The Sensitive Plant!
Hetty Bowman, 1861
"The tenderest heart Your hands have made,
Beneath Your rule may rest;
For He who made it for Himself,
Knows what will shield it best.
The feeblest lover of Your word,
Dwells safely in Your breast!"
When, in dewy morning or quiet even-tide, we wander, in thoughtful mood, in our garden, or along the fields and lanes of the country, to soothe our troubled spirits by the sweet influences which surround us on every side, and to read holy lessons from the fair pages of nature's open book — we can scarcely fail to recognize the many types which present themselves, of the different varieties of nature to be found among men. The oak, in its gnarled strength — is contrasted with the silvery birch, whose light branches bend in yielding grace. The dahlia and the hollyhock haughtily challenge your notice — while the rich fragrance of the passing breeze alone tells you that the violet is near. The gorgeous cactus is thoroughly impracticable to all your approaches — but many a lowly herb rewards the hand that has crushed it, with a delicate perfume. The sunflower stands alone, in proud defiance of all support — while the ivy clings persistently to any object within its reach.
Look around you now, dear reader, among those whom God has given you to love, or with whom you are thrown into frequent contact — and see if you cannot find among these the anti-types of those plants mentioned above. Some, like the oak, can stand alone and unsupported, bravely and grandly enduring the fury of the storm — others rather resemble the ivy which twines around it; while yet others find their fitting emblem in the trembling mimosa flower, which shrinks and withers at a touch. It is to these last that we would now address a few words of tender and affectionate counsel — in His spirit of whom it is said, that the "bruised reed shall He not break — and the smoking flax shall He not quench."
It may be that, from peculiarity of temperament, and natural constitution, you may be exposed to trials, which others, of stronger mold, can scarcely comprehend, and with which they have but little sympathy. Your lot may be cast, outwardly at least, amid the bright things of life; you may have many to love and care for you, many to throw around you the shield of protection from the rough breath of a world with which you are not fitted to struggle.
And yet, in sadness and loneliness of spirit, you may be bearing a hidden cross, which presses none the less heavily because it is one which few can perceive, and none can lighten. You may know little of what the world calls trial — little of sorrow in its outward and tangible shape; this, you think, would be easier to bear. But you are weighed down by a succession of little, fretting annoyances, which most effectually destroy your peace and comfort.
Nominally, at least, they are little; many would scarcely consider them worth a moment's notice; but to you they are real, all the more so, because you must bear them alone. A word, a look, even the tone of a voice — is sufficient to bring the hot tears to your eyes, and to send a sickening pang through your heart, which amounts almost to physical pain. Life seems, for the time, so cheerless — so cold, and dark, and dreary — that were it not for the sinfulness of the thought, you would almost exclaim with Tennyson's Mariana,
"I am weary, I am weary,
And I wish that I were dead!"
And yet, at the same time, the person who has caused you so much distress, may be utterly unconscious of it. The hasty word, which sent a jarring thrill through every nerve, may have been forgotten as soon as uttered. The cold or averted look, which made you close yourself up like the leaves of the sensitive plant when it has been rudely touched — may have had its origin in some cause with which you had not the most remote connection. But this, you think, only makes the matter worse, since it is impossible you can be spared from suffering which is inflicted in ignorance.
Then there is no one who can understand all this. You feel that the burden you have to bear would be lightened if it could be shared by another. But where are you to look for any one who would treat it as more than a mere nervous imagination, which, albeit with due gravity and politeness, they would ridicule and pass over. You would be told, if you ventured to confide in relative or friend — that you were creating misery for yourself, and that if real sorrow came upon you — you would soon cease to feel the pressure of these imagined ones.
It may be so, and yet, in the meantime, you cannot but feel, that these "imaginations" are as real as anything you could have. And so you shrink back into yourself, with the weary feeling that you are alone in the world, and must pursue, through life, a solitary and untrodden path.
Yet there are many, in whose hearts you have a warm place, and whose affection you return in its full measure — but you cannot admit them into the inner life — to share in its joys, or to sympathize in its sorrows. Your fellowship with them, on all ordinary matters, is free and unrestrained — but as to anything that concerns yourself, your lips are sealed! Your spirit turns aside from them — you wrap the mantle of reserve more resolutely around you, and live, more completely than ever, in aworld of your own.
