The Great Virtue of Dissatisfaction – Christmas 1915

If we realise that healthy life, whether of the individual, or of the nation or of the race, means growth and progress through endless change and movement, then we can see that where there is no growth and no progress, there must be stagnation, and then deterioration ending in death. I want to-day to press these great facts home in a practical way, and by very simple every-day examples, I want us to dwell together on the fact that satisfaction in any attainment, in the sense that we desire to advance no more, is a betrayal of that instinct for progress which has been given to us with life itself. I want to shew that dissatisfaction with any attainment, and its consequent reaching out after correction and progress, is a quality of first-class importance if we arc ever to justify our existence and inheritance as human beings possessing the means and the faculties for making, progress. It is, of course, known to all of us in a general way that we either make progress, or go back in everything that we do, or at least if there are some here who have not realised that to stand still is impossible, they must, I think, be very few. But I feel sure, we do not get the inspiration we might from this law of progress which is of universal application wherever there is life. I say inspiration, for I am going to take for granted that we shall be glad to dwell upon the fact that we can go endlessly forward, and that we need not go back. Let me for a few moments dwell upon the picture of someone who is easily satisfied with himself and his performances.

What are the adjectives whereby we describe such an one? Here are some of them-self-satisfied, complacent, smug; showy, flimsy, he skates over the surface, he is perfectly content with himself, he is conceited, and has no reason for it-nobody ever has any reason behind shallow conceit. We imagine the completely self-satisfied person lazy, and perhaps smiling, and are we never reminded when we see such an one of Humpty Dumpty, who was quite content to sit on his little wall ? He must have had sturdy legs and arms to climb up upon it, but then the fatal thing was lie sat there till his arms and legs dwindled away, ,md he had not the smallest chance of ever climbing a mountain peak; in fact he is a melancholy example of the impossibility of remaining stationary ! Let us now consider the grounds for dissatisfaction which, on examination, are seen to be most encouraging and to give grounds for endless hope, for if we are to be healthily dissatisfied we must furnish to ourselves reasons for being hopeful of making progress. There are two sets of facts, one belonging to ourselves, and the other outside ourselves, which should furnish endless encouragement to efforts after improvement in anything that we do. The things belonging to ourselves we may call our tools, the things outside ourselves we may call our patterns. We have been endowed with wonderfully constructed tools, capable, when the use of them is mastered, of producing wonderful results. These tools are our senses, of which the chief are sight, hearing and touch, and also our limbs and joints, such as fingers and hands, and our brain which thinks and directs and controls. Now we have all got these tools, and we have all got the opportunity for sharpening them, and learning to handle them in the right way, and this, in itself, may become an occupation of very great interest, even considered apart from the work they will be capable of doing when we have mastered the handling of them.

Besides having the tools, we must have also that incentive for making progress, which is supplied by seeing beautiful examples or patterns which we may strive humbly, honestly, and perseveringly to imitate. We can all have access to the greatest patterns, for they are everywhere present in Nature herself. Colour, design, form and every aspect of beauty can be studied first-hand by everyone who lives in the country. But besides the great works of Nature there are models and patterns and examples furnished by artists and craftsmen which should be studied by all followers of any art or craft, however great the distance between the beginner and the author of the model. Let us now consider the case I of someone who is learning needlework. This is an irksome task to many-at first, but if they would consider that they have got just the necessary tools in their eyes and their fingers for doing it really well, and ‘if ‘they would be ambitious and determined to reach the high standard exhibited by some beautiful pieces of needlework that they have seen, I think the discouragement they feel would give place to that healthy dissatisfaction which determines to make clumsy fingers clever, and to practise so hard that beautiful stitching in cotton or silk becomes easy, and at last so easy that they voluntarily set for themselves more and more lovely patterns for imitation.

In a cupboard in the Studio, Miss Prosser keeps a choice selection of lovely embroideries with the great purpose in view of stirring up in the minds of all who do needlework a dissatisfaction with poor designs and ugly colours. In the same way I hope the day will soon come when in the needlework room, the toy-making room and the carpenters’ shop there will be a little museum of beautiful models which will have the double effect of leading others to dissatisfaction with poor attainment and eager hope of gaining the mastery over their tools, so that they themselves may one day add to the treasures of such a museum. In music and drawing, needlework, toy-making, carpentry, it is perhaps easier to get inspiration from the contemplation of good models with the accompanying healthy dissatisfaction with any work that falls short of them, than it is in such subjects as the study of languages, mathematics, history or geography, but the dissatisfaction with poor and imperfect work which is accompanied by ambition to get the mastery meets with a rich reward whenever the effort towards it is persisted in.

The two main obstacles to this great virtue of dissatisfaction are to be found in the existence of two very bad faults, one is vanity which is easily self-satisfied, though I do not think that this is so often present as perhaps appears, though no doubt, there are cases of a Maria who made a purse for her aunt at Leeds! (Read it.) I think, however, that the other fault is at the root of much that looks like vanity, and self-satisfaction, and this fault is laziness. There is a lazy dog in most of us that enjoys his dinner and a nap on the hearth-rug, and when persevering work is required of us, and the rejection time after time of imperfect work because we are determined to do better, we are often inclined to say, ” That will do, that is not so bad, I cannot be bothered to unpick it just for the sake of making the two ends absolutely meet.” It is not, I say, real vanity that is at the bottom of most of our failures to reach a high standard in anything we do, we do not really admire our bad work, but we are too lazy to strive for the mastery. It is this fatal laziness that is the sin that is at the opposite pole of that great virtue of dissatisfaction with anything less than the best we can do. If we could see this fault in all its ugliness and all its folly, and if we could gauge the waste and ruin in the world for which it is responsible, we should, I think, be more utterly afraid of giving way to it, and more eager to escape its fetters. It brings with it nothing but disappointment and dullness, and a shutting off of one avenue after another of keen delight, whereas the great virtue of dissatisfaction, though it sound a paradox, fills life with more and more satisfaction as the years go on.

If we try to press on and on, leaving imperfect things behind and reaching towards the highest goal, we shall indeed never be satisfied till what we call the end of life comes, and we must with the Psalmist wait for the day when each one of us may hope to say, “When I awake up after Thy likeness I shall be satisfied with it.”