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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 15 — The Down Grade

page 225

Chapter 15
The Down Grade

Do we all say in our hearts, ‘It can't happen here’? Do we feel that the thing we dread must not, shall not, come to us? We see clearly that disaster is all but universal, but even when the clouds are gathering we persuade ourselves that they will disperse. Certainly I could never have expected calamity from the quarter whence it came. My husband's health broke down. He, who had seemed a safe and permanent bulwark for so many to lean upon, became seriously ill. An operation — an astonishing recovery, giving renewed hope — a second operation revealing that the first had been bungled. Then ill health till the sudden end. I must pass over these times.

My son abandoned law and came home to manage the farm. The following year a daughter with her family coming to live with me enabled me to accept the presidency of the Women's Division. These years of office, with their absorbing duties, coming at a time when everything at home was the same, yet not the same, helped me as nothing else could have done. I found it fitting, too, that the organisation my husband had been interested in and for which he had done so much, should now be his widow's comfort.

It is one of my deepest regrets that the honours that were about this time bestowed upon me — the Coronation Medal and the O.B.E.— came to me after the death of my husband. They would have given him such pride and pleasure. Being appointed a J.P., I found myself of considerable use as long as I lived near Pio Pio and could save the villagers trips to town, but it has been an empty honour since I lived in Hamilton.

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The Women's Division, while I was able to serve it, remained an absorbing interest — my first and only love in public life. I often wondered — I do still — that the Women's Division, consisting so largely of women deeply religious in the orthodox sense, should have been tolerant enough to make me its president. True, I have never flaunted my heterodoxy, but on the other hand I made no pretence nor have I been at pains to conceal what might have shocked many dear friends had they enquired into the tenets of my faith. But this age does not enquire, which surprised me, for I was ever a proselytizer who, if I see a light, or think I do, must proclaim it, and can well understand those who make nuisances of themselves in trying to spread their gospels.

I was never able to accept a statement without challenge or reservation. At a very early age I asked, ‘What makes you know that the Bible is true? It can't have been written by God because it is written about Him. Who wrote it?’

‘Good men whom God chose to be His messengers to men. The Commandments were written on stone by the finger of God’, I was told.

This was convincing. My fingers could not write on stone. Later, when I heard of engraving and sculpture, new doubts crept into my mind.

My mother was wise in what she told me. ‘The people of the world had grown wicked and cruel, just as bad as those who had lived before the Flood. But, instead of drowning the world a second time, God “repented Him” and sent them the Bible which is His law, to teach men the wisdom of honesty, justice, kindness.’ My mind has always worked slowly. I thought a great deal about it, but was never entirely satisfied. Then I evolved for myself an explanation of the universe, and was convinced that the animals were really people undergoing some dreadful punishment under a spell or curse. Of course, all creation meant to me the animals and birds I knew and saw about page 227 me. Sometimes I felt exalted and good enough to release them all by some fairy-tale act of heroism; at other times I feared greatly lest the like punishment should fall on me. It was a story that changed in its details from day to day and it always had a happy ending. What child can envisage eternity?

Perhaps a lonely childhood in the country is conducive to bizarre thinking for, when in Timaru, I became a regular church-goer and a devout Anglican. I enjoyed learning the Catechism, taking pleasure in its balanced cadences.

Archdeacon Harper, who loomed large in the life of all Timaru people, was an intellectual who, at that time, was using his fine brain to prove the absurdity of the theory of Darwinism. It was ironic that from him I should first gather something of the meaning of evolution. I seized upon it as a revelation. With the impetuosity of complete ignorance, I at once became a convinced evolutionist. My fading fairy-tale of bewitched beasts was shattered, but I had in its place something I thought newer and truer.

Not till my twentieth year did The Origin of Species fall into my hands. Then I read, not the nonsense attributed to Darwin, but the long investigations, the painstaking experiments, the undogmatic conclusions of that great and humble scientist. I read the work by candlelight, a very little at a time, for sleep soon overtakes those who work outside, and it was in the days of the Cashmere clearing when my days were spent building, fencing, digging. As I read, all the universe took on a new meaning. I found it necessary to keep a dictionary beside me, but there was still much I could not understand. If I had asked my mother the meanings of those words she very likely would not have known them and besides it would have called her attention to the book in which I was engrossed. She might not have actively objected, but I knew that she looked askance on Darwin and would have preferred me to be reading very different literature. When two people live so far from social page 228 intercourse they must be very tender to each other's feelings. Her objection, if she had read the book, would have been to its overt dealing with sex. Every decent woman, in her view, should be utterly ignorant of the facts of reproduction and birth. She was too enlightened to have repeated to us, as children, the cabbage or gooseberry-bush story of the appearance of babies, but when she spoke of birth she did so in so awed and mysterious a tone that we were afraid even to speculate upon it. I must confess that I was not much wiser when it came to explaining things to my own children.

