It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dullness. We require higher tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.
To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end or for the end of life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no despair for the despairer.
Robert Louis Stevenson had reason to meditate upon death in 1887, when he was convalescing in the Adirondack mountains from a bout of the TB that would eventually kill him. He calls this a Christmas Sermon, and it was first published in December the following year. ‘We are not intended to succeed’: a sobering thought but a true one. Man proposes, God disposes. ‘Could do better’, says the school report, but we don’t need telling.
In Bethlehem Joseph must have felt a failure when a lowly cattle shed was all he could find for Mary to give birth, but God chose that place to start a new chapter in his story of salvation. Joseph’s failure to find a suitable room allowed God to succeed on his terms, which still look like a failure to us blind creatures.