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  • Writer's pictureDavid Shipley


Or: An Expository Sermon on G.K. Chesterton’s “On Running After One’s Hat"

Let me introduce readers to G.K. Chesterton as well as how the Christian view of the world allows for comedy & proper ridicule.

One approach to hardship is to recognize and ponder and absorb said hardship. Then, shift perspective from the hardship at hand to the way life otherwise might be or could be. Depending on our worldview, we may begin to think: we suffer now, but shall be comforted later; or, the world groans now, but will be remade later; or, the only consistent part of life is change; or, the universe is a random occurrence and even tragedies will mean nothing when the universe collapses in the end; or, in Heaven, there is an immutable Being or Truth or Hope interested in our well-being and good. We’ll call this approach: recognize & reflect.

There's another approach I'll call: recognize & ridicule. Perhaps ridicule is too harsh (or flippant) a word. Still, I like the alliteration. More to the point, I like the connection between ridicule and ridiculous. This approach imagines to ridiculousness all things in life that are truly inconveniences. The former approach can lead to a calm piety or a stoic depression; the latter, I think, is where we tend to find comedy.

And thus, my expository sermon on G.K. Chesterton’s “On Running After One’s Hat”. Italics are the words of Chesterton. Bold are the Words of the Bible. Regular font is my commentary.

On Running After One's Hat

"I feel an almost savage envy on hearing that London has been flooded in my absence, while I am in the mere country. My own Battersea has been, I understand, particularly favoured as a meeting of the waters. Battersea was already, as I need hardly say, the most beautiful of human localities. Now that it has the additional splendour of great sheets of water, there must be something quite incomparable in the landscape (or waterscape) of my own romantic town. Battersea must be a vision of Venice. The boat that brought the meat from the butcher’s must have shot along those lanes of rippling silver with the strange smoothness of the gondola. The greengrocer who brought cabbages to the corner of the Latchmere Road must have leant upon the oar with the unearthly grace of the gondolier. There is nothing so perfectly poetical as an island; and when a district is flooded it becomes an archipelago.

It’s a ridiculous image, that of the butcher’s boat shooting along those lanes of rippling silver with the strange smoothness of a Venician gondolier. This ridiculous vision was written by G.K. Chesterton. He is the man who ventured into the countryside of England only to hear that London had flooded. More than London flooded; it was the man’s own town, Battersea, that was deluged. This essay comes to us from the early 1900s. How terrible to be away from your home while it floods. But Chesterton! He sees a poetical vision of splendor & grace.

It’s ridiculous to see a countrywide flood as an unearthly grace.


"Some consider such romantic views of flood or fire slightly lacking in reality. But really this romantic view of such inconveniences is quite as practical as the other. The true optimist who sees in such things an opportunity for enjoyment is quite as logical and much more sensible than the ordinary 'Indignant Ratepayer' who sees in them an opportunity for grumbling."

It's fairly stark to view a flood or a fire as an inconvenience. That may take a few readings to swallow. (Please note, these floods or fires have not resulted in loss of life.) Chesterton addresses personal injury & violent death presently.

"Real pain, as in the case of being burnt at Smithfield or having a toothache, is a positive thing; it can be supported, but scarcely enjoyed. But, after all, our toothaches are the exception, and as for being burnt at Smithfield, it only happens to us at the very longest intervals."

One case of non-ridiculous, real pain recalls those burnt at Smithfield. Some 282 men and women were martyred in the Smithfield Fires during the mid-1550s. Queen Mary I of England thought the Roman Catholic Church could best be restored by subjecting English Protestants to fire and blood. A second case of non-ridiculous pain Chesterton recalls is the toothache. He labels the ache “a positive thing”. I infer his meaning of "positive" not as an enjoyable or pleasurable thing, but as positive in the sense of certain, actual and to be accounted for; I also infer his meaning of "can be supported" in the sense one could support an argument to not paint physical pain tritely.

These cases accounted for, Chesterton’s question is this: Do we tend to choose to see inconveniences as disasters?

"And most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences—things altogether of the mind.

For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys’ habit in this matter. They also serve who only stand and wait for the two fifteen. Their meditations may be full of rich and fruitful things. Many of the most purple hours of my life have been passed at Clapham Junction, which is now, I suppose, under water. I have been there in many moods so fixed and mystical that the water might well have come up to my waist before I noticed it particularly. But in the case of all such annoyances, as I have said, everything depends upon the emotional point of view. You can safely apply the test to almost every one of the things that are currently talked of as the typical nuisance of daily life."

