, I repeat that we may ask a hap­py man (not William III) to put up with pure incon­ve­niences, and even make them part of his hap­pi­ness. Of pos­i­tive pain or pos­i­tive pover­ty I do not here speak. I speak of those innu­mer­able acci­den­tal lim­i­ta­tions that are always falling across our path — bad weath­er, con­fine­ment to this or that house or room, fail­ure of appoint­ments or arrange­ments, wait­ing at rail­way sta­tions, miss­ing posts, find­ing unpunc­tu­al­i­ty when we want punc­tu­al­i­ty, or, what is worse, find­ing punc­tu­al­i­ty when we don’t. It is of the poet­ic plea­sures to be drawn from all these that I sing — I sing with con­fi­dence because I have recent­ly been exper­i­ment­ing in the poet­ic plea­sures which arise from hav­ing to sit in one chair with a sprained foot, with the only alter­na­tive course of stand­ing on one leg like a stork — a stork is a poet­ic sim­i­le; there­fore I eager­ly adopt­ed it.

To appre­ci­ate any­thing we must always iso­late it, even if the thing itself sym­bol­ise some­thing oth­er than iso­la­tion. If we wish to see what a house is it must be a house in some unin­hab­it­ed land­scape. If we wish to depict what a man real­ly is we must depict a man alone in a desert or on a dark sea sand. So long as he is a sin­gle fig­ure he means all that human­i­ty means; so long as he is soli­tary he means human soci­ety; so long as he is soli­tary he means socia­bil­i­ty and com­rade­ship. Add anoth­er fig­ure and the pic­ture is less human — not more so. One is com­pa­ny, two is none. If you wish to sym­bol­ise human build­ing draw one dark tow­er on the hori­zon; if you wish to sym­bol­ise light let there be no star in the sky. Indeed, all through that strange­ly lit sea­son which we call our day there is but one star in the sky — a large, fierce star which we call the sun. One sun is splen­did; six suns would be only vul­gar. One Tow­er Of Giot­to is sub­lime; a row of Tow­ers of Giot­to would be only like a row of white posts. The poet­ry of art is in behold­ing the sin­gle tow­er; the poet­ry of nature in see­ing the sin­gle tree; the poet­ry of love in fol­low­ing the sin­gle woman; the poet­ry of reli­gion in wor­ship­ping the sin­gle star. And so, in the same pen­sive lucid­i­ty, I find the poet­ry of all human anato­my in stand­ing on a sin­gle leg. To express com­plete and per­fect leg­gish­ness the leg must stand in sub­lime iso­la­tion, like the tow­er in the wilder­ness. As Ibsen so fine­ly says, the strongest leg is that which stands most alone.

This lone­ly leg on which I rest has all the sim­plic­i­ty of some Doric col­umn. The stu­dents of archi­tec­ture tell us that the only legit­i­mate use of a col­umn is to sup­port weight. This col­umn of mine ful­fils its legit­i­mate func­tion. It sup­ports weight. Being of an ani­mal and organ­ic con­sis­ten­cy, it may even improve by the process, and dur­ing these few days that I am thus unequal­ly bal­anced, the help­less­ness or dis­lo­ca­tion of the one leg may find com­pen­sa­tion in the aston­ish­ing strength and clas­sic beau­ty of the oth­er leg. Mrs. Mountstu­art Jenk­in­son in Mr. George Meredith’s nov­el might pass by at any moment, and see­ing me in the stork-like atti­tude would exclaim, with equal admi­ra­tion and a more lit­er­al exac­ti­tude, He has a leg.” Notice how this famous lit­er­ary phrase sup­ports my con­tention touch­ing this iso­la­tion of any admirable thing. Mrs. Mountstu­art Jenk­in­son, wish­ing to make a clear and per­fect pic­ture of human grace, said that Sir Willough­by Pat­terne had a leg. She del­i­cate­ly glossed over and con­cealed the clum­sy and offen­sive fact that he had real­ly two legs. Two legs were super­flu­ous and irrel­e­vant, a reflec­tion, and a con­fu­sion. Two legs would have con­fused Mrs. Mountstu­art Jenk­in­son like two Mon­u­ments in Lon­don. That hav­ing had one good leg he should have anoth­er — this would be to use vain rep­e­ti­tions as the Gen­tiles do. She would have been as much bewil­dered by him as if he had been a centipede.

All pes­simism has a secret opti­mism for its object. All sur­ren­der of life, all denial of plea­sure, all dark­ness, all aus­ter­i­ty, all des­o­la­tion has for its real aim this sep­a­ra­tion of some­thing so that it may be poignant­ly and per­fect­ly enjoyed. I feel grate­ful for the slight sprain which has intro­duced this mys­te­ri­ous and fas­ci­nat­ing divi­sion between one of my feet and the oth­er. The way to love any­thing is to realise that it might be lost. In one of my feet I can feel how strong and splen­did a foot is; in the oth­er I can realise how very much oth­er­wise it might have been. The moral of the thing is whol­ly exhil­a­rat­ing. This world and all our pow­ers in it are far more awful and beau­ti­ful than even we know until some acci­dent reminds us. If you wish to per­ceive that lim­it­less felic­i­ty, lim­it your­self if only for a moment. If you wish to realise how fear­ful­ly and won­der­ful­ly God’s image is made, stand on one leg. If you want to realise the splen­did vision of all vis­i­ble things — wink the oth­er eye.

From the col­lec­tion Tremen­dous Tri­fles, in pub­lic domain via Project Guten­berg.

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