Every since I was a boy, I have wished to write on Compensation; for it seemed to me when very young that on this subject the people knew more than the preacher taught.
I was lately confirmed in these desires by hearing a sermon on the doctrine of the Last Judgment. The preacher assumed that judgment is not executed in this world; that the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; and then urged from reason and from scripture a compensation to be made to both parties in the next life.
The fallacy of this teaching lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful: that justice is not done now. Daily life gives this the lie.
Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in male and female. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half and suggest another thing to make it whole; as, man, woman; in, out; rest, motion.
The same dualism underlies the condition of man. Every sweet has its sour; every evil it’s good. For everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you gain, you lose something.
Nature hates monopolies and exceptions. There is always some leveling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially, on the same ground with all others. The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace. To preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world, he is content to eat dust before the real masters behind the throne.
All things are moral. Justice is not postponed. The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded.
Men seek to be great; they would have wealth, power and fame. They think that to be great is to get only one side of nature-the sweet without the bitter. But we can no more halve things and the good by itself than we can get an inside with no outside, or a light without shadow. All things are double, one against another – tit for tat, an eye for an eye, measure for measure. Curses recoil on the head of him who imprecates them. If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own. You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.
Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in woods the track of every partridge and fox. You cannot wipe out the foot-track.
On the other hand, the law holds with equal sureness for all right actions. Love and you shall be love. As no man had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him, so no man had ever a defect that was not somewhere made useful to him. The stag in the fable admired his horns and blamed his feet. But when the hunter came, his feet saved him. Afterwards, caught in the thicket, his horns destroyed him.
Our strength grows out of our weakness. A man who sits on the cushion of advantages goes to sleep. When his is pushed, tormented, defeated, he puts on his wits, learns moderation and real skill.
It is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself as for a thing to be and not be at the same time. The man is all. Everything has two sides, a good and an evil. Every advantage has its tax. I learn to be content. I no longer wish more external good-neither possessions, nor honors, not powers, not person. The gain is apparent; the tax is certain.
In the nature of the soul is the compensation for the inequalities of condition. I am my brother and my brother is me. If I feel overshadowed and outdone by great neighbors, I can yet love; I can still receive; and he that loves makes his own, the grandeur he loves. Even the compensations of calamity are made apparent after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth or friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.
Condensed from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay, “Compensation”