Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being Happy Thinking: Tidbits from Stevenson's "Walking Tours"

View of Glen Frankfort (aka Island Prairie Park), where I have spent many hours "being happy thinking".


Dear readers,

My apologies for the irregular blog posts, which will continue to be irregular for a while yet. Working part-time and attempting to finish a novel before August do not leave much time for reading and reflecting on Great Books. Thus this week I do not have much prepared to share with you except a passage pulled from my faithful commonplace book. (See my first post on that here.) It's a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "Walking Tours".

A bit ironically, this particular selection has nothing to do with either walking or touring, but rather sitting by the fire. It's one of Stevenson's numerous odes-in-prose on the importance of leisure. I thought it particularly appropriate for me just now--the past several months I've been working my head off, applying for scholarships, saving for college, and writing a fantasy novel. But next week I'm putting that all away for seven full days, going on retreat at a small Byzantine Catholic women's monastery in Ohio. I know it's going to be a challenge, denying my workaholism for an entire week, but I believe this retreat will be the best thing I've done for myself for years. I look forward to many hours of being "happy thinking".

Stevenson does not venture into the spiritual effects of leisure, although he comes very close, in the moralistic tone he was rather fond of. What I mean to say is, that although he does not bring up the essential part God plays in contemplation, some of his points are spot-on anyway. I'll expound further as we proceed through the quote. Without further ado...selections from RLS's "Walking Tours":

Or perhaps you are left to your own company for the night, and surely weather imprisons you by the fire. You may remember how Burns [Robert Burns, 18th-century Scottish poet], numbering past pleasures, dwells upon the hours when he has been "happy thinking." It is a phrase that may well perplex a poor modern, girt about on every side by clocks and chimes, and haunted, even at night, by flaming dial-plates. For we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realize, and castles in the fire to turn into solid, habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought and among the Hills of Vanity.


The poor, clock-haunted moderns Stevenson was referring to, by the way, were the inhabitants of Victorian Britain. How much deeper have we moderns of the 21st century fallen among the "flaming dial-plates"! From education to the workplace to being up on the latest technology, so much of society is focused on that vague thrill of "getting ahead". Apparently the phenomenon isn't quite so modern as we thought, if Stevenson sensed it back in the 1870s.

Another interesting point: "Hills of Vanity" might strike one as an odd phrase at first reading. The word "vanity" generally has negative connotations, calling to mind the shallow, the ephemeral, the ultimately meaningless. But in this context, Stevenson uses the word to the precisely opposite effect. The Land of Thought and Hills of Vanity are those pursuits of leisure which seem vain in the eyes of a utilitarian, materialistic world, but in truth are a return to the contemplation of goodness, truth, beauty, and God--everything that makes us human.

To continue:

Changed times, indeed, when we must sit all night, beside the fire, with folded hands; and a changed world for most of us, when we find we can pass the hours without discontent, and be happy thinking. We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts--namely, to live.

I rather think Stevenson would have disapproved of social media. Even when things like Facebook and Twitter are being used in good causes, so much of it simply makes us crave constant distraction. One of the immediately noticeable things, when watching people in a public place (like the restaurant where I work), is the apparent inability of many individuals to sit still for two minutes without taking out their phones. This includes adults, not just tech-savvy teens! Passing contented, quiet hours without the iPhone or tablet on hand might be unimaginable for these technology users. But our brains and souls need rest--to nurture things like creativity, real relationship, and wisdom. As Stevenson says, to live!

As we've seen, even these couple of short passages contain a plethora of points for reflection. Stevenson was fond of writing about imagination and leisure--just recall any of his famous poems from A Child's Garden of Verses, or, less well known, his essay "An Apology for Idlers" (a defense of leisure against constant work and study). His words are excellent reminders for all of us about the perils of over-activity. That's what our Christian Sabbath is for--to slow, to stop, to turn back towards our Center, Who is God. I look forward to a whole seven days of slowing down as I take my retreat next week in Ohio.