Thoughts on Discontent
“Discontent is immortality,” says the celebrated author of Night Thoughts: a sentiment inexpressibly noble, if considered in a right view, but extremely liable to perversion. Mortal enjoyments, it is certain, will ever be found inadequate to satisfy the desires of an immortal mind: if we look not beyond them we are wretched; and that longing after something future, something great, those high raised expectations which nothing here can fill, is undoubtedly a proof, that however degenerated from its original purity, the mind of man was formed for some higher state; where its capacity and enjoyments bear a nearer proportion to each other, and that this is but
------- Our bud of being, the dim dawn,
The twilight of our day, the vestibule,
Life’s theatre as yet is shut, and death,
Strong death, alone can heave the massy bar,
This gross impediment of clay remove,
And make us embryos of existence free.
But we pervert this exalted propensity when we suffer it to make us despise our present situation, and render us out of humour with all about us. There is a sickly discontent, which is too often taken for a longing after immortality, that poisons our dearest blessings, and preys upon the very vitals of our happiness. The human mind is prone to extremes; like an unskilful painter, our colours are too glaring, or our shades too deep.
When the vernal sunshine of youth gilds every object with beauty, we are apt fondly to imagine that life is one continued scene of enjoyment; the youthful heart, uncorrupted by suspicion, believes every bosom as sincere as its own. Our fancy paints a long long train of happy years; and though the sage and the moralist warn us of the thorns that are scattered thick through all the labyrinths of Life, we seldom believe, though we may coldly assent to the truth of their assertions, till we feel the wounds those thorns inflict; but when sad experience has dissipated the gay illusion, and the fairy landscape vanishes into air, our elated imaginations sink into the other extremes; we overlook those blessings which a beneficent Providence is daily diffusing around us, and petulantly exclaim, “Bliss was not made for Man and Life is vain.” When we feel a disgust at every thing this life affords, our pride is apt to dignify it with the name of piety, when perhaps the real source is the want of religion rather the possession of it. That bias which the mind has to dwell on the calamities of life, and to feel them more strongly than its blessings is, I cannot but think, one sad proof of its degeneracy; for where there is a defection from virtue, there will ever be a defection from happiness. The mind, like an instrument out of time, produces nothing but discord; and it is this innate propensity, which we most of us have, to dwell on the gloomy side of life, that has made so many well disposed and pious minds adopt, in too great a measure, this melancholy strain of reasoning, not considering its tendency.
Religion, at the same time that it teaches us not to fix our supreme affections on anything short of God, bids us view all the blessings we enjoy as so many emanations of his goodness, as so many incentives to love and obedience, which it is impossible they should be, unless we are sensible of their value. We cannot be sensible of pleasures we do not enjoy; nor is a sense of our own unworthiness of the least of God’s mercies at all inconsistent with a proper enjoyment of them; is it not rather that which gives them their highest flavour? This discontent spreads a gloom over every object, but religion diffuses an ineffable sweetness; and enables reason to maintain her proper empire over the mind; it shows us the gifts of an indulgent Providence in their proper colours; it does more, it converts the severest sufferings we feel into real blessings, though our short-sighted reason cannot perhaps discern in what their utility consists. To those who are actuated by this principle (as an elegant writer expresses it)
------ E'en smiling nature looks more gay;
For them, more lively hues the fields adorn;
To them, more fair the fairest dawn of day;
To them, more sweet the sweetest breath of morn.
Tranquility is the natural result of resignation, as resignation is of religion: but it is excellently observed by an amiable lady, “that it is too common for persons who are perfectly convinced of the duty of patience and resignation under great and severe trials, in which the hand of Providence is plainly seen, to let themselves grow fretful and plaintive under little vexations and slight disappointments; as if their submission in one case gave them a right to rebel in another.” It is these seemingly little trifles that give a color to our lives, as they occur more frequently than more important events; and it is in these lesser instances, that the faculties of our mind may be most successfully exerted against the emotions of peevishness and impatience.
When the hand of death has rent from us our dearest comforts, and our bleeding hearts are alive only to anguish; or when pain and disease absorbs every faculty, and rage in every nerve, it is not the time to reason. Nature will have its way; it is fit it should be so; religion only can support or stop the impetuosity of the torrent; a debility generally succeeds this state; the passions, exhausted by their own violence, sink into a calm; and though the latent sense of loss is still the same, the expressions of it grow less strong and less apparent. Then it is we feel this sickly weariness of existence, this discontented languor of the mind, which perhaps is more fatal, both to its peace and its faculties, than any violent agitations of grief, in proportion as its effects are more lasting. We become incapable of enjoying those blessings that are left, by too keen a remembrance of those we are deprived of. I do not mean by this to condemn that tender remembrance of our departed friends, which a grateful mind will ever cherish:
Absent or dead, still let a friend be dear;
A sigh the absent claims, the dead a tear.
