The Quest for Happiness
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
One of the most successful merchants of his day was Mr. Alexander. In trade he had amassed a large fortune, and now, in the sixtieth year of his age, he concluded that it was time to cease getting — and begin the work of enjoying. Wealth had always been regarded by him as a means of happiness; but, so fully had his mind been occupied in business, that, until the present time, he had never felt himself at leisure to make a right use of the means in his hands.
So Mr. Alexander retired from business, in favor of his son and son-in-law. And now was to come the reward of his long years of labor. Now were to come repose, enjoyment, and the calm delights of which he had so often dreamed.
But, it so happened, that the current of thought and affection which had flowed on so long and steadily, was little disposed to widen into a placid lake. The retired merchant must yet have some occupation. His had been a life of purposes, and plans for their accomplishment; and he could not change the nature of this life. His heart was still the seat of desire, and his thought obeyed, instinctively, the heart’s affection.
So Mr. Alexander used a portion of his wealth in various ways, in order to satisfy the ever active desire of his heart for something beyond what was in actual possession. But, it so happened, that the moment an end was gained, the moment the bright ideal became a fixed and present fact — its power to delight the mind was gone.
Mr. Alexander had some taste for the arts. Many fine pictures already hung upon his walls. Knowing this, a certain picture-broker threw himself in his way, and, by adroit management and skillful flattery, succeeded in turning the pent-up and struggling current of the old gentleman’s feelings and thoughts, in this direction. The broker soon found that he had opened a new and profitable mine. Mr. Alexander had only to see a fine picture, to desire its possession — and to desire, was to have. It was not long before his house was a gallery of pictures.
Was he any happier? Did these pictures afford him a pure and perennial source of enjoyment? No! For, in reality, Mr. Alexander’s taste for the arts was not a passion of his mind. He did not love the beautiful in the abstract. The delight he experienced when he looked upon a fine painting, was mainly the desire of possession; and satiety soon followed possession.
One morning, Mr. Alexander went alone to his library, where, on the day before, had been placed a new painting, recently imported by his friend the picture-dealer. It was exquisite as a work of art, and the biddings for it had been high. But he succeeded in securing it for the sum of two thousand dollars. Before he was certain of getting this picture, Mr. Alexander would linger before it, and study out its beauties with a delighted appreciation. Nothing in his collection was deemed comparable therewith.
Strangely enough, after it was hung upon the walls of his library, he did not stand before it for as long a space as five minutes — and then his thoughts were not upon its beauties.
During the evening that followed, the mind of Mr. Alexander was less in repose than usual. After having completed his purchase of the picture, he had overheard two people, who were considered autocrats in taste, speaking of its defects, which were minutely indicated. They likewise gave it as their opinion that the painting was not worth a thousand dollars. This was throwing cold water on his enthusiasm. It seemed as if a veil had suddenly been drawn from before his eyes. Now, with a clearer vision, he could see faults where, before, every defect was thrown into shadow by an all-obscuring beauty.
On the next morning, as we have said, Mr. Alexander entered his library, to take another look at his purchase. He did not feel very happy. Many thousands of dollars had he spent in order to secure the means of self-gratification; but the end was not yet gained.
A glance at the new picture sufficed, and then Mr. Alexander turned from it with an involuntary sigh. Was it to look at other pictures? No. He crossed his hands behind him, bent his eyes upon the floor, and for the period of half an hour, walked slowly backwards and forwards in his library. There was a pressure on his feelings, he knew not why; a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
No purpose was in the mind of Mr. Alexander when he turned from his library, and, drawing on his overcoat, passed forth to the street. It was a bleak winter morning, and the muffled pedestrians hurried shivering on their way.
“Oh! I wish I had a dollar.”
These words, in the voice of a child, and spoken with impressive earnestness, fell suddenly upon the ears of Mr. Alexander, as he moved along the pavement. Something in the tone reached the old man’s feelings, and he partly turned himself to look at the speaker. She was a little girl, not over eleven years of age, and in company with a lad some year or two older. Both were coarsely clad.
“What would you do with a dollar, sis?” replied the boy.
“I’d buy brother William a pair of nice woollen gloves, and a jacket, and a pair of rubber shoes. That’s what I’d do with it. He has to go away, so early, in the cold, every morning; and he’s almost perished, I know, sometimes. Last night his feet were soaking wet. His shoes are not good; and mother says she hasn’t money to buy him a new pair just now. Oh, I wish I had a dollar!”
Instinctively Mr. Alexander’s hand was in his pocket — and, a moment after, a round, bright silver dollar glittered in that of the girl.
But little farther did Mr. Alexander extend his walk. As if by magic, the hue of his feelings had changed. The pressure on his heart was gone, and its fuller pulses sent the blood bounding and frolicking along every expanding artery. He thought not of pictures nor possessions. All else was obscured by the bright face of the child, as she lifted to his her innocent eyes, brimming with grateful tears!
One dollar spent unselfishly, brought more real pleasure — than thousands parted with in the pursuit of merely selfish gratification. And the pleasure did not fade with the hour, nor the day. That one truly benevolent act, impulsive as it had been, touched a sealed spring of enjoyment, and the waters that gushed instantly forth continued to flow unceasingly.
Homeward the old man returned, and again he entered his library. Choice works of art were all around him, purchased as a means of enjoyment.
They had cost thousands — yet did they not afford him a tenth of the pleasure he had secured by the expenditure of a single dollar. He could turn from them with a feeling of satiety; not so from the image of the happy child whose earnestly expressed wish he had gratified.
And not alone on the pleasure of the child did the thoughts of Mr. Alexander linger. There came before his imagination another picture. He saw a poorly furnished room, in which were a humble, toiling widow and her children. It is keen and frosty outside; and her eldest boy has just come home from his work, shivering with cold. While he is warming himself by the fire, his little sister presents him with the jacket, the thick gloves, and the overshoes, which his benevolence has enabled her to buy. What surprise and pleasure beam in the lad’s face! How happy looks the sister! How full of a subdued and thankful pleasure is the mother’s countenance.
And for weeks and months, did Mr. Alexander gaze, at times, upon this picture, and always with a warmth and lightness of heart, unfelt when other images arose in his mind and obscured it.
And for a single dollar was all this obtained — while thousands and thousands were spent in the fruitless effort to buy happiness.
As strange as it may seem, Mr. Alexander did not profit by this lesson — grew no wiser by this experience. The love of self was too strong for him to seek the good of others — to bless both himself and his fellows by a wise and generous use of the ample means which Divine Providence had given into his hands. He still buys pictures and works of art, but the picture in his imagination, which cost but a single dollar, is gazed at with a far purer and higher pleasure, than he receives from his entire gallery of fine paintings and statues.
If Mr. Alexander will not drink from the sweet spring of true delight which has gushed forth at his feet, and in whose clear waters the sun of heavenly love is mirrored. We hope that others, wiser than he, will bend to its overflowing brim, and take of its treasures freely!