The Might-Have-Been by Richard King

Story type: Essay

It is rare to come across anybody with very definite ideas; it is rarer still to meet a man and woman brave enough to put their ideas into practice. The hardest battle in life–and one of the longest–is the battle to live your own life. No one realises what fighting really means until they stand in battle-array face to face with relations. But most of us have to fight this battle sooner or later, and if we fight and yet make a “hash” of the victory we gain, is it not better so? Relations always think they know what is best for you. Well, perhaps they do, if the “best” be a circumspect kind of goodness. But they rarely know what you want, and, until you have got what you really want, even though you find it is “Dead Sea fruit” after all, the thought always haunts the disappointed Present by visions of the glorious Might-Have-Been.

Relatives always seem to imagine that, when you say you want to lead your own life, it is always a “bad” life you want to lead. They seem to think that a girl leading her own life is a girl entertaining men friends, until goodness knows what hour of the night, alone in her bachelor flat, they picture a man leading his own life as a man whose memoirs would send shudders down a really nice woman’s spine. They never realise that there is happiness in personal freedom and liberty–happiness which is happy merely in the independent feeling of self-respect which this freedom and liberty gives. They would like boys and girls to continue to maturity the same life which they led when they were children, subject to the same restrictions, bowing to the same parental point of view. No one knows of what he is capable until he has begun the battle of life in the world of men, independent and on his own. Better make a “hash” of everything; better suffer and endure and grow old in disappointment, than live in a gilded cage with clipped wings, while kind-hearted people feed you to repletion through the bars.

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A girl or boy, who has no occupation, other than the occupation of mere amusement, who has no Ideal; who has no interest other than the interest of passing the time, is not only useless, but detestable as a member of human society, while his old age is of unhappiness the most unhappy. For what is Old Age worth if it has no “memories”; and what are “memories” worth if they are not memories of having lived one’s life to the full? To me, to live one’s own life is to live–or, perhaps I ought to say, to strive to live–all those ideals which Reflection has shown you to be good, and Nature has given you the power to accomplish. That to me is the fight to live your own life–the fight to realise yourself, to live the “best” that is in you. For a man and woman must be able to hold up their heads high, not only face to face with the world, but face to face with their own selves, before they can say that Life is happy, that Life has been worth while. The tragic cases are those who cannot live their own lives because the lives of other people demanded their sacrifice, a sacrifice which cannot be withheld without loss of self-respect, of that good fellowship with your own “soul” which some people call Conscience.

This sacrifice is generally a woman’s sacrifice. You may see the victims of it in any church, in any town, at almost any hour of the day. They are grey-haired, and sad, and grim, and they hold the more tenaciously to the promise of happiness in After Life because they have sacrificed, or permitted to pass by, the happiness of this. To a great extent it is a “Victorian” sacrifice. They are victims of that passing Belief which was convinced that a girl of gentle birth ought to administer to her parents, pay calls, uphold the Church, and do a little needlework all her life, unless some man came along to marry her and give her emancipation. The happiness which goes with a career, even if that career fails, is saving daughters from this parentally imposed “atrophy.” They are learning that to live one’s own life is not necessarily to live a “bad” life, but a “fuller” life. Thus the young are teaching the Old People wisdom–the knowledge that youth has its Declaration of Rights no less than Middle Age.

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