The Pleasures Of Work by Arthur C Benson

Story type: Essay

I desire to do a very sacred thing to-day: to enunciate a couple of platitudes and attest them. It is always a solemn moment in life when one can sincerely subscribe to a platitude. Platitudes are the things which people of plain minds shout from the steps of the staircase of life as they ascend; and to discover the truth of a platitude by experience means that you have climbed a step higher.

The first enunciation is, that in this world we most of us do what we like. And the corollary to that is, that we most of us like what we do.

Of course, we must begin by taking for granted that we most of us are obliged to do something. But that granted, it seems to me that it is very rare to find people who do not take a certain pleasure in their work, and even secretly congratulate themselves on doing it with a certain style and efficiency. To find a person who has not some species of pride of this nature is very rare. Other people may not share our opinion of our own work. But even in the case of those whose work is most open to criticism, it is almost invariable to find that they resent criticism, and are very ready to appropriate praise. I had a curiously complete instance of this the other day. In a parish which I often visit, the organ in the church is what is called presided over by the most infamous executant I have ever heard–an elderly man, who seldom plays a single chord correctly, and whose attempts to use the pedals are of the nature of tentative and unsuccessful experiments. His performance has lately caused a considerable amount of indignation in the parish, for a new organ has been placed in the church, of far louder tone than the old instrument, and my friend the organist is hopelessly adrift upon it. The residents in the place have almost made up their minds to send a round-robin to the Vicar to ask that the pulsator organorum, the beater of the organ, as old Cathedral statutes term him, may be deposed. The last time I attended service, one of those strangely appropriate verses came up in the course of the Psalms, which make troubled spirits feel that the Psalter does indeed utter a message to faithful individual hearts. “I have desired that they, even my enemies,” ran the verse, “should not triumph over me; for when my foot slipped, they rejoiced greatly against me.” In the course of the verse the unhappy performer executed a perfect fandango on the pedals. I looked guiltily at the senior churchwarden, and saw his mouth twitch.

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In the same afternoon I fell in with the organist, in the course of a stroll, and discoursed to him in a tone of gentle condolence about the difficulties of a new instrument. He looked blankly at me, and then said that he supposed that some people might find a change of instrument bewildering, but that for himself he felt equally at home on any instrument. He went on to relate a series of compliments that well-known musicians had paid him, which I felt must either have been imperfectly recollected, or else must have been of a consolatory or even ironical nature. In five minutes, I discovered that my friend was the victim of an abundant vanity, and that he believed that his vocation in life was organ-playing.

Again, I remember that, when I was a schoolmaster, one of my colleagues was a perfect byword for the disorder and noise that prevailed in his form. I happened once to hold a conversation with him on disciplinary difficulties, thinking that he might have the relief of confiding his troubles to a sympathising friend. What was my amazement when I discovered that his view of the situation was, that every one was confronted with the same difficulties as himself, and that he obviously believed that he was rather more successful than most of us in dealing with them tactfully and strictly.

I believe my principle to be of almost universal application; and that if one could see into the heart of the people who are accounted, and rightly accounted, to be gross and conspicuous failures, we should find that they were not free from a certain pleasant vanity about their own qualifications and efficiency. The few people whom I have met who are apt to despond over their work are generally people who do it remarkably well, and whose ideal of efficiency is so high that they criticise severely in themselves any deviation from their standard. Moreover, if one goes a little deeper–if, for instance, one cordially re-echoes their own criticisms upon their work–such criticisms are apt to be deeply resented.

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I will go further, and say that only once in the course of my life have I found a man who did his work really well, without any particular pride and pleasure in it. To do that implies an extraordinary degree of will-power and self-command.

I do not mean to say that, if any professional person found himself suddenly placed in the possession of an independent income, greater than he had ever derived from his professional work, his pleasure in his work would be sufficient to retain him in the exercise of it. We have most of us an unhappy belief in our power of living a pleasurable and virtuous life of leisure; and the desire to live what is called the life of a gentleman, which character has lately been defined as a person who has no professional occupation, is very strong in the hearts of most of us.

But, for all that, we most of us enjoy our work; the mere fact that one gains facility, and improves from day to day, is a source of sincere pleasure, however far short of perfection our attempts may fall; and, generally speaking, our choice of a profession is mainly dictated by a certain feeling of aptitude for and interest in what we propose to undertake.

It is, then, a happy and merciful delusion by which we are bound. We grow, I think, to love our work, and we grow, too, to believe in our method of doing it. We cannot, a great preacher once said, all delude ourselves into believing that we are richer, handsomer, braver, more distinguished than others; but there are few of us who do not cherish a secret belief that, if only the truth were known, we should prove to be more interesting than others.

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To leave our work for a moment, and to turn to ordinary social intercourse. I am convinced that the only thing that can account for the large number of bad talkers in the world is the wide-spread belief that prevails among individuals as to their power of contributing interest and amusement to a circle. One ought to keep this in mind, and bear faithfully and patiently the stream of tiresome talk that pours, as from a hose, from the lips of diffuse and lengthy conversationalists. I once made a terrible mistake. I complimented, from the mere desire of saying something agreeable, and finding my choice of praiseworthy qualities limited, an elderly, garrulous acquaintance on his geniality, on an evening when I had writhed uneasily under a steady downpour of talk. I have bitterly rued my insincerity. Not only have I received innumerable invitations from the man whom the Americans would call my complimentee, but when I am in his company I see him making heroic attempts to make his conversation practically continuous. How often since that day have I sympathised with St James in his eloquent description of the deadly and poisonous power of the tongue! A bore is not, as is often believed, a merely selfish and uninteresting person. He is often a man who labours conscientiously and faithfully at an accomplishment, the exercise of which has become pleasurable to him. And thus a bore is the hardest of all people to convert, because he is, as a rule, conscious of virtue and beneficence.

On the whole, it is better not to disturb the amiable delusions of our fellow-men, unless we are certain that we can improve them. To break the spring of happiness in a virtuous bore is a serious responsibility. It is better, perhaps, both in matters of work and in matters of social life, to encourage our friends to believe in themselves. We must not, of course, encourage them in vicious and hurtful enjoyment, and there are, of course, bores whose tediousness is not only not harmless, but a positively noxious and injurious quality. There are bores who have but to lay a finger upon a subject of universal or special interest, to make one feel that under no circumstances will one ever be able to allow one’s thoughts to dwell on the subject again; and such a person should be, as far as possible, isolated from human intercourse, like a sufferer from a contagious malady. But this extremity of noxiousness is rare. And it may be said that, as a rule, one does more to increase happiness by a due amount of recognition and praise, even when one is recognising rather the spirit of a performance than the actual result; and such a course of action has the additional advantage of making one into a person who is eagerly welcomed and sought after in all kinds of society.

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