Choice of Amusements
Benjamin Morgan Palmer
"Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment!" Ecclesiastes 11:9
In taking it up this subject, I am impressed with the difficulty and delicacy of the task. On my part, there will be required a due discrimination so as not to confound things that differ, and a wise moderation so as not to push just views to an unjust extreme. On your part, will be required patience and candor — patience, not to run away with half-sentences; candor, to put a right construction upon what shall be said.
It will be well, in the outset, to ascertain on what points we agree in this discussion, and where we are likely to part company. I assume then that we are at one, at least, upon two points:
I. That youth is to a large degree the season of enjoyment.It is by no means granted that it is the only season. On the contrary, God shows His wisdom and benevolence in providing suitable pleasures for all periods of human life — universal experience testifying that the serene enjoyments of the old are more captivating to them, than the more brilliant pleasures of the young.
I do not suppose that this can be easily understood by those whose experience is limited to their single age; it is impossible that the young shall put themselves in the place of the old, so as to know how they feel. Those alone, who have stood at both ends of human life, are able to make a just comparison between the two.
Still, the analogies of nature may suggest to the young, that the Autumn of life may have its charms no less than the Spring. In the Spring, the youthful year appears as a beautiful maiden bedecked with the blossoms upon her green robe. In the Autumn, the brown forest is adorned with a thousand kaleidoscopic colors which charm the eye. We say of the sober maiden, gray with age, she is as beautiful as when she was a youthful bride. Even when the dying Winter is wrapped in its winding-sheet of snow, and the icy crystals glisten like diamonds in the sun — we say that nature is beautiful as she sleeps in death.
Equally true is it of all the ages through which we pass — and I may add, of all the conditions of human society — that all have their several enjoyments, which would not be exchanged for those of any other period or condition. It is, however, freely acknowledged that youth is the season for enjoyment.
There are, indeed, many proofs of this, obtruding themselves upon our notice. The full tide of physical life gushing from its hidden fountain within, the warm blood flowing through the veins — both make the very frame in which the soul dwells, instinct not only with life, but with joy. The animal spirits, which we share with the beasts of the field as they gambol on the meadow before our eyes, mark youth as the time for enjoyment.
Consider, too, the comparative absence of care in early life. I say, comparative absence; for it is an error to suppose that happy childhood has no care. Those anticipated rebukes from parent or teacher, which hang like a cloud over the young heart — are they not as heavy a burden as any that are borne in after years? But then these are limited cares, likes clouds drifting over the face of the moon — evanescent, and leaving no scars upon the heart. They are not the cares which cut the deep furrows across the brow, in which the passing years are buried. In this freedom from corroding anxiety and trouble, and in the wild exuberance of animal life — we may trace the signature of God assigning this season of youth for casting the character in the mold of happiness.
II. But we agree further, that it is unwise and injurious to forbid pleasure to the young.One of three results would accrue:
1. By violent reaction, these restraints would be thrust aside, with a more impetuous rush towards the pleasures which are forbidden — just as a sluggish stream may be converted into a foaming torrent.
2. Or, if these restraints are retained, they might prove to be bandages swathing the free powers of the soul — by compression forcing the character into unnatural shape and hindering its expansion into those generous and noble qualities which adorn life and make it fruitful of good
3. Or the tumultuous energy pent up within, will force an outlet for itself in grosser vices which shall deform the character and ruin the soul.
Here, then, is a substantial agreement between us — that youth is largely the season for enjoyment, and that it is injurious to forbid pleasures to the young. We are more likely to diverge when we come to consider the class of pleasures to be indulged, and the grounds of their selection.
The question, then, emerges just here: Are there any general principles which may be formulated to guide us in this matter — principles which can be digested into a code and put into the hands of the young, enabling them wisely to discriminate between enjoyments which are healthful, and such as are hurtful? If this is possible, I much prefer to present these in portable compass so as to be carried in your consciences and hearts — rather than to indulge in detailed criticism of the various forms of worldly pleasure into which the young are enticed.