Do you see the comedy in someone sitting at a train station? Rather than carping or complaining (or in their phone), they're so caught “in many moods so fixed and mystical that the water might well have come up” to their waist before they noticed? Indeed, if the train station is akin to rush hour, it's ridiculous to suggest both could be palaces of poetical pleasure rather than grinding, joyless, inconvenient commutes.

Let’s read on:

"For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one’s hat."

If you have never seen a person running after their hat, then consider that person running for a wall or car outlet to charge their device, starting and stopping, seemingly staring at the bottoms of blank walls, enduring the humiliation of looking beneath the backside of innocent by-sitters.

"Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind? Not merely because it is running, and running exhausts one. The same people run much faster in games and sports. The same people run much more eagerly after an uninteresting little leather ball than they will after a nice silk hat. There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one’s hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love. A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife."

When we experience humiliation, it is usually because things—namely, the things most worth doing—are happening to US. WE are humbled to be caught exposed and unaware. I stand to lose MY pride. The root of humiliation, after all, is to be made humble. However, when we see a man in love chasing a woman, or spy a man eating a meal or catch him in the act of chasing a lost hat, it is much easier for us to find that same behavior comical. When it happens to us, it's humiliation; when it happens to him, it's comedy.

"Now a man could, if he felt rightly in the matter, run after his hat with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy. He might regard himself as a jolly huntsman pursuing a wild animal, for certainly no animal could be wilder. In fact, I am inclined to believe that hat-hunting on windy days will be the sport of the upper classes in the future. There will be a meet of ladies and gentlemen on some high ground on a gusty morning. They will be told that the professional attendants have started a hat in such-and-such a thicket, or whatever be the technical term. Notice that this employment will in the fullest degree combine sport with humanitarianism. The hunters would feel that they were not inflicting pain. Nay, they would feel that they were inflicting pleasure, rich, almost riotous pleasure, upon the people who were looking on. When last I saw an old gentleman running after his hat in Hyde Park, I told him that a heart so benevolent as his ought to be filled with peace and thanks at the thought of how much unaffected pleasure his every gesture and bodily attitude were at that moment giving to the crowd."

Which is more comic? The image Chesterton paints of a man chasing a hat? Or the image of Chesterton pausing to cheer this newly discovered star of Olympic Hat Chasing?

"The same principle can be applied to every other typical domestic worry. A gentleman trying to get a fly out of the milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine often imagines himself to be irritated. Let him think for a moment of the patience of anglers sitting by dark pools, and let his soul be immediately irradiated with gratification and repose. Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it."

Get it? What rhymes with jammed…?

"But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative; it rested entirely upon the assumption that the drawer could, should, and would come out easily. “But if,” I said, “you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine that you are tugging up a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine that you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevass. Imagine even that you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English.” Shortly after saying this I left him; but I have no doubt at all that my words bore the best possible fruit. I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring."

Personally, I’m a champion of turning typical domestic worry over inconveniences into humiliating, frustrating disasters. I do a great "indignant ratepayer" impression. Just ask Mrs. Shipley.

Thankfully, a Christian worldview allows one to absorb today’s hardship and reflect on it in light of eternal relief. But I also believe the Christian worldview allows for comedy & proper ridicule of typical domestic worry.

Is there a grain of humor to be heard when the Lord lovingly, ridiculously states: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:26-27)? Stop making disasters out of inconveniences. You are, after all, closer to God's heart than, oh I don't know, those birds.

"So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

Or take the first and fourth verses of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?... The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” It can be ridiculous and humiliating to realize a person, a group or a government tends to take the adventure out of inconvenience by wrongly making a disaster out of a typical domestic worry. Or perhaps it is more ridiculous for a person, a group or a government to treat real disasters (e.g. real suffering, true spiritual poverty) as just a typical domestic worry.

"The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: “Wine is good with everything except water,” and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine."

Ok, I don’t quite get these last few sentences. There’s quite a lot of Chesterton I don’t get.

But that’s one of the reasons I find him worth reading. That and his ability to take the comedic, poetic view of inconveniences.

Thanks for reading. Find some more Chesterton to read while you’re at it.

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