The dreariness, tedium, and troubles of life often drive people to some means of escape to provide alleviation from the burden and boredom of monotonous existence.
While everyone needs holidays, vacations, and changes of routine to provide a healthy balance of work and play, regularity and change, no one should escape from life, that is, run away, ignore responsibilities, turn to addictions, or live in imaginary worlds.
Escapes are drastic, extreme attempts to overcome stress by unnatural or harmful means when natural cures abound to relieve tension.
In a therapeutic society many turn to drugs, tranquilizers, alcohol, or smoking as a release from intolerable repetition and a humdrum life and to combat the exhaustion and strain of excessive work.
This state of mind and body has many names, known to the French as ennui (boredom), to the Germans as Weltschmerz (world weariness), to the Romans as taedium vitae (tediousness of life), and to the monasteries of the Middle Ages as “the noon-day demon.”
One becomes tired of life, jaded, and blasé. Life is all work and no play; all of life is déjà vu and without newness, interest, or surprise.
When the excitement of beginning a journey or task has faded and the destination or end appears remote or endless, the noon-day demon oppresses the human spirit with sluggishness and deprives a person of joy, zeal, and purpose.
Melancholy settles into a perpetual state of mind or dominant mood.
To Get Away from Earth for a While
Robert Frost describes this state of mind in his poem “Birches,” as a man in middle age groans under the dreariness of life and suffers the weight of many anxieties:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
Yet he qualifies his meaning. “To get away from earth awhile” does not mean hiding, dying, or escaping. It means going away to come back, resting briefly and then resuming the task, clearing the mind and then renewing the effort.
He does not want to be misunderstood to imply abandonment, surrender, or defeat: “May no fate willfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love.” Man needs leisure, recreation, and change to continue the work of love—not an escape from duty or responsibility.
He recalls a happy childhood memory of swinging on birch trees in the winter when frozen with ice, the fun of climbing them cautiously “With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim” and then sliding on the bent branches “with a swish, / Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.”
The rhythm of life follows the boy’s art of climbing and sliding birch trees as he is excited to climb up and thrilled to slide down, only to repeat the cycle again and again in the business of working and playing.
One must transcend the workaday world and enter the enchanted realm of fun. Life’s weary considerations lighten when a person turns from labor to leisure; he is rejuvenated with a new spirit and a fresh mind when he returns from rest to work.
This contrast is vital, healing, and rejuvenating: “That would be good going and coming back. / One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
An End in Itself
Izaak Walton’s classic The Compleat Angler (1653) also teaches the art of wise living. Walton describes fishing as an innocent sport—a recreation inherently delightful enjoyed purely for its own sake like swinging on birch trees.
It is as an end in it self without any utilitarian or economic motives, yet, like being a swinger of birches, it always brings rewards and benefits.
Because fishing “will prove to be so pleasant, that it will prove to be like Vertue, a reward to itself,” this pastime produces abundant fruits that naturally follow from the sheer fun of the sport. In addition to the peacefulness and contentment angling instills, fishing cultivates the virtues of patience and hope.
Because angling proceeds at a leisurely pace that does not produce instant gratification or immediate results, the fisherman “must bring a large measure of patience and hope to the Art itself.”
Fishing teaches temperance and humility: “the temperate, poor Angler” enjoys eating more than “a drunken Lord” and “rich men and gluttons.”
The sport also invites friendship and civility. The joy of fishing consists of not only the game of catching the fish but also the pleasure of sharing the love of fishing with friends and relishing the conviviality of the companionship in the cooking and eating of the catch: “[G]ood company and good discourse are the very sinews of vertue.”
The angler learns the art of living from the art of fishing when he discovers this simple truth: “Can any man charge God, that he hath not given him enough to make his life happy? No doubtless; for nature is content with little: and yet, you shall hardly meet with a man, that complains not of some want, though he indeed wants nothing but his will.”
Walton explains that if a person has a clear conscience, good health, and a modest living (a “Competence”), he owns the little that he needs for true contentment. Angling cures a man of intemperate desires, uncontrollable appetites, and restless craving—the “turbulent, repining, vexatious thoughts that he deserves better.”
Rich in the simple joys of recreation, friendship, and innocent mirth, and blessed with the wisdom that “nature is content with a little,” the fisherman escapes the temptations of “the poor-rich-men” who have no leisure but “spend all their time, first in getting, and next, in anxious care to keep it; men that are condemned to be rich, and then always busie or discontented.”
As one “simply-wise” the angler does not seek his happiness in the pursuits that a poem on fishing calls “the gilded follies,” “pleasing troubles,” and “glorious bubbles” of fame, honor, gold, beauty, and power.
The fisherman’s art of living adjusts the demands of business to accommodate the quintessentially human pleasures that renew the soul and refresh the heart. Without the pure delight of fishing that balances work and play, dispelling melancholy and world weariness, a person acquires a jaded, blasé sensibility that loses its capacity for childlike wonder and a love of life.
The art of living provides many occasions of relaxation and many sources of refreshment from the cares and toil that dull a person’s gratitude, appreciation of beauty, awareness of God’s Providence, and sense of humor.
As Frost and Walton show, man does not needs escapes from work, duty, and responsibility. These obligations become burdensome and enervating when the pace of life rushes and accelerates instead of having a balance or rhythm.
Persons suffer ennui or Weltschmerz when they do not seek the natural outlets and releases that renew the spirit. The noon-day demon does not need to oppress a person into the deadliness of inertia because the medicine exists side by side with the ailment.
The child needs to remain alive in man’s spirit so that the love of life and the sense of fun do not die or age. One must never forget the joy of being a swinger of birches or the pleasure of the sport of angling.
They whet the appetite for the taste of goodness that man returns to again and again in order to know “the sweetness of the Lord” that offers cheer for the heart through all the ages of man.