I found yet another great quote in Sir Gibbie. This one’s a miniature treatise on addiction and abstinence. Some of my most beloved friends deal with addictions, and if they have taught me anything, it’s that addiction is basically an allegory for the whole human struggle of improvement.
Breaking habits is difficult. It’s like trying to derail a speeding train going downhill. And changing a nasty habit, or even a merely bad one, can be like committing to stopping that speeding train with your bare hands—overwhelming, scary, and maybe even downright impossible. It really depends on the size of the train, doesn’t it?
For context, this quote is about a woman who keeps swearing she’ll give up alcohol. But something stressful just happened, and she can’t quit now when it’s hard… but then she can’t even really enjoy her drink because she just gave up on herself.
Even the whisky itself gave her little relief; it seemed to scald both stomach and conscience, and she vowed never to take it again. But alas! this time is never the time for self-denial; it is always the next time. Abstinence is so much more pleasant to contemplate upon the other side of indulgence! Yet the struggles after betterment that many a drunkard has made in vain, would, had his aim been high enough, have saved his soul from death, and turned the charnel of his life into a temple. Abject as he is, foiled and despised, such a one may not yet be half so contemptible as many a so-counted respectable member of society, who looks down on him from a height too lofty even for scorn. (pg. 18)
Ouch! “This time is never the time for self-denial.” It never really is. Always next time. “Abstinence is so much more pleasant to contemplate upon the other side of indulgence!” Ugh, this one gets me. It’s easy to say you’ll never do something again after you’ve just done it; but to say that before you’ve given in and done it yet again—now that takes strength.
I really like that Macdonald here notes the ennobling power of striving to be better, even if the outward signs of that struggle are not always evident. “[… T]he struggles after betterment […] turned the charnel of his life into a temple.” Ooh. That’s lovely. I admit I had to look up charnel: it’s a vault for storing human remains. The imagery of transforming oneself from that into a house of worship is absolutely stunning.
“Abject [hopeless] as he is, foiled and despised, such a one may not yet be half so contemptible as many a so-counted respectable member of society, who looks down on him from a height too lofty even for scorn.” Ooh, so good. It strikes me that the hopeless drunkard here striving upwards is more virtuous that someone who never bothers to strive, and in fact, looks down upon others.
This is a great reminder to strive upward, and to reach upward for assistance.