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THE other day a well-known English novelist asked me how old I thought she was, really. “Well," I said to myself, "since she has asked for it, she shall have it; I will be as true to life as her novels." So I replied audaciously: “Thirty-eight." I fancied I was erring if at all, on the side of “really," and I trembled. She laughed triumphantly. "I am forty-three," she said. The incident might have passed off entirely to my satisfaction had she not proceeded: “And now tell me how old you are." That was like a woman. Women imagine that men have no reticences, no pretty little vanities.

What an error! Of course I could not be beaten in candor by a woman. I had to offer myself a burnt sacrifice to her curiosity, and I did it, bravely but not unflinchingly. And then afterwards the fact of my age remained with me, worried me, obsessed me. I saw more clearly than ever before that age was telling on me. I could not be blind to the deliberation of my movements in climbing stairs and in dressing. Once upon a time the majority of persons I met in the street seemed much older than myself. It is different now. The change has come unperceived. There is a generation younger than mine that smokes cigars and falls in love. Astounding! Once I could play left-wing forward for an hour and a half without dropping down dead. Once I could swim a hundred and fifty feet submerged at the bottom of a swimming- bath. Incredible! Simply incredible! . . . Can it be that I have already lived?

And lo! I, at the age of nearly forty, am putting to myself the old questions concerning the intrinsic value of life, the fundamentally important questions: What have I got out of it? What am I likely to get out of it? In a word, what's it worth? If a man can ask himself a question more momentous, radical, and critical than these questions, I would like to know what it is. Innumerable philosophers have tried to answer these questions in a general way for the average individual, and possibly they have succeeded pretty well. Possibly I might derive benefit from a perusal of their answers. But do you suppose I am going to read them? Not I! Do you suppose that I can recall the wisdom that I happen already to have read? Not I! My mind is a perfect blank at this moment in regard to the wisdom of others on the essential question. Strange, is it not? But quite a common experience, I believe. Besides, I don't actually care two pence what any other philosopher has replied to my question. In this, each man must be his own philosopher. There is an instinct in the profound egoism of human nature which pre- vents us from accepting such ready-made answers. What is it to us what Plato thought? Nothing. And thus the question remains ever new, and ever unanswered, and ever of dramatic interest. The singular, the highly singular thing is -- and here I arrive at my point -- that so few people put the question to themselves in time, that so many put it too late, or even die without putting it.

I am firmly convinced that an immense proportion of my instructed fellow-creatures do not merely omit to strike the balance-sheet of their lives, they omit even the preliminary operation of taking stock. They go on, and on, and on, buying and selling they know not what, at unascertained prices, dropping money into the till and taking it out. They don't know what goods are in the shop, nor what amount is in the till, but they have a clear impression that the living-room behind the shop is by no means as luxurious and as well-ventilated as they would like it to be. And the years pass, and that beautiful furniture and that system of ventilation are not achieved. And then one day they die, and friends come to the funeral and remark: "Dear me! How stuffy this room is, and the shop’s practically full of trash! “Or, some little time before they are dead, they stay later than usual in the shop one evening, and make up their minds to take stock and count the till, and the disillusion lays them low, and they struggle into the living-room and murmur : "I shall never have that beautiful furniture, and I shall never have that system of ventilation.

If I had known earlier, I would have at least got a few inexpensive cushions to go on with, and I would have put my fist through a pane in the window. But it's too late now. I am used to Windsor chairs, and I should feel the draught horribly."

If I were a preacher, and if I hadn't got more than enough to do in minding my own affairs, and if I could look any one in the face and deny that I too had pursued for nearly forty years the great British policy of muddling through and hoping for the best -- in short, if things were not what they are, I would hire the Alhambra Theatre or Exeter Hall of a Sunday night -- preferably the Alhambra, because more people would come to my entertainment -- and I would invite all men and women over twenty-six. I would supply the seething crowd with what they desired in the way of bodily refreshment (except spirits -- I would draw the line at poisons), and having got them and myself into a nice amiable expansive frame of mind, I would thus address them -- of course in ringing eloquence that John Bright might have envied:

Men and women (I would say), companions in the universal pastime of hiding one's head in the sand, -- I am about to impart to you the very essence of human wisdom. It is not abstract. It is a principle of daily application, affecting the daily round in its entirety, from the strap hanging on the District Railway in the morning to the strap hanging on the District Railway the next morning. Beware of hope, and beware of ambition! Each is excellently tonic, like German competition, in moderation. But all of you are suffering from self-indulgence in the first, and very many of you are ruining your constitutions with the second. Be it known unto you, my dear men and women, that existence rightly considered is a fair compromise between two instincts-- the instinct of hoping one day to live, and the instinct to live here and now. In most of you the first instinct has simply got the other by the throat and is throttling it.

Prepare to live by all means, but for heaven's sake do not forget to live. You will never have a better chance than you have at present. You may think you will have, but you are mistaken. Pardon this bluntness. Surely you are not so naive as to imagine that the road on the other side of that hill there is more beautiful than the piece you are now traversing! Hopes are never realized; for in the act of realization they become something else. Ambitions may be attained, but ambitions attained are rather like burnt coal, ninety percent, of the heat generated has gone up chimney instead of into the room. Nevertheless, indulge in hopes and ambitions, which, though deceiving, are agreeable deceptions; let them cheat you a little, a lot. But do not let them cheat you too much. This that you are living now is life itself -- it is much more life itself than that which you will be living twenty years hence. Grasp that truth. Dwell on it. Absorb it. Let it influence your conduct, to the end that neither the present nor the future be neglected. You search for happiness? Happiness is chiefly a matter of temperament. It is exceedingly improbable that you will by struggling gain more happiness than you already possess. In fine, settle down at once into life. (Loud cheers.)

The cheers would of course be for the refreshments.

There is no doubt that the mass of the audience would consider that I had missed my vocation, and ought to have been a caterer instead of a preacher. But, once started, I would not be discouraged. I would keep on, Sunday night after Sunday night. Our leading advertisers have richly proved that the public will believe anything if they are told of it often enough. I would practice iteration, always with refreshments. In the result, it would dawn upon the corporate mind that there was some glimmering of sense in my doctrine, and people would at last begin to perceive the folly of neglecting to savour the present, the folly of assuming that the future can be essentially different from the present, the fatuity of dying before they have begun to live.


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