The Mountain of Miseries!

Joseph Addison, 1714

As I was seated in my elbow-chair and ruminating on the miseries of life, I insensibly fell asleep when, suddenly, methought there was a proclamation made by Jupiter, that every mortal should bring in his griefs and calamities, and throw them together into a common heap. There was a large plain appointed for this purpose. I took my stand by the center of it, and saw with a great deal of pleasure, the whole human species marching one after another, and throwing down their individual miseries which immediately grew up into a prodigious mountain that seemed to rise above the clouds.

There was a certain lady of a thin airy shape, who was very active in the whole procedure. She carried a magnifying glass in one of her hands, and was clothed in a loose flowing robe, embroidered with several figures of fiends and specters, that revealed themselves in a thousand chimerical shapes as her garment hovered in the wind. There was something wild and distracted in her look. Her name was Imagination. She led up every mortal to the appointed place, after having very meddlesomely assisted him in making up his burden-bundle, and laying it upon his shoulders. My heart melted within me to see my fellow-creatures groaning under their respective burdens, and to consider that prodigious bulk of human calamities which lay before me.

There were however several persons who gave me great interest upon this occasion. I observed one bringing in a bundle very carefully concealed under an old embroidered cloak, which, upon his throwing it into the heap, I discovered to be poverty. Another, after a great deal of puffing, threw down his burden which, upon examining, I found to be his wife.

I saw multitudes of old women throw down their wrinkles and several young ones who stripped themselves of their blotchy skin. There were very great heaps of red noses, large lips and rusty teeth. The truth of it is, I was surprised to see the whole of the mountain made up exclusively of bodily deformities. Observing one advancing towards the heap with a larger cargo than ordinary upon his back, I found upon his near approach, that it was only a natural hump, which he disposed of with great joy of heart, among this collection of human miseries.

There were likewise distempers of all sorts though I could not but observe that there were many more imaginary than real.

But what most of all surprised me, was that there was not a single vice or folly thrown into the whole heap at which I was very much astonished, having concluded within myself that everyone would take this opportunity of getting rid of his evil passions, vices, and sins.

I took notice in particular of a very profligate fellow, who came laden with his crimes; but upon searching into his bundle, I found that instead of throwing his guilt from him, he had only laid down his memory. He was followed by another worthless rogue, who flung away his modesty.

When the whole race of mankind had thus cast their burdens, the Phantom which had been so busy on this occasion, seeing me an idle spectator of what passed, approached towards me. I grew uneasy at her presence, when suddenly she held her magnifying glass fully before my eyes. I no sooner saw my face in it, but was startled at the shortness of it, which now appeared to me in its utmost aggravation. The immoderate breadth of the features made me very discontent with my own countenance, upon which I threw it from me like a mask!

It happened very luckily, that one who stood by me had just before thrown down his visage, which, it seems, was too long for him. It was indeed extended to a most shameful length I believe the very chin was, modestly speaking, as long as my whole face. We had both of us an opportunity of mending ourselves.

At length, all the contributions were brought in and thrown onto this mountain of miseries which was made up of those several burdens that afflict the minds of men. I saw, with unspeakable pleasure, the whole species thus delivered from its sorrows. At the same time, as we stood around the heap, and surveyed the several materials of which it was composed there was scarcely one in this vast multitude who did not discover what he thought pleasures and blessings of life in that pile and wondered how the owners of them ever came to look upon them as burdens and grievances.

As we were regarding very attentively this confusion of miseries, this chaos of calamity Jupiter issued out a second proclamation, that every one was now at liberty to exchange his bundle, and to return to his habitation with any such other bundle as he should desire.

Upon this, Imagination began again to bestir herself, and, parceling out the whole heap with incredible activity, recommended to every one his particular packet. The hurry and confusion at this time was not to be expressed. Some observations, which I made upon the occasion, I shall communicate to the public.

A venerable grey-headed man, who had laid down his cholic, and who needed an heir to his estate snatched up an undutiful son that had been thrown into the heap by his angry father. The wicked youth, in less than a quarter of an hour, pulled the old gentleman by the beard, and nearly knocked his brains out. So that meeting the true father, who came towards him in a fit of the gripes, he begged him to take his son again, and give him back his cholic. But neither of them were allowed to withdraw from the choice they had made.

A poor galley-slave, who had thrown down his chains, took up the gout in their stead but made such a painful face, that one might easily perceive he was no great gainer by the bargain. It was interesting enough to see the several exchanges that were made sickness for poverty hunger for lack of appetite and care for pain.

The female world were very busy among themselves in bartering for features. One was swapping away her carbuncle for a lock of grey hairs. Another was switching a bad face for a lost reputation.

But on all these occasions, there was not one of them who did not think the new blemish, as soon as she had got it into her possession to be much more disagreeable than the old one!

I made the same observation on every other misfortune or calamity which everyone in the assembly brought upon himself in lieu of what he had parted with. Whether it is that all the evils which befall us are in some measure suited and proportioned to our strength or that every evil becomes more supportable by our being accustomed to it I shall not determine.

I could not for my heart, forbear pitying the poor hump-backed gentleman mentioned earlier in the paper, who went off a very well-shaped person but with a stone in his bladder! Nor the fine gentleman who had struck up this bargain with him, who limped through a whole assembly of ladies who used to admire him with a pair of shoulders peeping over his head!

I must not omit my own particular adventure. My friend with the long visage had no sooner taken upon him my short face but he made such a grotesque figure in it, that as I looked upon him I could not forbear laughing. The poor gentleman was so sensible of the ridicule, that I found he was ashamed of what he had done. On the other side, I found that I myself had no great reason to triumph, for as I went to touch my forehead, I missed the place and clapped my finger upon my upper lip. Besides, as my nose was exceedingly prominent, I gave it two or three unlucky knocks as I was playing my hand about my face, and aiming at some other part of it.

I saw two other gentlemen by me, who were in the same ridiculous circumstances. These had made a swap between a couple of thick, short legs and two long legs that had no calves to them. One of these now looked like a man walking upon stilts, and was so lifted up into the air above his ordinary height, that he looked downright foolish! While the other made such awkward circles, as he attempted to walk, that he scarce knew how to move forward upon his new supporters. Observing him to be a pleasant kind of fellow, I stuck my cane in the ground, and bet him that he could not march up to it in a straight line that I drew for him, in a quarter of an hour!

The heap was at last distributed among the two sexes, who made a most piteous sight as they wandered up and down, under the pressure of their several new burdens. The whole plain was filled with murmurs and complaints, groans and lamentations.

Jupiter at length, taking compassion on the poor mortals, ordered them a second time to lay down their loads, with a design to give every one his old burden back again. They discharged themselves with a great deal of pleasure after which, the Phantom, who had led them into such gross delusions, was commanded to disappear.

There was sent in her stead, a goddess of a quite different figure. Her motions were steady and composed, and her aspect serious but cheerful. Her name was Patience. She had no sooner placed herself by the mountain of miseries, but, what I thought very remarkable the whole heap sunk to such a degree, that it did not appear a third part so big as it was before!

She afterwards returned to every man, his own proper calamity, and, teaching him how to bear it in the most advantageous manner he marched off with it contentedly, being very well pleased that he had not been left to his own choice, as to the kind of afflictions which fell to his lot.

Besides the several pieces of morality to be drawn out of this vision, I learned from it, never to repine at my own misfortunes, or to envy the happiness of another since it is impossible for any man to form a right judgment of his neighbor's sufferings. For which reason also I have determined never to think too lightly of another's complaints, but to regard the sorrows of my fellow creatures with sentiments of pity and compassion.