“The river, they claim, is turbid and dark,
The river is grimed and gray.”
F. O. Sylvester, “The Father’s Smile” (1911)
You may not see it in what I write here, but I have a constitutional aversion to gripers. This aversion may, I suppose, arise from an instinct of self-preservation and the knowledge that I am not immune to the fatal griping disease, but I tend to leave the room when people start bellyaching.
That is, by the way, what the word griping means. Bellyaching. To gripe at first meant to afflict with gastric or intestinal pain, then to complain of such pains, and at last to complain about the irritations and disappointments that resemble pyrosis and cramps. More distantly, to gripe meant to grip or grasp, and anyone who has suffered from pyrosis or cramps will agree that that they feel as if your innards are being squeezed.
Men have also used the term “to gripe” to mean seized and held in the grip of a great sadness or sorrow. This is a pitiful state, as was recognized by the Earl of Northumberland in Shakespeare’s Henry IV
“Had he been slaughter-man to all my kin,
I should not for my life but weep with him.
To see how inly sorrow gripes his soul.”
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But a wretch in the grip of sorrow is not a real griper. The real griper is a sour malcontent who want to hold me in his grip and make just as sour as he is. Contrary to the popular proverb, all misery does not love company. When sorrow inly gripes my soul, I know that I prefer to be alone. Misery loves company when it is a spiteful misery, and misery is spiteful when it hates happiness.
Men and women hate happiness when they do not feel happiness and are jealous of the men and women who do. In most cases, the haters of happiness have lost the capacity for happiness while acquiring a spiteful need to remove this capacity from others. If they cannot remove the capacity, they will do their best to remove the opportunity. These haters of happiness work on the principle that no one can be happy if they themselves cannot be happy, and no griper is more spiteful than a mean old woman or a mean old man.
* * * * *
“Behold! It was a crime of sense avenged by sense that wore with time.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “A Vision of Sin” (1842)
The gastric and intestinal complaints of mean old men and women are often caused by the gastronomic excesses of their youth. It is often the gourmand who spends his golden years with dry toast on his plate, a wildcat in his gut, and sharp denunciations of healthy appetites on his tongue . A similar vengeance seems to visit men and women who were, we might say, too keen for happiness when they were young. Or at least too keen for the hilarious happiness that youth alone can feel. As Tennyson put it, that hilarious happiness was itself “a crime of sense” because it was entirely built of happy sensations; but this crime of sense is avenged in time because the capacity to feel happy sensations will one day be worn out.
It is, I am afraid, impossible to observe this truth without sounding like a mean old man who is griped by hatred for the hilarious happiness of youth, and who is griped by hatred for the hilarious happiness of youth because his own capacity for hilarious happiness is now worn out. In any case, youth has never been in the mood to listen to the griping of mean old men or well-meaning philosophers, or to see any material difference between the two of them. And I am not such a mean old man as to say that youth is altogether wrong in their indifference, or in their want of discrimination.
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I have, as I say, a constitutional aversion to gripers, and will try to leave the room when the bellyaching begins. I think this is because I have not lost my hold on happiness, but my grip on that good thing is not so secure that it will stand up to too much griping. When I first came to Texas thirty-one years ago, I found that the faculty at the university was filled with gripers who spent their leisure hours competing to find new faults with the place.
I remember when, many years ago, I proposed to purchase a canoe and make myself at home on the local rivers, one old griper told me that the rivers hereabouts are foul and nasty streams, mere sewers running through junkyards, their banks frequented by dangerous Yahoos. Fortunately, the old griper’s hatred for happiness failed to persuade me that I should spend my years trading gripes with the likes of him, so I purchased that canoe and have spent many, many happy hours on the rivers hereabouts. That is where I was last Saturday, and my heart was full of sweetness and light.
The river, they claim, is turbid and dark, but it is not grimed or gray.
* * * * *
This train of thought began yesterday afternoon when I read this fine but forgotten poem by A. C. Benson, an English poet and scholar who did not hate happiness, as too many poets and scholars do. The poem is called Timon, and it was published in 1895. It should be read by anyone who feels himself in danger of griping at youth and becoming a mean old man.
The world is not grown old,
Nor weary, nor afraid;
It is as bright, as bold,
As when it first was made;
Its hope as warmly burns,
Its faith as clear, as high;
On whom it loves it turns
A strong rewarding eye.
And if I think its mirth
Is rude, ungenerous grown,
Its idols things of earth,
The loss is all mine own.
So if I creep away
To woods and rippling streams
To ponder or to pray,
To dream my sickly dreams,
It waves a kind good-bye,
It smiles a careless smile,
Then turns, alert to fly
O’er many a dusty mile.
My woes it soon forgets
In laughter, love, and wine,
Mine are the weak regrets,
The loss, the shame is mine.