Scottish-born author Robert Louis Stevenson was no stranger to being stuck at home. Although he was an acclaimed travel writer and author of some of the 19th century’s most exciting works of fiction—Kidnapped,Treasure Island, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—almost all of his 44 years were spent suffering through sickness. Just like his mother and his grandfather, Stevenson continually nursed a weak chest and a persistent cough. He nearly died several times, barely surviving particularly cold winters or after making long voyages.
In his poem “The Land of Counterpane,” it’s easy to imagine Stevenson as a weak, sickly boy as he writes: “When I was sick and lay a-bed/I had two pillows at my head/And all my toys beside me lay/To keep me happy all the day.” He had to learn how to find contentment and entertainment while confined to his bed.
Though Stevenson was raised by devout Protestant parents, he later proclaimed as a young adult that he was an atheist, telling his father that he couldn’t continue to live a lie. In his final years, Stevenson retired to a Samoan island where he hoped the warmer climate would improve his health. During those last four years, his feelings about religion seemed to change. Stevenson wrote Prayers Written at Vailima, a collection of devotions meant to be read at various times of the day. One of these prayers is simply called, “For Success.”
“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety, and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another.”
In spite of how his late-19th century wording might fall on modern ears, something about this prayer especially resonates now. This man with all his unfortunate flaws and unique talents and the tragedy of his battles with sickness and seclusion, can speak to us in these extraordinary times.
One word in particular stood out to me—forbearance. It’s not a word I use in regular conversation, but desperate times calls for descriptive vocabulary. I’m already in the practice of daily praying for patience, but now I pray for forbearance. It’s a word with more weight, like the thud of two feet being planted in place to prepare for the attack of an opponent. To forebear is to abstain, to bear up against, to control one’s feelings. There’s a sense of delaying, of waiting, and in the waiting, an endurance. I can imagine a young Robert, lying in bed with toy soldiers and books carelessly thrown around him on the sheets. He looks out the window and sees a world he misses. He wonders what lies beyond what he can see, both down the street and in his future years. A century and a half later, these are my thoughts, too.