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I am at the Circus with my children. They are laughing and clapping their hands in glee. They are delighted with the grotesque antics of the stupid clown. In vain, I try to kindle my own enthusiasm at theirs as a means of banishing the unpleasant feeling of being bored. The peculiar odour of a menagerie pervades the great building and brings back to me, by way of the obscure paths that connect our thoughts, memories of days long since dead. I am myself a child again, my cheeks hot and flushed, sitting in the topmost gallery at the Circus, as excited as if I were beholding the greatest of all earthly wonders.
It is just when one of the star attractions is being given. A skilled athlete is vaulting over very great obstacles. He leaps over ten men in a row, five horses, a little garden. His faultless dress-suit shows scarcely a wrinkle after this feat. This too must be counted among the advances made by modern art. In my boyhood days, athletes still wore a gay uniform and “worked” in costume. Today every juggler and prestidigitator is a pattern of a drawing-room gentleman. Some may be making a virtue of necessity and gladly escape the exhibiting of their none too handsome bodies.
These reflections are suddenly interrupted by a blare of noisy music. Everybody is excited, for this seems to indicate that the athlete’s most wonderful trick is coming. True; something out of the ordinary is happening. Through a wide gate an old-fashioned comfortable, drawn by a weary nag, is brought into the arena and our valiant athlete leaps over horse and rider amidst the thunderous applause of the enthusiastic youngsters and of those of their elders who have remained children in spirit.
The easy-going driver turns his vehicle towards the exit. Again the portals open wide. Bands of bright daylight pour into the half-darkened amphitheatre. In the glare, one catches sight, for a moment, of a little section of the life that swarms round about the fringe of the Circus. There is the soda-water vendor with his gay-coloured cart, a labourer, a few servant girls, and some twenty little children staring with big eyes eagerly into the darkness of the arena in the hope of catching a glimpse of all this magnificence.
I shall never forget the sight. Those children’s eyes, opened so tremendously wide, longing to catch a bit of happiness! How they envy the fortunate ones sitting in here and beholding real fairy-tale wonders!
I lapse into a daydream again. I too am one of those little ones standing out there; I count the richly-caparisoned horses that are being led in; for the twentieth time, I read the large placard announcing an “élite performance”; I am so happy as the beautiful equestrienne passes right by me; the muffled sounds of the music penetrate to my ears; I hear the animated applause and the bravos. One thought possesses me: I must get in! Cost what it may, I must go in!
Oh, I could have committed a theft to enable myself to get in there and share in the applause! And I thought to myself, if I am ever a rich man, I shall go to the Circus every day. How excitedly I go home then, talking about all the wonderful things I have seen, and how in my dreams all my wishes are realized—all these things take on a tangible shape before my mind’s eye.
I note that it was the most beautiful period of my life, the time when I used to stand outside. In those days, I still had a sense of the wonderful. There was a touch of secret magic about everything. Even dead things had a message for me. Before me was an endless wealth of possibilities, and there stretched before me kingdoms of the future over which my childish wishes flew like migratory birds.
Verily—happiness is only anticipating possibilities, denying impossibilities. Life is filled up with dreams of the future. What we know seems trivial when measured by the knowledge we would like to acquire. Possession kills desire; realization slays fantasy and transforms the wonderful into the commonplace.
All the beauty of this world lies only in the fantasies which reality can never approximate. The marvels of the present are seen only by those who stand outside.
Every time that one of the portals that had been locked from our youthful eyes opened, every time longing became fulfillment, we became one pleasure poorer and one disappointment richer. Only with the aid of the stilts supplied us by philosophy can we rise above the depressing disillusionment of experience. Or, in playing our part in the great drama of life, we cling to the one role we have studied and keep on repeating it to ourselves until we, too, almost believe it. Then we succeed again in seizing a fringe of the magnificent purple mantle with which we aspired to adorn our life.
Those outside see everything on a much larger scale, finer, and grander. That is why we envy others their possessions, their realities, their calling. Because we project the inevitable disappointments of life upon the thing that is readiest at hand—and that is unquestionably our vocation. Our wishes circle around others’ possibilities.
