A close friend of my brother's died several days ago. He and his mother were very close. Tomorrow, as I'm reminded of the wonderful mother my daughter has, I'm also reminded of this one who was stripped of her own. On days like this, I think it's important to both cherish those we still have, and be sensitive to the fact that others may not. This short essay, from one of my very favorite authors, reminds me of this juxtaposing reality.
THE JACKASS AND THE KANGAROO
by F.W. Boreham (1919)
A MINISTERIAL friend of mine was recently traveling in the far east of Australia. On his return he penned a most picturesque account of the wilds and wonders of the Queensland bush. And, in the process of his cinematographic description of a glorious motor-ride, he includes this realistic and characteristic touch: 'In the heart of the bush,' he says, 'we came upon a tragedy that must often be enacted amongst the animal dwellers of the great solitude a kangaroo, a mother, unable to resist the pangs and pains thrust upon her by her destiny, lay dead upon the roadside, and above, on a branch of a tree, stood a pair of laughing-jackasses, guffawing their loudest, as if life knew no tragedy and no pain.'
Here, then, is a painting, skillfully finished, before which we may profitably pause. And the charm of it as of all great pictures is that it is so true to life. The laughing jackass and the dead kangaroo ! I always keep up one of my sleeves a microscopic a very microscopic naturalist, and an equally microscopic philosopher up the other. I unrolled my friend's picture to my naturalist. 'Ah, yes,' he said, 'there you have the jackass all over; that's the way of the bird!' I turned to my other sleeve, and showed the picture to the philosopher. 'Ah, yes,' he said, 'there you have life in miniature; that's the way of the world!'
'The way of the bird' and 'the way of the world'. What do these gentlemen mean? Let us probe a little. Now, the jackass has a literature of his own. I suppose the most captivating and convincing description of our bush comedian that has ever been penned is the classical sketch by Frank Buckland. That most genial and most winsome of all British naturalists simply revelled in his study of the jackass. And he was particularly amused by the very trait that arrested my friend on his tour. He pillories him thus : 'The bird has a custom of laughing in a most exasperating fashion/ he says, 'when a misfortune happens to travellers. Thus, when a wagon loaded with goods breaks down in some desolate region on a long march, and the owner is at his wits' end to get it right again, a laughing jackass is sure to appear at the top of a neighbouring tree and laugh in the most aggravating manner at the miserable condition of the traveller, till the woods resound with his merry "Ha, ha, ha! He, he, he! Ho, ho, ho !" This is very interesting. We are grateful to Mr. Buckland and to my friend for drawing our attention to so curious a phenomenon. But this chapter is not to be understood as a fugitive excursion into natural history. I am attracted to the theme by quite other considerations. For it is surely as clear as noonday that the incident is true to life in the deepest sense. We are for ever and ever discovering, with a shock of surprise, that the laughing jackass is never far away from the dead kangaroo. At every turn of our pilgrimage we see comedy stand grinning cheek by jowl with tragedy. The world is made up of the most discordant and incongruous juxtapositions.
Among the treasures in the Sydney Art Gallery is Sir Luke Fildes' famous painting entitled 'The Widower.' On the right-hand side of the picture sits the poor toiler, with his sick child on his knee. One overwhelming bereavement has already overtaken him, and another stares him in the face. His brow is clouded with uttermost sorrow and perplexity. He looks at his child and seems to say, 'If only she were here!' And on the left-hand side of the picture are the younger children playing on the floor, laughing and crowing in their merriment. They are not old enough to understand; but their delight seems cruelly to mock his despair. Have we not here the story of the laughing jackass and the dead kangaroo over again? The thing occurs hourly. As the mourners return broken-hearted from the graveside they are tortured by the mad melody of wedding-bells from a neighbouring belfry. Edward FitzGerald somewhere says that there are no lines in our literature so pathetically expressive of the soul's deepest emotions as the familiar song of Robert Burns:
Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom so fresh and fair?
Ye little birds, how can ye sing, And I so weary, full of care?
Who is there that, passing through some deep valley of weeping, has not been stabbed to the quick by the laughter on the hills? I shall never forget the day on which I left the Homeland. I was about to set sail for lands in which I should be the veriest stranger. I passed, on my way to the ship, through the crowded London streets, every one of which was endeared to me by old associations and enriched by fond memories. "I was accompanied by those who were all the world to me, those who, like myself, were calling up all the reserve powers of the will to nerve them for the wrench of parting. And I remember how I was mocked by the sounds of the city streets. My soul was in tears; but who cared? People were chattering ; crowds were jostling; news-boys were shouting; all London was sunlit and gay. It seemed as though the old haunts were glad to see me go. The laughter tore and lacerated my spirit. The jackass seems a hideous incongruity in the presence of the dead kangaroo.
The parable has an obvious application to public affairs. There are enough dead kangaroos lying about the world, in all conscience! Our tragedies are tremendous. At the moment of writing Italy and Turkey are at war. France and Germany are scowling angrily at each other across their frontiers. China is convulsed in the throes of a huge revolution. Spain and Portugal are in a state of seething tumult and disorder. At our own doors the social conditions are full of disquiet and unrest. Strikes and lock-outs are the order of the day. We are not alarmists; we see in all this no cause for panic. The pessimist is completely out of court. But, on the other hand, we do submit that these things call for a certain public seriousness and gravity. The newspapers should cause every decent citizen furiously to think. Yet we see small evidence of serious thought; quite otherwise. The pursuit of pleasure and not always of the noblest pleasure was never so deliriously feverish. The woods seem to resound with the untimely giggle of the laughing jackass; and, with so many tragedies about us, the notes grate harshly on our ears. We venture a pertinent application. If things have become so serious that Australia needs to build battleships and compel all her sons to bear arms, then things have become far too serious for pugilistic orgies and similar carnivals of inanity. There is no doubt about it. The laughing jackass is quite out of place beside the dead kangaroo.
We pause reverently for a moment before daring to suggest a still deeper consideration in closing. Perhaps, perhaps this is why our Gospels present to us the sad and stricken face of a Man of Sorrows. The smitten soul, turning aside like a wounded deer from the herd, simply could not endure a gay or mirthful Saviour. I know a lady who dismissed her doctor because she could not bear the levities with which he thought to brighten her. Her nerves winced and squirmed beneath his jokes and chatter. It is a curious fact that there are more suicides in summer than in winter, and more in genial and sunny climes than in sterner temperatures. The reason is obvious. The brightness and gaiety of the world mock the bruised and battered spirit and drive it to despair. A tearless Saviour would have repelled the very souls that Jesus came to save; but One over whose crushed spirit all the waves of grief have surged must be the natural refuge of all penitent and contrite hearts so long as time shall last. It is this harmony of the emotions, this subtle and unfathomable wealth of infinite sympathy, that has led millions to sing with choked and trembling voices:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.
There is a world of tender significance in the incongruous tragedy which the motor-car passed by the side of the track.