I hugged my Origin of Species all to myself and, as I read, the whole outlook of creation completely changed. The earth and the waters had revealed their secrets, or had, at least, given me the key by which I might discover them. It was as if I walked with the Creator and saw him at work. I saw — no new vision, but new to me — all Me as one — Man, insect, mammal, bird, and plant as one universal manifestation of seething, endless life; and death as but a flicker before transformation into new life. The moth that fluttered into my candle revealed the myriads of years and the unthinkable myriads of lives that were needed to develop those wings, the immense vista of time that it had taken to evolve that comparatively clumsy insect. It was as though, blind, I had been shown light; asleep, I had been awakened from dreams to truth. For a while I was completely satisfied and sure that if old Omar could have met Darwin there would have been no veil through which he could not see, no door to which he found no key. Yet, illogically enough, I thrilled to the beauty of Christianity and to other mystic beauties in no way connected with the survival of the fittest by the wholesale destruction of the unfit. Was evolution the whole truth or were there other factors that went to make up the universe? When, out of the limitless number of living species, one, and one only, struggled up and up finally becoming man, might not a new force have come into the world with him — the breath of page 229 life — making him a living soul with the knowledge of good and evil? If not, how, and when, did this come? The lower animals can commit no evil because they know no good — no wrong because no right. But man — though he may not obey it — knows a law higher than his own survival, and recognises right as right whether the race of man shall live or die. He has an inborn perception of that which is good; is capable of an exaltation that, in great moments, lifts him above the considerations of the flesh; is swept by unbidden floods of pity, remorse or unselfish indignation. Surely this power, this capacity for pain or rapture, lifts us beyond the forces of nature and evolution.

That a spirit of good has somehow entered the cosmos seems to me clear but that there is a spirit of evil I personally doubt. Evil seems to me merely the negation of good. Is not crime, even wanton cruelty, atavistic, a reversion to the animal nature we have left behind? The predatory instinct, so strong in us all, is it not simply a desire to seize for ourselves a fuller share of the good things of life regardless of who may lack them? And all cruelty, from foxhunting to Belsen, may be a morbid desire to banish one's own inferiority complex by the exercise of power over others, unchecked by the spirit of good.

And how visualise or conceive of this spirit? To me it is as light might be to a man born blind, unseen, unheard, unfelt but all-pervading; a power in us and around us but vivifying. We may welcome it, drink deep draughts of it, inhale it, take it as our own, or we may turn away and reject it. It still remains.

Akhnaton, the mystic Pharaoh of Egypt, taught his followers to worship a living God (not made with hands), a God of infinite love, goodness and mercy. The sun was the symbol of the Godhead but that which he worshipped was the ‘power which dwells behind the sun, the power that generates, sustains and nurtures every living thing upon the earth’. In our words ‘the Creator and Giver of life by whom page 230 all things were made’. Akhnaton saw his god in everything beautiful and glad, in flowers and trees and leaping fish. He wrote: ‘Where the calf bounds over that poppy-spangled field, there is Aton.’

Man has lived for some three thousand years since the time of Akhnaton and has had some hundred thousand philosophers, thinkers, spiritual guides and teachers; yet it would be hard to find a purer, more exalted conception of God than that given by this boy Pharaoh. We too assert and would believe that God is a spirit, but too often we ascribe to Him attributes and motives befitting a man and befitting even a childish and vengeful man.

Between this essence, this Holy Spirit, and the God of the Israelites I see no connection whatsoever. Jehovah was obviously a man, though possessed of superhuman powers. He walked and talked as a man; His nostrils were pleased by the smell of burnt offerings; He laughed in derision, was jealous and partial; He made mistakes and ‘repented Him’ of them. Also, as is seldom stressed, He had, not one, but many sons. (See Gen. vi. 2.) ‘The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose’.