I.The first principle, then, which I lay down for your guidance, my young friends, is this: those amusements are to be avoided which cannot be converted into the means of a good moral education. You perceive that I ascend to a higher plane than has ever been dreamed by the advocates of earthly pleasure. I not only concede that pleasure is lawful — but affirm that it is obligatory. It not only may be enjoyed, but should be enjoyed — as a part of that educational system by which people are the better fitted for the duties and responsibilities of life.
Through happiness our sympathies are nourished, and those kindly charities are begotten, by which we are bound together in the fellowship of society. It is in harmony with God's fatherly discipline over His children, which mingles love-tokens with the rod. Through a wise use of both, He educates His children, not only for usefulness on earth — but for glory and immortality beyond the grave. Solomon says: "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other."
When the great Vine-dresser goes into His vineyard with His pruning shears, you find inscribed upon its two blades the words, "prosperity" and "adversity". And upon the reversed sides, the two terms "joy" and "consideration." Between the sharp edges of the two, we are placed. As the two blades, in His strong hand and with their powerful leverage, are brought to bear upon us, we are made fruitful in the clusters of ripe grapes which are finally gathered by the Master.
Those pleasures, then, are to be chosen which educate us. Those are to be declined, which interfere with our advancement in whatever is useful and good.
The statement is very general — but it has an immense sweep; and it possesses the advantage of being a working principle, capable of easy application to every form of pleasure springing up in our path. Lay it over, for example, against the manly outdoor amusements with which our young men should be familiar. How these invigorate the body, causing the glow of health to pervade the whole frame, and preserving from the incursion of disease; and how, through this increase of bodily vigor, men become good tempered, charitable in their judgments, and free from disparaging criticisms which evil men cast as fire-brands upon their enemies. In such wholesome amusements, the physical condition, and incidentally the moral, is improved — all tending to the right education of man in all his faculties.
But what moral education is there in the ball-room, or at the race-course, or in any other place of mere sensual enjoyment? On the contrary, the undue stimulus which is afforded to pride, self-love, vanity, envy and jealousy — warps the character, and renders it deformed and unlovely throughout!
I am simply illustrating the principle, to show how easy it is of application in all the conditions of society and to every form of temptation to which we are exposed in life. Write it then in red letters upon your tablet: Our pleasures are a part of our moral discipline, and should be selected with reference to education for the highest ends of life in this world and in that which is to come.
II.Let us pass to the second principle: those pleasures are to be avoided, which we cannot share with our seniors, and which require entire exemption from restraint to give them zest. The natural pleasures which God has ordained, belong to men in all ages and conditions of life. Permit me to sketch a scene which may be disclosed in a hundred homes in our city. We will open this door and that:
The father and the mother are the central figures in the group; between the two, range the children, in all degrees from infancy to robust manhood, or the gentler charm of early womanhood. Over there in the corner of the fire-place sits the grand-parents, with the frost of old age upon their brow, looking through their dim glasses upon the cheerful scene. Old and young are together — old and young are happy at the same moment with the same pleasure. By reason of their diversities of age and experience, they are acting and reacting upon each other, echoing and reechoing the same note of domestic enjoyment.
The father came in, a little while ago, with wrinkled brow; for his business had been all day in a wretched tangle. He heaved a bitter sigh when his hand was on the lock of the door; and he sought with an effort of will to throw off the burden of care, that its gloom might not cast its shadow upon those within. Now he has taken the little prattler upon his knee; who, with that silvery laugh that belongs to early childhood, puts out its dimpled hand upon that rugged brow — which becomes so strangely smooth under its magic touch. The heart which was sinking in half despair, grows brave again; and he resolves to go back to his burden, and by industry and thrift, beat back the storm which threatens to turn those nestlings out of their happy home. Who could have dreamed of such power in an unconscious infant's touch; but it must be a touch laid upon careworn age.
And look upon those half-grown boys overflowing with merriment, because the father steps down from his dignity, and for one hour on that happy evening becomes the oldest boy in the house. We know it all, for we had in other days, the homes in which these things were.
