The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.
– Samuel Johnson
This quote, posted on Facebook by a friend who has very often been mistaken as my twin sister, intrigued me. I had heard the name Samuel Johnson, but I could not recall the genre. I googled his name and quickly remembered, “Ah, yes, Brit Lit. I do remember now.” What I didn’t recall was much about the man and so I spent many hours on Monday getting to know Samuel Johnson who lived from 1709 – 1784.
born to a poor book-seller who succumbed to madness
facially deformed from small pox at a young age and weakened from tubercular lymphatic disease
at end of adolescence, began to make gross guttural sounds and lunge uncontrollably probably suffering Tourette’s Syndrome
at age 26, married a woman 20 years his senior who was not put off by his appearance and mannerisms and who, he says, saved his sanity and gave him back his self-confidence
politically incorrect for his day: encouraged women writers, was anti-slavery and anti-republican
when widowed, sheltered a motley crew of dependents in his home including a former prostitute, a blind poetess and Francis Barber, a boy who had been a slave in Jamaica who ended up being Johnson’s heir.
Samuel Johnson looked and acted like a man who could do no good and people treated him as such. Few could get past his small, sickly, grotesque outward appearance to embrace the brilliance of his mind and fluency of his speech. Samuel was treated like an idiot and, he later related, would have lost his sanity had it not been for the Porters. Mr. and Mrs. Porter were a wealthy couple who valued his company and conversation. They welcomed him into their home where he was a constant guest for many years. Upon the death of the husband, Mrs. Porter coaxed Samuel to stay with her and was overheard to tell her daughter that he was “the most sensible man she had ever met.”
[I]n 1735 they were married. She was 20 years older than he, and brought to the marriage a dowry of over 600 pounds. In those days the interest alone on such a sum would have been almost enough for the couple to live on. There is every indication that it was a love match on both sides. On Tetty’s side, the love was reinforced by the perception of future greatness. On Johnson’s side, the love was reinforced by gratitude toward the woman whose approval and acceptance had given him back his sanity and self-respect. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/20.html
Did one couple of societal means make the difference for Samuel Johnson? It appears so. After Tetty’s death in 1752, Samuel was deeply saddened. He set to work and was able to stave off disabling melancholy for many years. In 1766, Henry Thrale and his wife Hester, friends of Johnson, visited him and found him most agitated, with his depression in an acute form. They resolved to bring him to their country home, where they thoroughly pampered him, and in effect made him one of the family. Their treatment of him brought him out of his depression and may have saved his sanity. Mrs Thrale wrote of him,
He loved the poor as I never yet saw anyone else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy.
…he nursed whole nests of people in his house, where the lame, the blind, the sick, and the sorrowful found a sure retreat from all the evils whence his little income could secure them.
And just as he would give all the silver in his pocket to the poor who watched him as he left the house, so, on returning late at night, he for years had been putting pennies into the hands of children lying asleep on thresholds so that they could buy breakfast in the morning. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/20.html
Samuel Johnson truly loved others because he had known real love. Living on the edge of insanity, Samuel had difficulty as a believer, but, as a young man, he was challenged when he read William Law’s book, Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life and lived a life of faith till his death. Samuel Johnson’s life makes me pause. I know whom I would have been among the players in Samuel’s life. Friday I will tell you who, and how I know.
I close today with a prayer from one of Samuel Johnson’s diaries
O Lord, who wouldst that all men should be saved, and who Knowest that without thy grace we can do nothing acceptable to thee, have mercy upon me. Enable me to break the chain of my sins, to reject sensuality in word and thought, and to overcome and suppress vain scruples; and to use such diligence in lawful employment as may enable me to support myself and do good to others. O Lord, forgive me the time lost in idleness; pardon the sins which I have committed, and grant that I may redeem the time misspent, and be reconciled to thee by true repentance, that I may live and die in peace, and be received to everlasting happiness. Take not from me, O Lord, thy Holy Spirit, but let me have support and comfort for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
Learning to love those who can do me absolutely no good,