Cheerful courage can do much to mitigate the trials of life
In my early 20s, I discovered the secret of a happy life. After a fashion.
It was the summer of 1987. I was on holiday in an English seaside town, perusing the shelves of a second-hand book shop, when I came across a faded, yellowing paperback entitled The Christian's Secret Of A Happy Life. It was written by the 19th-century preacher and author Hannah Whitall Smith.
Since I was a Christian back then, and by no means a happy one, I bought it and read it. It changed my way of thinking.
The premise of the book (a far as I can recall, some 30-odd years later) is that nothing happens to the believer by chance. Everything is ordered for the best. In the words of St Paul: "All things work together for good to them that love God."
According to Whitall Smith, if, for example, someone behaves unkindly towards you, you do not need to get upset. You can rest, confident that God is using that person to teach you a valuable lesson in patience, or perseverance, or something of that sort.
Similarly, if you suffer a humiliating failure, it is not the calamity it at first sight appears to be. God is using that unpleasant situation to make you into a wiser, stronger person.
The consequence of all of this is that the unkindness, the failure and the humiliation lose much of their sting. You can look straight at your circumstances, smile, and say to yourself: "This is all part of the divine plan. Everything is for the best."
It was fortunate that I discovered the book when I did, because soon afterwards I suffered a major humiliation, which, in the normal course of events, might well have crushed me. But, buoyed by this new way of thinking, I weathered the storm with a surprising degree of cheerfulness and equanimity.
Despite the efficacy of Whitall Smith's "secret", it had, for me, a very short shelf-life. During my late 20s, I ceased to believe in a personal God, and, consequently, ceased to believe in a divine plan.
But I was interested to find, some years later, that Whitall Smith's ideas were nothing new. In fact, they bore a strong resemblance to some ideas that were common among the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Stoics believed in a divine animating principle pervading the universe. That is, they believed that events in the world are not random, but happen according to some active force, which we might call "God" or "nature".
And they believed that one of the keys to a calm and happy life is to submit cheerfully to the operations of nature, whatever they may be.
The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius compared the operations of nature to the prescriptions of a wise physician.
Just as doctors prescribe exercise, ice baths and suchlike to their patients to aid the healing of their bodies, so too does nature sometimes prescribe troubles and misfortunes to help us to become wiser and better people.
"What happens to each of us," he said, "is ordered to help aid our destiny."
This, I think, can be a helpful attitude to take to our problems and difficulties.
It's not an attitude I am able to adopt myself, since I see no reason to believe that nature operates according to a benign master plan.
However, even for a hardened sceptic like me, there is a useful lesson to be learnt from Whitall Smith and the Stoics.
Namely that an attitude of cheerful courage can do much to mitigate the trials of life.
In the words of Whitall Smith: "A happy heart can walk in triumphant indifference through a sea of external trouble; while internal anguish cannot find happiness in the most favourable surroundings."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.