Nor, in spite of the inspiring decorations that art and poetry and literature have woven round Christianity, can I bring myself to accept the doctrine of original sin and the need for a blood sacrifice to atone for it. A god who begets a son and sacrifices him in order to appease his own wrath against his own creatures appears to me incomprehensible. Miraculous births, gods descending to earth in order to become the fathers of great men have been among the imaginings of men throughout the ages. It was natural in those superstitious times that when the new religion swept through Europe and the Nile Valley some parts of the old beliefs of the people should have become incorporated with the new enlightened teaching. As far as we know the great teacher made no such claims for himself. And surely page 231 Christianity lives not in his immaculate conception but in his words, the noblest and most exalted precepts ever spoken.

Still, though the Story of the Cross may be man-made, may even have derived from the ancient priestly cry for blood on their altars, it can be presented so as to stir by its beauty our deepest emotions. In worshipping Christ crucified, even as a symbol, we are worshipping what is best and greatest. We exalt supreme love in the form of self-renunciation (‘for greater love hath no man than this’), even if it be a symbol.

I am anxious that no one should suppose that I attach these personal opinions of mine in the belief that they are something worth offering to the public. Indeed, I am fully aware that ideas of the sort have been put forward and supported by weighty arguments by men of intellect and authority; but, for one reason or another, the ‘general average’ does not always read their books. Memoirs, on the other hand, are read by friends, acquaintances and contemporaries of equal intelligence with the writer. I feel sure that some among these have wrestled, or are wrestling, with problems like mine — how to reconcile what one would wish to believe with what one can believe. Perhaps some of these will be interested to know how one of their kind has worked it out for herself.

Old age has been a considerable surprise to me. I had supposed that when the eye darkened, the ear dulled, and the natural force abated, there would come a misty, dreamy time, a sort of Land of Beulah standing between life and the grave; a tranquil and serene time when feeling would be blunted, emotion and ardour grown faint, when memories would give pleasure mingled, perhaps, with a mild pang of regret; a time when love and hate would merge into tolerance; a time of resignation to all that was and is and is to be.

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I find it far otherwise. We remain acutely alive. Oscar Wilde was right: ‘The tragedy of age is that it is still young’. Feeling is still as intense and longing as poignant as ever. Even desire for vain things does not wholly fail. Only the expression of emotion has in the long years been schooled into quiescence.

I remember meeting, in her declining years, a woman I had known and admired in the prime of her life. She had been a ‘great lady’, cultured, dominant, charitable, capable, an influence always for good. She was now too blind to read and too deaf to enter into conversation. How my heart went out to her as she sat with folded hands and tranquil pose. It hurt so to think of her that I told myself that she was probably as happy as she had ever been, that acute yearnings and disappointments no longer troubled her, that she surely had pleasant and gratifying memories to soothe the lonely hours. I recalled Kipling's lines on old age:

‘The lamp of our life shall go utterly out
And we shall exist on the smell of it
And whatever we do we shall fold our hands
And suck our gums and think well of it.’

How wrong I was! How wrong Kipling was! I know now that beneath that calm exterior the old lady may have been seething and burning with desire to live, to be of the world again and to count for something in it. The flesh had betrayed her in the matter of sight and hearing, but probably she knew that she herself had increased in capacity, ability, self-confidence; that added maturity had brought her balance and more poise than ever. If only she could be up and doing, how much she could achieve. As to the joys of memory, I know now that memory is a two-edged sword. Complacency is the blunter edge, while regret, the sharper, turns on us unbidden to stab and pierce and lacerate till its victim groans aloud. In youth regrets can be brushed aside for there is still time to retrieve some part of the consequences of error. In old age it is never-forever, never-forever.

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Sir John Salmond, the wittiest and wisest phrase-maker it has been my lot to know, used to say, ‘Regret and remorse are merely two further mistakes added to those we have already made.’

True, but even he could give no formula for avoiding those added blunders.

* * * *

Following the example of Montaigne, I proclaim, ‘Lo, here a well-meaning book.’ This is true, inasmuch as in undertaking it I meant to employ my old age — wherein I was denied the pleasure of reading — agreeably and profitably. I had not gone far before I realised that for all the profit likely to accrue to me I had better have taken to the wash-tub. Nevertheless, I continued and in due course have come to the end of the book, the writing of which has given me some entertainment and even pleasure. May I hope that a portion of the same has fallen to you.