Attitudes can make or break

Two young students from the present and two literary giants from the past lead the author to reflect that attitudes can make life either linger on the clouds or leap to the rainbows.

Betty: am I destined for clouds?

The rich contralto voice wafted over the auditorium and captivated me. I looked up and saw Betty.* It was always a joy to listen to her sing. She caught my attention almost from the first day I joined the college as chair of the English Department. Betty was attractive, talented, and vivacious. She learned English with ease and could speak it like a native. This girl will have a bright future, I thought to myself. However, I was in for a surprise. There were days when Betty was radiant, seemingly on cloud nine. She would perform very well in classes. But other days she would disappear from classes—in fact, from sight for days at a time. Betty was a victim of depression. Whenever it hit her, she would bury herself in the refuge of her room, unable to do anything until her depression lifted.

What was wrong? An unhappy childhood. Her father’s infidelity and the consequent bitterness of her mother had impacted little Betty. As Betty grew up, she became increasingly more bitter toward her parents for having robbed her of a happy childhood. She was convinced that her future was ruined as a result. A failed romance in college compounded her condition.

As Betty approached graduation, I seriously considered employing her as a teacher. But I did not, simply because of her unpredictable behavior. A teacher, however capable, cannot afford to be unpredictable. I chose someone else, less capable but more stable. Betty found a job teaching in the academy. Her self-image improved, and she was able to perform quite well. Unfortunately, her old malady soon returned, and she had to leave teaching for another job. Today she is out of the church and still wallowing in self-pity—a handicap that has prevented her from being the successful person she could have been, for Betty went through the storms of life and saw only gloom and darkness in the days ahead.

Arlene: clouds don’t last forever

Arlene* came to campus a few years later. Like Betty, she too was a victim of a broken home. Her father had left home. Her mother was a schizophrenic, and so was her only brother. While in college, Arlene was not only constantly embarrassed by the bizarre behavior of her brother, who was attending the same college, but was also subjected to verbal and physical abuse by her mother whenever she appeared on campus, which was quite often. Arlene dreaded vacation at home; hence, she preferred the loneliness of a deserted college campus during the summer months. Her mother was possessive. Whenever Arlene had a boyfriend, her mother did her best to break up the relationship. She never had any successful relationship until after her mother’s death.

Did Arlene have any reason to be miserable, depressed? Plenty. However, she was determined not to let adverse circumstances prevent her from getting the most out of life. Always helpful, radiant, and upbeat, she was one of the most cheerful girls on campus. Because of a sensitivity to suffering developed in her as a result of her unfortunate background, she decided to be trained as a nurse in order to alleviate others’ suffering. After graduation, she worked as a nurse before becoming one of the administrators in an orphanage, devoting her life to meeting the needs of the little orphans in her care. Today she is happily married with a family of her own. Unlike Betty, Arlene went through the storms of life but saw only the light of dawn.

Reflecting on what Betty and Arlene made of their lives took me back to a literary journey to the lives of Jonathan Swift and Charles Lamb.

Swift—bitter forever

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), one of the most outstanding English prose writers of his time, was noted for his juvenile satires—bitter and invective—in which he railed against individuals, his country, and the world. Although there were brief glimpses of the playful side to Swift’s nature in some of his personal letters and works, so bitter were his satires that some critics considered him a misanthrope. The Earl of Orrery considered Swift’s writings, particularly Gulliver’s Travels, an “intolerable” “misanthropy….the representation which he has given us of human nature, must terrify, and debase the mind of the reader who views it.”1 Martin Day concurred: “The greatest satirist in English literature might be explained, superficially, as a sick man to whom, like the sick Carlyle, the whole world had a bad smell.”2

Swift was born the posthumous son of an Englishman who left his family and moved to Ireland to improve his fortunes. Consequently, Jonathan and his four bothers were brought up by his uncle Godwin. Chafing at his lot as a “poor relative,” Swift developed into a disagreeable young man whose relationship with his uncle turned sour. At his uncle’s death, Jonathan discovered that he was left out of the will. Embittered, Swift left for England and eventually became secretary to Sir William Temple, a distant relative. He remained with him intermittently for some years, “reading aloud to his employer, keeping accounts, and cursing his fate”3. However, his scornful attitude towards pedants, of whom he considered Temple to be one, affected his relationship with his boss, and he was once again left out of the will when Temple died. Swift turned even more bitter.

Between 1695 and 1713, Swift served in various capacities in Ireland—vicar of Laracor and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin—and threw in his lot with a people whose abject poverty and misery had strongly affected him and whom, he believed, had been exploited by the British government. He took up their cause, writing such biting satires as ”The Drapier’s Letters” and “A Modest Proposal.”

