“Sermons in Stones, and Good in Every Thing”

Today is my first day of class, in my third year of college. I have been back on campus for three days.

I am in a dorm building that is further from all my classes and other locations than is typically comfortable for me–I have a physical disability that makes walking a long distance difficult, and I fatigue easily. However, nothing could be done to relocate me.

Now that I have been in said dorm for three days, I am discovering that, aside from the extra walk, I really love my dorm and everything about it. There are little triumphs to be had, in sacrificing the comfort of an easy walk.

Thus, I am reminded of this speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, given by Duke Senior.

“Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.”

It is not far into the play (Act II, Scene i) but there is already much context. Duke Senior has been exiled, and he is wandering in the woods with his men–servants, and whatever other roles they play. Exile in Shakespeare’s time is one of the worst punishments you could face–typically, you were banished to a place where no one spoke your language, so you were, in a way, silenced, and the environment you were sent to was often hostile. It was often worse than execution, because execution was something to be forgotten after many years, and for the person being executed, the suffering is over in an instant.

Exile, not so much. A person exiled had to bear that for the rest of his or her life. No one forgot it, it held it’s ground in a family line, and, typically, no one returned. Exile was not a punishment that ended.

However, Senior and his group have found themselves in forest that, while not a comfy castle, is not all together evil. It is the Pastoral setting, it is the “Magical Place,” the almost Edenic world that characters are thrust into, that ends up helping them along in their journey to be and do better. While Senior doesn’t know this in detail (as he is a character, not a reader or onlooker) he does have a sense that this place isn’t all harm. And so, he is learning to love what adversity has given him.

I too have learned from various adversities, both dramatic and minuscule. On this third day, the first start of a new school year, I am thankful for the ugly toad, which in reality is more beautiful than even the grandest butterfly.

Because without difficulty, we cannot know joy, after all.

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