Dr Gopee

The uses of nostalgia: the presence of the past… 

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

In his The Summing-Up English author Somerset Maugham wrote something that I recall from memory, to the effect that the sad thing about old age is that one can only look back to the past, as there is nothing to look forward to. There is no doubt an element of truth in his words when the idea is viewed from a narrow perspective, but if we think a little more deeply, we realize that we need not be so despondent. We can always have the satisfaction of a life well lived, and leaving a positive legacy to others, especially if it is to the world at large – as in fact it is in Maugham’s case – that one can be proud of. The availability of some free time has allowed me to pursue one of my favourite activities, namely delving into old books and magazines. On going through them I am pleasantly surprised to discover that many of mankind’s problems, and experiences too, are as old as the hills, as the saying goes. During the time of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example (and if my memory serves me right!), some writers were already complaining about the behavior of the young, with echoes of issues similar to those that we also face with the youth today.

Being given that human nature has not changed since the beginning of times, man’s tendencies towards activity, inertia and balance in life continue to condition and determine his life experiences. Indeed, as Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda says, life can be considered as a series of experiences, and each experience looked upon as one unit of life. If it is a good and happy experience, then we say that life is happy. If it is bad and sad, then we think of life as unhappy.

All human beings would like their lives to be always happy, and in fact this is possible in spite of the ups and downs that our lives are made up of. Just as we have to learn and train, and work hard, to fulfill any goal, so too if we want our life to be happy, there is a learning process needed to reach that end. But mostly we are not ready to make the effort, and expect that happiness fall into our lap just like that. Along the road, one can always take a by-lane to look up some treasures, and this is what I have been able to do for the past few days, and sharing them with others is an experience of happiness too…

I caught hold, again, of a well-worn and aged copy, but still in superb condition, of an anthology from the Reader’s Digest, titled Getting The Most Out of Life. It was published in 1946, and some of the articles it contains date back to 1934. The themes covered are varied and include what would appear to be relevant and quite contemporary: perseverance, discipline and self-control, overcoming handicaps and good health amongst many others.

I read a Chinese proverb printed at the bottom of a page, ‘You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.’ Just a couple of hours earlier I had been reading a short article published on 14 May 1910, under a regular feature called ‘JAMA 100 YEARS AGO,’ in the 12 May 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. And this is how the author concluded that article, ‘As has been well said, we cannot prevent the evil birds of discontent from flying past our doors, but we can prevent them from building their nests in our homes.’ Sound familiar? You bet!

Wisdom never ages, it is of neither of the past nor of the present, it is for all times and all ages.

The anthology begins with an article by AJ Cronin, doctor who turned author – and indeed, the title is ‘The Turning Point of My Career,’ and it purports to describe ‘how I learned a lesson in the grace of perseverance.’ He was appalled and had despaired on reading the typescript of a first novel he had written. He bundled it up and threw it in the dustbin, and went out for a walk. He met an old farmer who was laboring patiently, and told him what he had just done. He learnt a lesson from the farmer, retrieved the soggy typescript on coming back, dried it up and started writing all over again, completing the book in three months.

‘I wrote finis… the relief, the sense of emancipation, was immense.’ And the result was that ‘the novel I had thrown away was chosen by the Book Society, dramatized and serialized, translated into 19 languages, bought by Hollywood. It has sold, to date, some three million copies. It has altered my life radically, beyond my wildest dreams… and all because of a timely lesson in the grace of perseverance.’

AJ Cronin was glad to recollect that lesson: ‘In this present chaos, with no shining vision to sustain us, the door is wide open to darkness and despair. The way to close that door is to stick to the job that we are doing, no matter how insignificant that job may be, to go on doing it, and to finish it.’ And he concludes by saying that ‘the virtue of all achievement, as known to my old Scots farmer, is victory over oneself. Those who know this victory can never know defeat.’

That novel was Hatter’s Castle, but my favourite Cronin book remains The Citadel, and this is what Wikipedia has to say about its influence, which is remarkable to say the least: ‘The Citadel, a tale of a mining company doctor’s struggle to balance scientific integrity with social obligations, incited the establishment of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom by exposing the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. Dr Cronin and Aneurin Bevan had both worked at the Tredegar Cottage Hospital in Wales, which served as the basis for the NHS. Cronin’s best-selling novel informed the public of corruption within the medical system, planting a seed that was instrumental in the creation of the NHS, but the popularity of his novels played a substantial role in the Labour Party’s landslide 1945 victory.

‘Building A Personality’ is about what in modern jargon is called low self-esteem, and the author writes that ‘most cases of emotional maladjustment are due to the fact that people will not accept themselves. They resent their limitations. They want to be someone else. They keep daydreaming about what they would do if they had another’s chance. And so, disregarding their own possibilities, they never make anything worthwhile out of themselves.’

He continues by observing that ‘the most stimulating successes in history have come from persons who, facing some kind of limitations and handicaps, took them as part of life’s game and played splendidly in spite of them.’ And he cites ‘at least three factors that enter into the achievement of that sort of personality,’ namely imagination, common sense and courage, rounding off with what sounds terribly true in our own times: ‘If a man is primarily after wealth, the world can whip him; if he is primarily after pleasure, the world can beat him; but if a man is primarily growing a personality, then he can capitalize anything that life does to him.’

That was long before we had shifted from considering exclusively IQ and moved on to EQ, the ‘new’ paradigm – but oh! it would seem not so new after all!

About overcoming handicaps, there is an account by Major Alexander P. de Seversky, who proudly proclaims that ‘I owe my career in large measure to the loss of my right leg in the First World War. What seems like a black end was in reality a bright new beginning. I mean it, quite literally. My bodily disabilities awakened powers and aptitudes within me which were dormant. It focused mental energies which otherwise would probably have been dissipated, enforced studious interests that would have escaped me.’

Of course ‘the adjustment wasn’t easy. Often my friends offered a well-meaning pity which I resented.’ And he makes a revelation that might sound astounding, except that it really is in that he lets out a great truth based on his own tough life experience which can surely inspire others: ‘In the sum total of a man’s abilities and essential character, a leg more or less is quite incidental.’ To those who are newly handicapped, he encouraged them by making them understand ‘that life remains rich and exciting and fruitful despite a physical disability: that life has a wonderful, inscrutable way of “paying off” in other things for any physical limitations.’

What a story… And all of us must know about cases of people who have shone in life despite disability, and hats off to them.

And then there is the touching confession of a father who suddenly realized the harm he was doing to his little son by his ‘habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy… I expected too much… measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.’ As a sickening fear grips him, he steals alone into his son’s room, as he thinks ‘just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.’ He pours out his heart, ‘nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed!’ And promises that ‘from tomorrow I will be a real daddy… I will bite my tongue when impatient words come… will keep saying “He is nothing but a boy — little boy.” ’ Frankly, my eyes were wet too…

And each story in that anthology is better than the other. Does not take a lot to keep one happy… 

RN Gopee

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