THE ability to be easily and heartily amused brings a wholesome reaction from intense thought or hard work of any kind which does more towards keeping the nervous system in a normal state than almost anything else of an external kind.
As a Frenchman very aptly said: “This is all very well, all this study and care to relieve one’s nerves; but would it not be much simpler and more effective to go and amuse one’s self?” The same Frenchman could not realize that in many countries amusement is almost a lost art. Fortunately, it is not entirely lost; and the sooner it is regained, the nearer we shall be to health and happiness.
One of the chief impediments in the way of hearty amusement is over-seriousness. There should be two words for “serious,” as there are literally two meanings. There is a certain intense form of taking the care and responsibility of one’s own individual interests, or the interests of others which are selfishly made one’s own, which leads to a surface-seriousness that is not only a chronic irritation of the nervous system, but a constant distress to those who come under this serious care. This is taking life _au grand serieux_. The superficiality of this attitude is striking, and would be surprising could the sufferer from such seriousness once see himself (or more often it is herself) in a clear light. It is quite common to call such a person over-serious, when in reality he is not serious enough. He or she is laboring under a sham seriousness, as an actor might who had such a part to play and merged himself in the character. These people are simply exaggerating their own importance to life, instead of recognizing life’s importance to them. An example of this is the heroine of Mrs. Ward’s “Robert Elsmere,” who refused to marry because the family could not get on without her; and when finally she consented, the family lived more happily and comfortably than when she considered herself their leader. If this woman’s seriousness, which blinded her judgment, had been real instead of sham, the state of the case would have been quite clear to her; but then, indeed, there would have been no case at all.
When seriousness is real, it is never intrusive and can never be overdone. It is simply a quiet, steady obedience to recognized laws followed as a matter of course, which must lead to a clearer appreciation of such laws, and of our own freedom in obeying them. Whereas with a sham seriousness we dwell upon the importance of our own relation to the law, and our own responsibility in forcing others to obey. With the real, it is the law first, and then my obedience. With the sham, it is myself first, and then the laws; and often a strained obedience to laws of my own making.
This sham seriousness, which is peculiarly a New England trait, but may also be found in many other parts of the world, is often the perversion of a strong, fine nature. It places many stones in the way, most of them phantoms, which, once stepped over and then ignored, brings to light a nature nobly expansive, and a source of joy to all who come in contact with it. But so long as the “seriousness” lasts, it is quite incompatible with any form of real amusement.
For the very essence of amusement is the child-spirit. The child throws himself heartily and spontaneously into the game, or whatever it may be, and forgets that there is anything else in the world, for the time being. Children have nothing else to remember. We have the advantage of them there, in the pleasure of forgetting and in the renewed strength with which we can return to our work or care, in consequence. Any one who cannot play children’s games with children, and with the same enjoyment that children have, does not know the spirit of amusement. For this same spirit must be taken into all forms of amusement, especially those that are beyond the childish mind, to bring the delicious reaction which nature is ever ready to bestow. This is almost a self-evident truth; and yet so confirmed is man in his sham maturity that it is quite common to see one look with contempt, and a sense of superiority which is ludicrous, upon another who is enjoying a child’s game like a child. The trouble is that many of us are so contracted in and oppressed by our own self-consciousness that open spontaneity is out of the question and even inconceivable. The sooner we shake it off, the better. When the great philosopher said, “Except ye become as little children,” he must have meant it all the way through in spirit, if not in the letter. It certainly is the common-sense view, whichever way we look at it, and proves as practical as walking upon one’s feet.