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The Hill Difficulty

When, in the "Pilgrim's Progress," two of the travelers come to the foot of the Hill Difficulty, they stop there and begin to seek excuses for not going any farther. How much ingenuity is sometimes expended in devising alternatives and shifts to avoid a difficulty! How true the common saying that lazy people take the most pains! Instead of surmounting the difficulty that lies before them, they try to evade it by going round it, and thus, instead of saving themselves trouble, as they hope to do, they make matters worse by substituting another difficulty which generally proves to be greater than the one before them. And so we read that there were at the foot of the hill, besides the strait path over its crest (which the pilgrims studiously avoided) two other paths turning off right and left, one leading to Danger, the other to Destruction; and, of course, these paths led them astray and involved them in disastrous complications. But virtue is its own reward, and to a healthy mind few satisfactions in life are greater than that of overcoming a difficulty. Indeed, to some minds, so great is this sense of satisfaction, that unless the difficulty is really considerable they cannot, or rather will not, exert themselves to the utmost of their power. But true magnanimity is to do one's very best, be the task great or small. Duty is Duty. It is a sacred thing prescribed to us by a higher Power than ourselves, and we have no right to assume that, because the duty of the hour happens to be a small one, therefore we may do it listlessly and in a perfunctory way. Nor, on the other hand, if we find our duty to be a specially difficult or disagreeable one, are we justified in substituting for it one that is easier or pleasanter. In a word, we must not shirk our duty.

Neither, if we are wise, shall we complain whatever difficulties may arise out of our daily life, but submit to all with brave cheerfulness. When a man is beset with difficulties, too often the complaint is, "All these things are against me"; and commonly the blame is laid at heaven's door. In the realm of matter and motion, matter is the resisting element, without which there would be nothing for force and motion to act upon or against. The natural man is aware of this, and he also sees within him and around him conflict of elements, one power opposing another; he can hardly conceive of motion without friction, of life without strife, of law without loss of liberty. He sees that every virtue has its corresponding, opposing, or correlative vice; that patience is opposed by impatience, perseverance by indolence, humility by pride, good by evil, truth by falsehood, and so on. Looking at this general arrangement of opposing and complementary elements, man is apt to think, when things appear to go wrong with him, that it is the normal state of affairs, and he finds it more agreeable to his vanity to conclude that the universe is acting against him than that he is acting against the universe. The drunken man, falling helpless to the ground, imagines that the ground has risen in anger and struck his face. Thus, by clouding his reason, man stultifies himself and sees everything in a false light. In a spirit of retaliation he "turns the tables" against God and his fellow-man. To him adversity appears as an aggressive power, which is continually interfering and coming into rude collision with him, and so, following appearances rather than reason, he goes on blindly sinning against the Divine Order by opposing it. He does not see that the stream of Providence is the law of his own being, and that the tendency of that stream is invariably in the direction of goodness; that goodness and right means going with the stream of Providence, or obedience to the laws of his being; and evil and wrong means going against the stream of Providence, or violation of the laws of his being. And this is the common error of mankind, namely, the failure to see that the stream of Providence always tends in one direction, that is to say, towards God and Righteousness; that it does not veer about like the wind, or ebb and flow like the tides. Although, indeed, even the wind is in one very important sense practically constant; and this in spite of our saying "the wind is against" us, when the fact is that the wind is always our obedient servant, for in our navigation we deliberately set our faces and our sails against him in order that we may be driven in a direction other than his own and entirely to our own advantage. To all appearance the wind bloweth where it listeth, but it has its appointed laws unalterably fixed, and often when apparently most against us it is really most for us. Man's purpose alters from day to day; God's purpose alters never; and we all admit that it is an ill wind that blows no one any good—meaning that, though not bringing appreciable good to one man, it may, notwithstanding, bring good to another, and if so, why not to everybody? Certain it is that of man's difficulties a large proportion are directly caused by his opposition, whether willfully or in ignorance, to the Divine Providence.

A singular phrase is that of "taking pains." Also we speak of "taking trouble," and "taking care." The unpleasant things of life are its pain, its trouble, its care. A man invariably derives pleasure from work well done, but the fact of its being well done means that its accomplishment was attended with a certain amount of self-sacrifice, pain, trouble, and care. Genius has been defined as an infinite capacity for taking pains; and if we regard this definition in its deepest spiritual significance, we shall wisely conclude that taking pains, that is to say, the suffering of pain, viewed in the aggregate and in all its manifold forms, is one of the essential conditions of Being, and therefore presumably of Well-Being and, in the highest sense of all, the price of the Redemption of the World. All good work is hard work, but the thought of its intrinsic goodness and the prospective joy resulting from a sense of its excellent accomplishment eases the burden of the day, and afterwards, in the evening of our life when the day's work is over, we joyfully admit that it was, in spite of all its imperfections, worth all the labor-pains involved in its production.

