October 31, 2015
La Rochefoucauld said that it is easier to give good advice than to take it, to which he might have added that it is also easier to agree with good advice than to act on it. Enacting wisdom is a little like speaking a foreign language that is pronounced perfectly in the head but comes out of the mouth with a strong accent.
If good advice were easy to take, the world would long ago have been perfect.
Last week I was writing a chapter of a book on medicine and poetry in which I quoted Doctor Johnson to the effect that it is better to be sometimes deceived than never to trust. I was writing about Mark Akenside, an eminent 18th-century doctor whose major published work on medicine was on dysentery, but who was also a famous poet in his day, now entirely forgotten. He appears to have been a somewhat sour and paranoid individual who thought, contrary to Doctor Johnson, that it was better to never to be deceived than ever to trust. This was not a recipe for a happy life.
Now, it so happened that on the very evening of the day during which I quoted Doctor Johnson I was called upon actually to take his advice. It was rainy, but not cold. There was a tentative knock on the front door and by the time I answered it, the young man who had knocked was in retreat.
He apologized for having disturbed me so late. He carried with him a large bag, and I knew at once from experience why he had come. He was (or would claim to have been) a former prisoner who was now going straight, who was trying to earn a living by selling things from door to door.
I knew also from experience what those things would be: feather dusters, chamois leather cloths for cleaning the windows of my car, etc., none of which I would want. The young man held out a certificate to prove that he was a “licensed hawker,” but it did not say who the licensing authority was and I did not ask.
I asked the young man to come in out of the rain. Say what you will, it cannot be much fun selling things from door to door in such weather to people you know perfectly well don”t really want to buy what you are trying to sell. If you are going to speak to them at all, it is better”I mean kinder and less aggravating to oneself”to do so with a good grace: and good grace is one of those things that one can teach oneself to exercise.
I learned the lesson at Lagos Airport many years ago. Although I had been to Nigeria before, I had arrived by land, not by air. I was still astonishingly naive. When I reached the customs hall, or what passed as such, the customs officer asked me, “Have you brought any presents?”
“No,” I replied, “I don”t know anyone in Nigeria.”
“For me,” said the officer, raising an eyebrow, and I felt terribly foolish, as innocent as a newborn babe.
I grasped at once that this was not the moment to seize the moral high ground, to expatiate on the terrible damage that corruption was doing to his country and to the African continent in general, and so forth. Apart from anything else, I knew nothing of the conditions of this particular man’s life: Perhaps he rarely or never received his wages. I laughed, took out my wallet, and gave him a banknote of small denomination, with which he was completely satisfied. We parted on the best of terms as he waved me through, and I even felt I had had value for money. I had made someone a little happier, as I should not have done if I had made a scene.
To return to the young man I had asked into my house: I saw at once that he was far more frightened of me than I was of him. He was of a nervy disposition in general, and had that starveling appearance that I knew so well from my work as a doctor in a prison, of someone who had not been fed properly from birth and had never really learned since how to eat decent food. I would have been prepared to stake my house that he had taken heroin at some time in his life.
“I”ve been out of trouble for fourteen months,” he said, obviously an eternity for someone who was only about 23, 24. “I”m trying to go straight and sell a few things so I don”t have to be on benefits.”
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