Yet how gladly would you throw down the barrier! How your spirit yearns for companionship! How willingly would you pour out your trials and difficulties into some tender and sympathizing ear!
At length, perhaps, your wish is granted. A friend is given you, in whom, after many a fruitless search, you find one whose thoughts seem to have been cast in the same mold as your own; who has experienced the same difliculties, and passed through the same discipline. In the sweet interchange of thought and feeling — in the calm repose of a faithful and true-hearted love — you feel as if your cup of happiness were well-near full. Your whole soul is poured out in one wild and idolatrous attachment, and for once your heart seems to rest and be satisfied. You feel as if now, surely, your long yearnings would be stilled; as if a tie so pure, so sacred, must be a pledge of that yet higher communion hereafter to be enjoyed by the redeemed in glory — when the dross of earth shall be purged away, and all shall "know, even as they are known."
Oh, it is a blessed thing so to love! But at length the hour of parting draws on. One is taken — and the other left. One taken to the rest of the inner sanctuary — the other left to the toil and labor of the outer court.
Or it may be separation by distance. It is not often, that in this "waste howling wilderness," our paths lie long near together. More frequently they diverge in different directions, as the will of our Father in Heaven may appoint. He assigns to each a separate corner of the vineyard to keep and occupy. And so the heart is again left in its lonely desolation — only now more lonely and more desolate than before. Then return the aching and the void, the yearning for fellowship, and the "earnest questioning for treasures fled," which seem to you to be inseparable from your very existence. You feel as if earth could never again be bright — as if no other tie could take the place of that which has been broken.
But, in time, your spirit seeks for itself another abiding-place, which seems so firm that you imagine it can "never be removed." Yet this, too, is rudely shaken, and again and again you hear the summons, pealing to the inmost recesses of your soul, "to arise and depart — for this is not your rest, for it is polluted."
Well, indeed, will it be for you if, at length, taught by bitter experience that no earthly love can really satisfy — you turn, in lowly thankfulness, from the streams to the fountain — and find your only blessedness in the "Friend who sticks closer than a brother."
This is a melancholy picture. Some may think that it has been overdrawn, but others will, we believe, at once recognize in it the outline of their own individual history. It has been faithfully given, with no desire to conceal or to gloss over the blemishes which it contains.
And now comes the inquiry — How is this sad state of things to be remedied? For it is not enough, dear reader, that you confess and bewail it, and then fold your hands in indolence and half despair, contenting yourself with the thought that what has been, must continue to be. If, however, you are really desirous of amendment, you will admit a few words of honest and homely advice from one who can fully appreciate the difficulties of your present position, and would gladly aid you in extricating yourself from them.
In the first place, then, remember, that though you must to a certain extent retain through life the temperament which is natural to you — it is, nevertheless, in your power greatly to modify and strengthen it. To this end, therefore, do not expose yourself unnecessarily to softening influences — for you they are not needed. The tone of your mind needs to be rendered more firm and elastic, rather than weakened.
Hence, do not indulge yourself in the indiscriminate reading of works of fiction. Your imagination is strong enough already — it does not require cultivation. Such books will only give you false and weak views of life, and utterly unfit you for your own place in it. They will lead you to suppose yourself a kind of heroine of romance, in whom center all the evils and misfortunes common to mankind in general. Viewed through such a medium, your nearest and kindest friends will seem hard and unfeeling — and you will learn either to look upon them with contempt, as having nothing in common with your own higher nature, or to regard them with sentiments very nearly allied to dislike.
The contrast between the matter-of-fact occurrences of every-day existence — and the delicious day-dreams of the novels in which you delight to indulge, will become at length so marked, as to be absolutely unendurable. You will shrink back from life with weariness and disgust. Thus, imagined and self-created distress will be added to real life difficulties.
