It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming, or, indeed, for the two years past.
~ Daniel Defoe, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (London, 1719)
[Alexander Selkirk] diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against Melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place … After he had conquer’d his Melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his Name on the Trees, and the Time of his being Left and Continuance there … By this one may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an insufferable State of Life as most Men imagine, especially when People are fairly call’d or thrown into it, unavoidably, as this Man was.
Captain Woodes Rogers, A cruising voyage round the world (London, 1712)
The fictional castaway and the real one traveled halfway around the world and endured years of danger, privation, and isolation, only to discover a kind of contentment, even happiness.
Meanwhile, there are people I love who are unhappy in the midst of safety, material comfort, and almost daily contact with people who care deeply about them.
In ancient times, followers of the philosopher Epicurus sought a life free of any and all pain, and their symbol for that kind of life became their teacher’s own cloistered garden, where they gathered to dine, converse, and enjoy each other’s company. In contrast, Zeno’s followers, the Stoics, believed that if tranquillity is to be thought of as a lovely and peaceful garden, that garden lies within each of us, because while we obviously can’t control the external circumstances of our lives, we can and should choose how to react to them.
I like thinking about the trees on which the castaway sailor, during his more than four years on that otherwise uninhabited island in the South Pacific, had incised his name. I can see the calluses that were quick to fill the cuts. I can count the years during which the trees were still faithfully displaying ‘A. Selkirk,’ long after the man himself had been rescued, even after he had died in a later voyage along the coast of Africa. It amuses me that there were birds perched on the limbs who took no notice of those letters, and goats earmarked by Selkirk who sauntered past the trees without a glance in the direction of his name. Until one by one by one, inevitably, the trees themselves died, fell, rotted, and surrendered their molecules for the making of a new tree, or seawater, or a cloud.