Tuesday, September 18, 2012

`Perhaps I Am Better Than I Should Have Been'

On the 303rd anniversary of his birth, let’s consider two meditations by Samuel Johnson on the subject of birthdays. The first is written three days late, on Sept. 21, 1773, in a letter to his friend Hester Thrale:

“Boswel[l], with some of his troublesome kindness, has informed this family, and reminded me that the eighteenth of September is my birthday. The return of my Birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress. But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted. With this I will try to be content.”

Johnson leavens the gloom with affectionate wit – Boswell’s “troublesome kindness,” a quality we recognize in some of our loved ones. Johnson’s Christian stoicism, which might in others tip into self-pity, is what I admire. This most industrious of men forever berates himself for indolence, and yet few of us will ever have to labor harder against illness and poverty. In our age of aggrieved entitlement, looking at challenges as goads to accomplishment will make little sense to many. Think of the couplet Johnson contributed to Goldsmith’s “The Traveller” in 1764:

“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” 

Four birthdays later, on Sept. 18, 1777, Johnson writes again to Thrale: 

“Here is another Birthday. They come very fast. I am now sixty eight. To lament the past is vain, what remains is to look for hope in futurity. Queen[e]y has now passed another year. I hope every year will bring her happiness.” 

Queeney is Thrale’s daughter. It’s typical of Johnson to celebrate his birthday by wishing another well. One of the pleasures of rereading Johnson is to be convincingly reminded of a better way to live. Rather than preaching, Johnson shares his own experience. When I read his blessing on Queeney, I think: That’s the right thing to do. As Johnson wrote in The Rambler #2: “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” Years ago a friend put it like this: “I’m not a slow learner. I’m a quick forgetter.”


Anonymous said...

Good words. Dr. Johnson always strikes the right note. The more I read Johnson, and read about him, the more impressively great he becomes. Johnson provides many reminders to us as we read him. This post reminds me that I, too, have a sixty-fourth birthday coming up at the end of next month.


Bruce Floyd said...

I don't think anyone can improve on W. Jackson Bate's summing up of Johnson's life. In the last sentence of his magisterial biography of Johnson, Bate writes, "With all the odds against him, he had proved that it was possible to get through this strange adventure of life, and to do it in a way that is a tribute to human nature."