But if, on the other hand, you will steadily apply yourself to a course of judiciously chosen and useful reading, requiring, not merely eyesight, but study and concentration of thought — you will derive from it incalculable benefit. It will enable you to correct those erroneous estimates of men and things, from which so much misapprehension arises — and teach you thankfully to take the world as you find it. It will exercise, and, in exercising, strengthen the intellectual powers — and will supply you with resources within yourself, so that you will cease so acutely to feel the disagreeables which press upon you from without. It will furnish healthful employment for many an hour, which might, otherwise, be spent in idle conversation, or still more idle reverie. Your mind will be prevented from preying upon itself — a process which, as you may suppose, will contribute little to your happiness. But we need say no more by way of inducement. Wage war with sloth, and laziness, and long habits of mental indolence.
"Struggle — you are better for the strife —
The very energy will hearten you."
Only persevere fairly for one month, and at the end of it you will have no inclination to give up. Life will be no longer tasteless and insipid. New hopes, new objects, will spring up around you. Every step of progress will pave the way for others which are to follow — and, before long, you will find that the best prescription for every kind of morbid unhappiness — is work!
Or, if you will not pursue this course, strike out another and a better. Take your Bible in your hand, and go to the haunts of poverty and distress. Carry the bread of life to the perishing. Gather the outcast into the fold of refuge. Raise the veil which hides from many an eye the sad realities of life, and see if the sight of them does not charm or shame away half your own sorrow. Listen to the tale of misery, track out its proofs, witness it with your own eyes — and then set yourself with loving heart and ready hand to relieve it. The blessing of those who are ready to perish will surely be yours, and the cup of cold water shall never lose its reward.
Or, without at all overstepping the boundaries of your own home, you may find in household duties abundant employment which will prove a most wholesome corrective of boredom in any of its developments. Very distasteful they may seem to you — very repulsive to your finer feelings — yet, nevertheless, they form a most important part of every woman's education, and a due attention to them will enable you, at some future time, if not now — to contribute, most essentially, to the comfort and happiness of those around you. Do not despise them, but carry into the doing of them that high and holy principle which, as Herbert so beautifully says, "makes drudgery divine;" even a reference — in these things also — to the glory of Him in whose steps you desire to follow.
You must, however, determine upon your own line of action. Only decide upon something. Shun idleness as you would the plague! Remember that you came into the world, not merely "to be" — but "to do."
One word as to a very necessary qualification for passing through the world happily to yourself, and usefully to others, namely — self-control. How your heart sinks at the word! You feel so utterly destitute of it. Yet take courage. You need not always be so. The means of attaining it are in a great measure within your own power. Struggle for it. Pray for it. Nothing is too small to be made a matter of prayer; and this is a thing which nearly concerns your happiness and welfare. Ask it of Him who "gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not."
Then, begin a resolute battle with yourself. Crush back the starting tear. Brighten the downcast brow. Shut your lips upon the words of fretful complaint. Gain the mastery but once, and the next time it will be more easy. Remember, you must either conquer — or be conquered. Conquer, and your life will be worth living; be conquered, and you will lay up a store of misery for future years! Do not say "it is impossible!" It is not. Few things are so to a brave heart and a strong will. Let not frequent failures dishearten you, but,
"If you don't succeed at first,
Try, try, try again!"
These simple words are rich in lessons of practical wisdom. You must expect to meet with many hindrances in the way of your progress. Many a time you will stumble and fall, but do not lie helplessly still — get up and go forward. The victory which is before you will be an ample reward for every effort you may make to gain it.
Again, beware lest you allow yourself to indulge in harsh or unkind thoughts of your friends, because they do not understand or sympathize with you as fully as you could wish. They cannot understand what they have, perhaps, never experienced — or sympathize with what they have not felt. It is from no lack of affection, but rather from the excess of it, that they do not seem entirely to enter into your feelings. They are anxious to prevent you from imagining yourself miserable — from creating subjects of distress which have no real existence. Conscious that they would be themselves unaffected by those things which cause you such suffering — they are desirous of warning you against what must seem to them to be mere morbid sensibility.
Do not, then, shut yourself up from them, in cold and gloomy reserve. Remember, it is a dangerous thing to trifle with offered love — to put it aside, or to repulse it. If we do so, we may perhaps one day find, that the confidence which we would gladly bestow — is not encouraged; and the love which we would give worlds to possess — is not granted. If we resolutely persist in "entrenching ourselves within our own individuality," it may be our lot by and by to experience that, when we would go forth from it to more unrestrained fellowship with our fellow men — our advances are not received, and, they shut themselves up from us, as we have done from them. And so you may, at length, be really alone, dwelling in a solitude which you have created for yourself.
