[My retelling of Samuel Johnson’s story of the human screech-owl for the modern age:]
We like to distinguish people by the animals we suppose they resemble. A hero is called a lion, the shy and retiring person a mouse, the owner of a payday loan company gains the title of vulture, a clever politician is as cunning as a fox. There is another kind of character found in the world, a species of being in human form which may be called the screech-owls of humankind.
These human screech-owls believe that it is their great duty to complain. They disturb the happiness of others, they lessen little comforts, they shorten the short pleasures of human life, by recalling painful episodes of the past, and by making sad predictions about the future. They crush the rising hope, dampen the kindling flame of joy, and darken the golden hours of gaiety with the hateful gloom of grief and suspicion.
If a weakness of your spirits causes you to be more sensitive to the feelings and impressions of others, if, in other words, you are apt to suffer by fascination and to catch the contagion of misery, you will find it extremely unhappy to live within the sound of a screech-owl’s voice. That screeching will fill your ears in your hours of dejection, it terrify you with fears and apprehensions which you would never have thought of yourself, it will sadden a day which you might otherwise have passed in necessary business or in recreation. That voice will burden your heart with unnecessary discontent, and it will weaken for a time that love of life which you need for any serious undertaking.
Though I have many weaknesses, as we all do, I have never been charged with an excess of superstition. When I don’t walk under a ladder, it’s not because I fear bad luck but because I don’t want the worker standing above me to drop a hammer on my head. I don’t bother to cross to the other side of the street to avoid a black cat crossing my path. I have never discovered that when the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday, I have any greater or lesser amount of luck. I throw chain letters in the recycle bin without a qualm. Yet for all that I am not superstitious, I have to admit that I consider it an unhappy day when I happen to be greeted in the morning by Suspirius, the human screech-owl.
I have now known Suspirius for forty-nine years and four months, and I have never yet passed an hour with him in which he has not made some attack upon my quiet. We were first acquainted when we were in school together, and in those days he would speak at length about how miserable it was to be young and have no money. Whenever we spent time together, he told me about pleasures of which I had never heard, which I couldn’t have because I hadn’t enough money, and which I never would have thought of missing, if only he hadn’t told me of them.
One of his favorite topics when we were young, and still a favorite of his today, is how people of true merit are neglected by fortune. If he meets a college student, he always lets them know about college graduates of great ability, with excellent grades and superior references, who are still living with their parents because they have yet to find a job two or three or seven years after having received their degree. For the brilliant software engineer, he has story upon story of programmers and systems analysts who were predicted to have a great future ahead of them but who are now homeless on the streets of Silicon Valley, because no one would hire them. And when he meets with young Serenus, a young doctor working in a large integrated managed care consortium, he says, “Ah, Serenus, still working for Kaiser Permanente for a salary that barely pays your medical school debt? I told you seven years ago that you would never meet with much success, and I hope you will now pay attention when I tell you that your degree from Harvard, and your diligence, and your honesty will never enable you to live like the hedge fund manager with a four-year degree who has already paid off his student loans and amassed enough money to retire twice over, even though he’s younger than you.”
Suspirius has, in his time, intercepted fifteen authors on their way to respectable book contracts by demonstrating that no one can earn a living as a writer in the Internet age; persuaded thirty-nine prosperous small business owners to retire from trade for fear of bankruptcy caused by competition with Amazon and Walmart; broken off one hundred and thirteen weddings by predicting both unhappiness for the couple and the insanity of bringing children into such a world as this; and enabled cancer to kill nineteen people by convincing them of the dangers of chemotherapy.
Whenever my evil stars bring us together, Suspirius never fails to show me the folly of my ways, and informs me that we are much older than when we began our acquaintance, that the infirmities of decrepitude are coming fast upon me, that whatever I now get, I shall enjoy but a little time, that fame is to a man tottering on the edge of the grave of very little importance, and that the time is at hand when I ought to look for no other pleasures than a good dinner and an easy chair.
Thus he goes on in his unharmonious strain, displaying my present miseries, and foreboding worse to come. His every syllable is loaded with misfortune, and he always makes death seem close at hand. Yet what always raises my resentment and indignation is that his mournful meditations never seem to have much effect upon himself. While he talks and has long talked of calamities, I can never discover any evidence in his voice that he has felt, or now feels, any of the evils which he bewails or threatens. He utters lamentations on the sorry state of politics in the country today and he expresses apprehension that the country is headed for more and greater mischief, in much the same way that old salesmen used to tell the same tired stories over and over again, because it was easier to tell those old stories over and over than to think of something new.
Suspirius repeats his gloomy prognostications until they become habitual and even casual acquaintances know them by heart. He spreads the contagion of his complaints at social events, broadcasts them on social media, and spoils gatherings of friends as tainted meat spoils the good. And by mixing his fantastical miseries, forebodings, and complaints with political conversation, he diverts the rational faculties from being brought to bear on the world’s problems.
Yet, though I have so little kindness for this dark generation, I am very far from intending to debar the soft and tender mind from the privilege of complaining, when the sigh arises from the desire not of giving pain, but of gaining ease. One of the duties of friendship is to hear complaints with patience, even when complaints are vain. Though it must be allowed that the heroes of previous generations hid their grief in silence — “His outward smiles conceal’d his inward smart” — yet it cannot be denied that those who complain are acting human, they act like a social beings who look for help from their fellow-creatures.
Pity, to many who are unhappy, is a real source of comfort in hopeless distresses. Pity helps recommend them to themselves, by proving that, even though they are unhappy, they have not lost the regard of others. Heaven seems to indicate that we have a duty even to barren compassion, by inclining us to weep for evils which we cannot remedy.
Suspirius, by contrast, finds comfort not in the pity of others, but in making others feel miseries which he does not feel. I wish that human screech-owls might be considered the enemies of humankind and excluded from all other company; I wish that they could be confined somewhere together, where they might mingle their sighs at their own leisure, and thicken the gloom of one another. In that confined place, whoever is of the same temper could indulge their thoughts and improve their powers of denunciation, and the flock of screech-owls might hoot together without injury to the rest of the world.
This would leave the rest of us to give pity and comfort to those who are in need of it; to seek and receive help from our fellows; and to address the real problems of the world with our rational minds refreshed and free from attack by the screech-owls.
[Rewritten from The Rambler no. 59, 9 October 1750.]