Nor let the least of us ever despair of success in spite of the smallness of our gifts. It is a mistake to suppose that success—even brilliant success—is attainable only by the great ones of the earth, and that the humbler workers cannot produce work of high quality. For example, in literature, witness the vast quantity of first—class work produced by writers whose very names have never transpired; and, if in the realm of art, much more in that higher realm the world of heroic deeds, have the greatest difficulties been nobly overcome by humble-minded workers whom the world has never heard of, but who have patiently accomplished their appointed tasks, each in his own quiet way, each in his own little corner of the universe. Again, every one of us, from the greatest down to the least, is entrusted with gifts differing in quality, but all emanating from the same Divine source; and, therefore, all labor done for the common good of humanity, and to the best of one's ability, is a component part of the work of the universe, and consequently sacred in the sight of heaven. How prettily this idea is expressed in Emerson's little poem, in which the tiny squirrel tells the great mountain that it is all very well for him to boast of his strength and size, but although he can carry forests on his back he cannot crack a nut as he (the squirrel) can! The Higher Life is made up mostly of small accomplishments, of gentle and graceful acts, in which the least powerful and least skilful of us has as much chance of excelling as the greatest genius, because what is expected of each individual worker is precisely that which not only he can do better than anyone else, and is therefore within the scope of his individual capacity, but perhaps such as only he alone can do in such a manner as in the great plan of the universe it was intended to be done. Such a task, therefore, can never be grievous, that is to say, it can never exceed the capacity of the worker or justify the charge that God is a harsh Taskmaster, exacting an undue measure of service. Our little troubles, irritations, worries, and vexations of everyday life must be overcome as well as the big troubles that occur occasionally; and if we cannot meet with fortitude these smaller troubles which occur every day, how can we expect to surmount the less frequent but more formidable trials that sooner or later must fall to our lot? Therefore, when we meet with a difficulty, let us face it calmly, take its measure, and say, "I am determined to surmount it, come what may." Then, if it be one of the bigger ones, let us parcel out the work into small separate lots, and, beginning with the easiest, proceed to the more difficult parts in order of difficulty; and, in this way, as the hardship increases, so will our power to overcome it also increase. Thus shall we rise joyfully, step by step, from base to summit of our Hill Difficulty.

Of the elements required in the overcoming of life's difficulties—to say nothing of patience and perseverance, which of course are essentially indispensable—one of the most important is enthusiasm. Let us for a moment glance at enthusiasm as it is manifested on the three planes of man's life, that is, (1) the material, (2) the intellectual, and (3) the Spiritual—for the principle of its operation holds good in all three cases.

  1. On the world's great race-course, what is there that men will not do and suffer in their frantic struggle for riches and worldly prosperity? To obtain these they will go literally through fire and water. "If there be mountains which they cannot over-top, they will dig through them; and they will suffer days of weariness and nights of pain; they will make long pilgrimages, will expatriate themselves for years, and suffer banishment from their families, friends, and firesides, into strange lands; will cross oceans, and encounter perils of every name and shape." And, after all, what is this material prosperity on which they have set their hearts? "A dream, a straw, a bauble, a flake of foam on the surface of a river. They pluck it, it is gone, and they are gone with it. While they snatch at it they pass into eternity, and death finishes their plans for ever."

  2. Let us glance next at the lives of the greatest men of science, art, philosophy—men whom the world calls geniuses—and you will find that their greatness was mainly due to their enthusiasm, and that this showed itself chiefly in the concentration of their whole being upon one definite object to which day and night without intermission they devoted themselves. That object and aim was the attainment of perfection in one particular line, and to this ruling passion of their lives all else was sacrificed—life, health, ease, sensuous pleasure, food—everything. In order to attain that one object they scorned danger, difficulty, even death itself. As Emerson truly says, nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm; and this applies to every department of human activity high and low. All success requires it and gets it; and if a man fails in his business it is generally for want of enthusiasm. As we say, his heart is not in his work.

  3. But of all the enthusiasms the most absorbing and the most intense is the soul's aspiration towards Righteousness— the highest of all human aims, compared with which all other enthusiasms are but mere phantoms. The one object and business of the Higher Life is the attainment of holiness—-i.e. wholeness or perfection—and this enthusiasm, when pure and genuine, is pursued without flagging or intermission day and night. It becomes the spiritual food and drink of the soul. Without it there is no blessedness, no spiritual life. Under its heavenly influence, self-denial, pain, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity, become transfigured into the bright forms of ministering angels who, standing on the topmost ridge of the Hill Difficulty, point us to God as a very present help in the time of our sorest need; for the Higher Life is a Life of Love, and joy, and Peace.

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W. H. Gill

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