You say that you are afraid of confiding in your friends, lest you should be misunderstood. Your heart shrinks from the very thought; the effort seems almost greater than you could persuade yourself to make. Yes, it is difficult. Do not try to think otherwise, for it is no easy task to which we invite you. But no difficulty, however great, should deter you from a clearly defined duty. It is wrong thus to isolate yourself from those among whom your lot is cast — it is unkind to them, and hurtful to yourself.
Remember, there is such a thing as making sympathy impossible — a far more common occurrence than not being able to obtain it. If you will but honestly make the attempt to bring others nearer to you — you will find that, as in many other instances, what seems formidable at a distance, grows easy as it is more nearly approached. And though your heart will beat fast, and your cheek will flush, and the words which rise to your lips will refuse to come further — yet, if you can once succeed in "breaking the ice" — your life will lose much of its present gloomy coloring, and the bond of union and fellowship between yourself and those you love will be drawn yet closer. Surely such a result is worth striving for.
One word more of warning. As you value your own peace, your own health, and your power to make life a bright and blessed thing to others: Beware how you cherish that tendency to morbid melancholy to which one of your temperament is perhaps peculiarly liable. It will destroy your own happiness, and paralyze every effort of usefulness. Do not give way to it, even for one moment. Whenever you feel its approach, shun it, flee from it, fight with it as with a treacherous and ruthless foe! To cherish it as harmless and beautiful, and as interesting as it may appear — would be to cherish a serpent whose sting will infect your whole life with its deadly virus!
Compel yourself to look at the brightness of life — not at its gloom. "Keep on the sunny side of the rock." Read the 103d Psalm, and pray over it, until you can, in some measure, make its joyous strains of praise and thanksgiving your own. Ask God to give you a cheerful spirit, to make you one of His happy children, for such will ever be most precious in His sight.
Seek to be like Him, who, though the "Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," could yet say, from the depths of a full heart, "I thank You, O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth!" Let this be your motto, "Giving thanks always for all things!" There are many bright spots in the wilderness; many wells in the valley of Baca, from which we may drink and be refreshed. There may be shadows, but the sunshine gilds them. There may be tears — but there is also a joy such as "no man takes from us."
Do not allow yourself to dwell on little troubles. Do not be worried and fretted by them. Receive them quietly. They will soon pass over, and be as though they had not been.
Above all, do not bring gloom over others. Take care not to be the one dark spot in the home circle. It is better to be a sunbeam — than a cloud; better to diffuse around us light and hope and gladness — than to be a sort of living extinguisher. No one can tell how much good we may do merely by looking happy. A smile may be a refreshing cordial to some sinking spirit. There are many sad, sick hearts in the world — let us not make them sadder still. There are many sorrowful faces — let us not needlessly add to their number. Rather may it be said of us,
"In your clear joyance
Sorrow cannot be
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee."
Again, remember, that if you had not trial in one form, you would have it in another. If not mentally — yet in some more outward and visible shape. "What son is he whom the father chastens not?" Are you alone to be exempted from the family discipline? It is not well that we should have too smooth paths for our feet, or we would be apt to forget that here on earth we have no continuing city.
"Into each life, some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary!"
We would not have it otherwise, for the chastening rod has healing in its touch. Since, then, you cannot be without the cross — be thankful that it is so light a one. It will not be more heavy than you are able to endure, for your Heavenly Father "knows your frame — He remembers that you are dust." He tenderly feels how unable you are to bear even this, without His supporting strength. How can you, then, faint or be weary under His loving chastisement — especially since you are encouraged to "cast your burden on the Lord," in the assurance that "He shall sustain you." Only lean on Him in quiet and confiding trust! Only strive to realize that the "Lord Himself is the portion of your inheritance and your cup" — and then, even although you may sometimes feel as one of the "solitary set in families," you may still joyfully exclaim, "I am not alone, because the Father is with me!"