God means that society shall be held together in bonds of reciprocal love; and those pleasures which make us happy in the end, are put right here in the endearments of domestic life. But when we begin to dismember the social fabric by separating the classes which God has ordained to be together — when we put the young in one room, and the old in another — in that separation, we are proving the infelicity of the enjoyments which cannot be common to all. Why, we can separate the water we drink into the elements of which it is composed — but then we have oxygen and hydrogen, and no longer the water which quenches thirst. We can take the beautiful light coming from the sun, and with childish glee rejoice in the prismatic colors into which we have resolved it — but then it is no longer the light which is so sweet for the eyes to behold.
Just so, when we take society to pieces by the joints, we dissolve that which God has constituted for our highest enjoyment as well as noblest improvement. It is a safe working principle, therefore, to eschew all pleasures which we cannot share with the serious and the old.
III. Those pleasures, again, are hurtful — which intoxicate and bewitch the senses.Healthful enjoyments have their natural bounds — as seen from the fact that they cease to be enjoyed as soon as these limits are passed. It is with them as with our food and drink. When hungry, food is grateful; the moment hunger ceases, it is no longer desired. In consuming thirst, the water bursting from the mountain spring is more delicious than the costliest imported wines — but when thirst is assuaged, we dash the goblet from our lips. Having reached the point at which enjoyment stops, the temptation to further indulgence is removed. In like manner, in natural pleasures, excess is prevented because at a given point they cease to please, and therefore cease to tempt.
But as there are pleasures which are safe and healthful — so there are others which madden and inflame. Brandy may have its uses, when the patient is in danger of collapse; and opium may have its use when the nerves have been for hours upon the rack, and the taxed brain is ready to slip into madness unless it can have the medicine of sleep. But in the heyday of youth, it would be as well to leave the brandy and opium alone — or it shall become a strange fire setting the blood aflame — a catastrophe not unlike setting on fire the whole ocean — making it a universal and consuming flame.
Yet it is to these maddening and destructive enjoyments that the young are chiefly exposed. Forgive me, if the suggestion strike you as grotesque. If there is any class to whom these intoxicating enjoyments should be remitted, it is the old rather than the young. Give up the wild dance to your father, when he begins to freeze and stiffen with age — it may do him good by suppling his limbs. But for you who need it not, avoid the fascination of those pleasures in whose intoxicating power lies your inevitable destruction.
IV. Again, those pleasures are forbidden, which contravene any known duty, or any truth in the word of God.There are circumstances in which even lawful enjoyment becomes criminal. Take a concrete illustration: here is a youth of 18 years; his father died when he was but fifteen; his widowed mother, under the pressure of grief, has struggled through three years to maintain the household which was plunged by that unhappy death, into extreme poverty. This son has obtained employment which yields a moderate salary, sufficient barely to sustain the feeble mother and two dependent sisters. He is surrounded by mirthful companions who continually wish him to share their costly amusements. Evidently, what may be lawful to them, is forbidden to him. He cannot engage in pursuits of any kind which disable him from performing those solemn duties of protection and care, which he owes to those now dependent on his earnings.
Allow me, my young friends, to tear a leaf from my own history in enforcement of this position. When I was seventeen years of age, I was thrown into a large city as much given to gaiety as this. Without being subject to any control, I was impious, nay, worse than that, I was hostile to religion, in decided hostility to God and the Gospel, in such evil posture that, had I fallen into the hands of scoffers, I might have become as infidel as they. Surrounded by companions as unrestrained as myself, most of whom sank into premature graves — through the mercy of God I was saved. And what instrumentality saved me from ruin? Simply the fortunate combination of poverty and good sense. Over the chasm of fifty years, I recall the tempting invitations of that period: "Tonight we are to have a party, and will have a mirthful time of it, and we want you to be with us and add to our pleasure." "No," was the reply, "I thank you for your kindness, but I cannot come." "Why cannot you come?" "Because I cannot afford it." "Cannot afford it! You are not asked to pay for the supper, but only to eat it." "Yes," I replied, "but if tonight I eat your supper and drink your wine — then very soon after you must eat my supper and drink my wine — and I cannot afford it." Thus the poverty under which I chafed at the time, was God's protection of me. Easier fortunes came later and floated me over those days; and within a year I found a home in the Church of the living God, where I have been sheltered from that day to this.