Swift’s bitterness permeated even his romantic life. Having been repulsed by Jane Waring, he scorned marriage with her although she later relented. He developed a close relationship with Esther Johnson (referred to as Stella in his works), one who evoked the tenderest utterances in his letters and journals. However, although it was rumored that she was his secret wife, there was no record of his marriage to her. According to some critics, being the practical idealist he was, he didn’t want to ruin an ideal relationship with marriage. Her death in 1728, however, left him desolate. This, together with a lifelong suffering due to vertigo and a tendency to giddiness, deafness, and melancholia, intensified his hatred for the world and his personal suffering. Toward the end of his life, he turned insane and died a bitter man. A master craftsman of English language, a shrewd observer of human struggle, a sympathizer with the less fortunate, Swift could have made the world a better place both for himself and for those who were less fortunate, but that was not to be. Bitterness forever marked his life.

Lamb—courage to live

Charles Lamb (1775-1834), is known as “the prince of English essayists.” Readers delight in his writings—whimsical, lighthearted, entertaining, and witty—essays that reveal little of his tragic background.

Lamb was born the son of a lawyer’s confidential clerk. At 17, he started work as a clerk in the East India House and served there for the next 33 years. Both he and his elder sister were victims of a hereditary tendency toward mental illness. As a young man, Lamb fell in love with a lovely girl. He thought his life was going to be happy, but the girl dropped him to marry someone with a higher station in life. Lamb couldn’t take the romantic breakdown and landed briefly in a Hoxton house for mental illness. After his recovery, he wrote facetiously to William Coleridge, “I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite anyone. But mad I was.”4

A year later, tragedy struck again when his elder sister stabbed his mother to death in an insane fit. Lamb then decided to assume responsibility for his sister the rest of her life. This meant constant moving for the two in order to prevent gossip. By the time he was 23, Lamb found his East India House job boring and his family duties increasing: support of a maniac sister, a dying aunt, and a prematurely senile father.

Did Lamb allow these tragedies in his personal life to overwhelm him? No. Disappointed in love and fearful that the hereditary tendencies to insanity would be passed on to future generations, he gave up the idea of marriage. But he wrote “Dream Children,” an essay filled with pathos and yet entertaining and humorous in depicting the children he imagined he had. Most notable of his works were Essays of Elia, a volume of delightful personal reflections.

Unlike Swift, he did not rail at the weakness and fallibility of humankind. Instead he took a positive look at life: “I often shed tears in the motley strand for fullness of joy at so much life....I am determined to lead a merry life in the midst of sinners.”5

Of him, Day wrote, “He had cause in the series of family and personal tragedies to defy the gods and complain that the world was wrong and had wronged him. But behind the smiling, off-hand Elia [a pseudonym he used for his volumes of essays] is a monument of courage, one who did not advertise his achievement and would not ask the world to cut itself to his plan. Possibly no man, and certainly none with the pall of insanity hanging over him, has so determinedly deported himself with true sanity and wholesomeness.”6

Between the two: attitude

What made the difference in the lives of the two students and their literary counterparts? Was it their background? No. Their ability? No. Their environment? No. The difference is attitude.

Consider Paul, for example. His life too was such as to swing between the polarities of Swift and Lamb, Betty and Arlene, but he did not let pessimism sway his life. He had the right attitude. To him nothing in life really mattered except Jesus. To live or to die, Jesus was everything to him. Suffering, hunger, toil, rejection, imprisonment, betrayal—all these and more he could bear because of his attitude: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV). Even as he awaited his execution, he could write: “But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, NIV)

The frail bark of humanity is often storm tossed on the tempestuous sea of life. Whether we emerge from the storm a wreck or a survivor, a Swift or a Lamb, a Betty or an Arlene depends on our attitude: Are we able to break through the clouds to perceive the rainbow of God’s promises beyond?

Mary Wong (Ph.D., Michigan State University) has taught English and chaired the English Department in Taiwan and Singapore prior to coming to Burtonsville, Maryland, U.S.A., where she now resides.

* Not her real name.

Notes and references

  1. Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (London: Charles Bathurst, 1755), p. 184.
  2. Martin S. Day, History of English Literature 1660-1837 (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1963), p. 100.
  3. William Vaughn Moody & Robert M. Lovett, History of English Literature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), p. 189.
  4. Day, p. 518.
  5. Ibid., p. 524.
  6. Ibid., p. 522.