Do not distress yourself with the thought that this feeling of which we have spoken — this yearning for sympathy — this thirst for
"Communings more full and high
Than anything by mortal known,"
is in itself sinful. It is not so. It is a part of your very self. It is nature's voice — and it will be heard. It has been implanted by an Almighty hand, for some wiser reason than we, in our short-sightedness, can discover. Perhaps that we may be thus the more readily taught to seek our happiness in the "only fountain of everlasting love." But it can never be satisfied here on earth. Human sympathy is precious — but it is still, in its very nature, imperfect — and, even when best intentioned, often misses its aim. There are sorrows which it cannot soothe! There are depths which it cannot fathom!
"Each in its hidden sphere of joy or woe,
Our hermit-spirits dwell, and range apart."
There they remain in solitude which no human voice can break. There they remain in darkness which no earthly light can brighten. It is well. The Savior's voice is but the more distinctly heard, "Fear not — for I am with you! Do not be dismayed, for I am your God." Christ points to the stream of human sympathy and human love, and says, "Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst!" Remember this. Keep it constantly before you, and you will be spared much suffering which you must inevitably experience if you look to this world for what it cannot give. Wait until faith and love are perfected. Wait until patience gains its full reward in the white robe and the unfading crown! Then, and then only, will your hopes be fulfilled. Then, and then only, will your dreams be realized — in the unfettered communion of the saints in light!
Do not forget, that if, from the peculiarly sensitive temperament with which you have been endowed, you are exposed to greater suffering — then you possess also a greater capacity for enjoyment than many others. If a very little thing can give you pain — then a very little thing can also minister to you the highest and purest pleasure. An affectionate word, a kindly or appreciating glance, which another might scarcely notice — how it thrills your very heart! How, for a time, it seems to gild your whole life with sunshine! How, even when the present enjoyment is over, does the thought of it still linger in your memory — its soothing influence retained, though years have passed away!
And then, the beauty of the natural world, how your spirit revels in it! The purple hill, the quiet valley, the flowers with their delicate penciling and sweet fragrances, the woods in their autumn glory — all these are to you like old and long-loved friends. To your ears there is no music so sweet as the low murmur of the brook, or the silvery rustle of the summer wind among the leaves; there is no sight so lovely as the golden dawn or fading sunset. In all these things you can see beauties which are hidden from other eyes — you can distinguish harmonies which are silent to other ears. They speak to your inmost soul — they touch the mind's harp, and every chord vibrates in answering rapture.
And in a thousand other ways, which it would be impossible to enumerate, your life is brightened and blessed, even by that very constitutional sensibility, which, in another sense, greatly diminishes its happiness. So that, if the cold and unfeeling can move composedly through the world, without being greatly annoyed by the "pin-pricks" they meet with in the way — they also pass carelessly by many a hidden spring of the purest and most intense delight. And even as the one counterbalances the other — so, also, the one cannot be separated from the other. If, therefore, you would escape from some sorrow — it must be at the cost of the joy which is linked with it.
We would, in conclusion, point you to the only true source of comfort "in all time of our tribulation" — the remembrance of the Savior's tenderness and love. In every struggle, in every feeling of weariness and weakness — His eye is upon you, and His arm is underneath you. Your name, yes, your name, reader — if, indeed, you have unreservedly given yourself to Him — is engraved on His heart, and for you He constantly pleads before the throne on high. In Him you may trust, and find Him an unfailing support — while every earthly confidence will fail and leave you desolate. His word is pledged to supply "all your needs" — and surely with this you can lack nothing!
He appoints for you exactly the discipline which is most needed, and which alone can fit and prepare you for the higher service of the temple above. And, while you are undergoing that discipline, He sustains you with the richest consolations of His grace — for He can be touched with the feeling of your infirmities, and has Himself drained to the very dregs the bitter cup of human woe. He has not forgotten His adopted one, but still can say of you, as in ancient times of His peculiar people, "I know your sorrows!" With such an assurance, what can you fear — even though the clouds may gather closer round you, and the onward path look dark and cheerless?
Be still, and trust! Every step brings you nearer to the rest of your Father's house, where the toils of the way shall be remembered no more. Look up, for the dawn is breaking! The darkness of this world's sorrow and loneliness shall pass away like a dream of the night — and the "days of your mourning shall be ended!"