When time has in some measure softened the pangs of separation, such minds will dwell with tender grateful woe (sad ecstasy!) on all the virtues that adorned, and on all the kindnesses that endeared the object of their love and grief; such emotions are certainly laudable, confined within proper limits, but we should be careful that they do not unfit us for the duties of life. Ah! how difficult is it to prevent the mind, when strongly affected by such sensations, from being totally absorbed by them! But this languid discontent is not peculiar to a season of affliction, it steals over us in the hour of festivity, and withers the wreath on the brow of pleasure. “We sigh for something, what we cannot say.” The mind of man must be continually in action, and if it have not other objects to feed on, it will prey on itself. I know of nothing more effectual to vanquish this silent foe to our peace, which like some treacherous miner, saps the foundation of our happiness before we are sensible of his approaches, than fixing the mind steadily on some laudable pursuit; the imagination is not then at liberty so much to torment us with visionary ills: and surely nothing can have a greater tendency to repress the murmurs of discontent than the offices of benevolence; to confer happiness is in some measure to receive it. If our situations cannot afford us pleasure, let us rejoice in the festivity of others; and surely that joy must be heightened by the reflection, that we have in any degree contributed towards it: and though the communication of happiness will not remove those evils which Providence, for wise, though to us undiscoverable ends, sees fit to visit us with, and for which patience and resignation are the only medicines, yet it will in a great measure repress that sickly discontent, that consumption of our peace, which originates in an ill-governed imagination, or a too dejected habit of mind. O say ye, whom Providence has indulged with the power of mitigating the woes of others, and with the still greater blessing of an inclination to make use of that power, if it be not genuine transport to wipe the tear from the widow’s eye, or cheer the drooping heart of the fatherless? Can that heart be corroded with discontent, that is dilated with the glow of benevolence, and diffusing happiness as far as the little circle of its power permits, to all around? “And next to virtue, science charms my eye,” says the elegant and amiable female advocate; and can there be a more proper pursuit for rational beings than the acquisition of useful knowledge? “Knowledge, the food of minds! ’tis angels’ food;” the communication of which we may, I think without absurdity, suppose will be one of the employments of that happy world whence sin and its attendant sorrow will be eternally banished.
The mind earnestly employed in explaining the arcana of nature, or tracing the mazy paths of learning, rises above the little causes that wound the unemployed and vacant mind. When we read of the fall of kingdoms and of empires, of the heroes and sages of antiquity, the preservers of the world, and the destroyers of it, we lose our little selves in the immense survey, and are ready to exclaim, “What then am I, who sorrow for myself?” Or if astronomy unfolds the ample page of the firmament, and teach us to soar where other suns illumine other systems, the expanded mind looks down with contempt on the minute trifles which sometimes disturb its repose; and if human discoveries can thus enlarge the mind, what must our contemplations be when the mind soars beyond them all to realms of brighter glory, led not by the feeble taper of science, but the full beamings of revelation? And here the mind unilluminated by science, may wing its way far beyond her proudest discoveries:
“Knowledge, how vain! a Saviour all unknown.”
Nor are there wanting sources of humble entertainment, sufficient to repress the sickly cravings of imagination, to those on whom science has never poured her intellectual day. The volume of creation is as open to my inspection as to that of the astronomer or virtuoso; and I may read Omnipotence inscribed in as legible characters on every leaf. The page of genius is not confined, and the smile of the muses can fill their lowliest votary with transport. Indeed the finer arts, which polish while they please, are peculiarly adapted to smooth the rugged path of life, and twine its thorns with roses. Creation wears a lovelier bloom when viewed with a contemplative eye. The imagination, refined by the sweet, the powerful influence of poetry, discerns a thousand charms unobserved by a less awakened, or less attentive mind, and feels a rapture never to be fully described!
Beauty pencils every vale!
Music breathes in every gale!
Attention to the various pursuits in which we are engaged, is no less the parent of pleasure than of improvement. It is in the vacant unemployed hour that lassitude and discontent shed their poison over the mind; and though the imperfections of mortality forbid us to attempt or even to wish that our minds should be always upon the stretch, yet did we even in our amusements propose to ourselves some end to be attained, we should find the amusements sweetened. By following continually the impulse of the moment, we are often led into error, and still oftener into that lassitude and discontent which unfits us for every labour, and consequently for every pleasure of life; for
Life’s cares are comforts, such by heaven designed,
He that has none must make them or be wretched.
Cares are employments, and without employ
The soul is on a rack, the rack of rest,
To souls most adverse, action all their joy.
Text: J. A. Stewart, ed., The Young Woman’s Companion; or, Female Instructor (Oxford, 1814), pp. 753-57 (the section was titled "Miscellaneous Articles"); two MS versions in STE 5/9/viii (dated 27 December 1775), and a partial copy in STE 5/4 (transcribed by Selina Bompas). The 1814 text has numerous substantive and accidental variants from the MS. Whether Mary Steele made these emendations for a revised manuscript copy of the essay prior to her death in 1813, or whether Stewart (or Anne Steele, Mary's half-sister), as editor made the changes is unknown. At one point Steele inserts a quotation from Scott’s Female Advocate, which appeared the year before Steele composed this piece. By 1814, the editor of The Young Woman’s Companion appears to be familiar with Scott’s work, for he does not capitalize or italicize the title of the poem.