I have chosen to run the hazard of being charged with egotism, in order to give a personal illustration of the principle before us — that pleasures which are lawful to many — may be unlawful to us who are placed providentially in circumstances which render indulgence criminal. Bear in mind that pleasures are intended as a tonic, to bring up the energies that would otherwise flag — and the moment they interfere with the duties assigned us, they become temptations and a snare!
The prohibition is stronger whenever these pleasures contravene any principle taught in Holy Scripture. Is it lawful, for example, to enter any calling which gives him something for nothing — when that something for nothing does not come in the way of a gift, and represents no feeling of kindness? Place against any such system of finance the prescribed law of labor under which all men are placed, that "if a man does not work, neither shall he eat!" Is there not a law in the Decalogue, which says with solemn emphasis, "You shall not steal"? Or am I by unwise extravagance to involve myself in embarrassments from which there is no extrication without injury to others? You can seldom take up the newspaper of any morning, but the staring headlines report some enormous defalcation. In almost every instance, the cause assigned is fast living, the plunging into gaieties which could not be sustained. Driven at length by necessity, the victim of his own folly breaks the commandment of God and finds himself on the way to the Penitentiary!
V.I am brought to the last principle which should rule the young in the selection of their pleasures — that those amusements are injurious, which are hostile to an early devotion to the service of Christ. It is just as obligatory for you to be a Christian at twenty, as at seventy years of age. The epicurean maxim is fatal in its consequences, that because youth is the season for enjoyment — therefore it may take reprisals for the cares hereafter to devolve upon it. No proverb is more hurtful than that which allows the "sowing of wild oats" while we are young. These wild oats will crop out in the field when we are old, laying the foundation for future toil in weeding the garden and supplying it with plants which are wholesome.
Every period of human life is covered with the authority of God; and to the young he speaks with loving emphasis, "My son, give me your heart!" It is robbery in the young, as it is in the old, to withhold that heart upon which the Almighty is ever enforcing His just claim. And if there are forms of enjoyment which hinder this early consecration to God, this alone stamps them as evil.
Nor is there a single natural pleasure which interferes with early piety. A boy of ten may be a Christian, as well as a man of thirty: but it should be the piety of the boy, and becomes hypocrisy, whenever it is anything else. The very mirthfulness of the child may be sanctified by divine grace and made tributary to God's glory. The characteristic feature of all true enjoyment is that it is consistent with the claims of Jehovah, in all the relations and conditions of human life.
In conclusion, I trust I have sufficiently shown that neither the old nor Christians have any jealousy of the true pleasures of the young. You may possibly think — if not saying it — "Oh, you are a church-member and cannot be expected to engage in these our enjoyments!" Why, my young friends, we are Christians because we choose to be such; and have as good a right to be wild and rollicking as any of you. You cannot therefore urge any plea of this sort, in evading our remonstrance. If I am a minister of the Gospel, it is because, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, I chose to be. But there was a time when I did not so choose; and I could have gone forward in a course of recklessness and folly, if it had seemed fit to do so.
We wish it to be understood that the old, by their past experience, have sympathy with the pursuits and enjoyments of youth. But I would be unjust to you, if I failed to remind you of the purer enjoyment to be found in the service and worship of the blessed God. The world cannot fathom it — but there is more true joy in the penitence and sorrow of the Christian, when he melts in gratitude as the Father above sweetly whispers, "Your sins are forgiven," than in all the pleasures which Solomon compares to "the crackling of thorns under a pot."
I commend to you this night the sober pleasures of true religion as immeasurably greater than all the glittering pleasures of this poor world. The logic is very short: if the sorrow and the weeping of the pious are happier than all your joys — then what must the ecstasy of the Christian be when he basks in the full light of his Heavenly Father's favor, with assurance of eternal blessedness in the world to come?
May God bring you at last into His presence where is fullness of joy, and to "His right hand where are pleasures for evermore."