Involuntarily an experience from my youth occurs to me. I had for the first time in my life made the acquaintance of a poet. He was a well-known lyrist of that day and his delightful verses had charmed me for years. He did not in any way come up to the idea that I had conceived of what a poet ought to be. The edges of his eyelids were red, his face was commonplace, and he had a large paunch. The manner in which he drank his coffee disgusted me. A little coffee dripped down on his dirty grey beard and with the movements of his big upper jaw some cake crumbs danced up and down on his moustache.
And that was the poet who wrote those passionate little lyrics! Overcoming my disappointment, I entered into conversation with him and let him perceive something of my admiration. He was to be envied for possessing the gift of transforming his moods and experiences into works of art!
To my astonishment, the poet began to describe with palpable resentment, the shortcomings of his calling. If he had only become an honest craftsman ere he had devoted himself to writing! He was sick of the hard struggle. To be ever at loggerheads with the public, the critics, the publishers, and editors—those were the compensations of his calling. He envied me for being a physician. That’s a great, a noble, an ideal calling. A physician can do something for humanity! If he were not too old he would at once take up the study of medicine. To mitigate the pains of an invalid is worth more than writing a hundred good lyrics!
In those days, I was not a little proud of the profession I had chosen. The poet was only saying openly what I thought in secret. “The physician is mankind’s minister.” How often, later on, have I heard these and similar words which were calculated to add fuel to the flame of idealism.
Ye gods! In real life, how sad is the physician’s lot! Those outside cannot conceive it. The first thing to realize is the rarity of the instances in which the physician really snatches the victim from the clutches of death; how rarely he eliminates suffering; how frequently, discouraged and bewildered, he fails to halt the ravages of disease. How his idealism makes him suffer! He is painfully aware that the craftsman comes nearer to his ideals than the artist. He becomes familiar with man’s limitless ingratitude and realizes that unless he is to go into bankruptcy he must adopt the “practical” methods of the businessman. He is the slave of his patients, has no holidays, and not a free minute in which he is not reminded of his dependence. He sees former colleagues and friends who have accumulated fortunes in business or in the practice of the law, whereas he has to worry about his future and, with but few exceptions, live from hand to mouth. But he must continue to play the role of the “idealistic benefactor” unless he is to lose the esteem of those who—stand outside.
Not long ago, I read a fascinating description of a “sanatorium.” How within its walls fear blanches the cheeks of the inmates, how death lurks behind the doors, how even the physicians avoid speaking above a whisper and glide with solemn and noiseless steps through the house of pain! Very pretty and sentimental; but utterly false,—as false as the observations of a littérateur who stands outside can make it. From within, the thing looks quite different! While the surgeon is scrubbing and sterilising his hands someone is telling the latest joke, the assistants converse lightly and merrily, not at all as if a matter of life and death were going to be decided in a few minutes. And it is well for the patient that it is so. The surgeon and the assistants need their poise; they must not be moved by timidity, fear, or sympathy—emotions that cloud the judgment. Where one needs all one’s senses, there the heart must be silent. The public feels this instinctively. I have found that those physicians who practiced their profession in a plain matter-of-fact way, as a business, were the most popular and the busiest. And, on the other hand, I know learned physicians who are all soul, whom everybody praises, esteems, heeds, but whom no one calls. The more highly the physician values his services, from a material point of view, the more highly he is regarded as an idealist and vice versa.
That is how the idealism of the medical profession looks in real life. For many physicians, their ideals are superfluous ballast. It often takes years before they find the golden mean between theory and practice, between ethics and hard facts.
And how is it with other vocations? In every case in which it is possible to look behind the curtains, it will appear that the envious natures of those who stand outside magnify the advantages and overlook the unpleasant aspects.
All life is a continual game between hope and fulfillment, between expectation and disappointment. And therein lies our good fortune—that we can still be deceived. Were we in possession of all truth and all knowledge, life would lose its value and its charm. Only because, in a certain sense, we all stand outside, because the fullness of life and “the thing itself” will continue to be a riddle, are we capable of continuing on our journey and approaching erectly the valley of death in which the shades dwell.
“Father, the show is over!” A child’s sweet voice wakes me from my reverie. Outside I again look at the children still standing there and staring with large, hungry eyes into the Circus…