Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Good Habits

( Originally Published 1903 )

The most important experience which, sooner or later, meets every thoughtful person, both in his own intellectual development and in his observation of others, is this, — that every ad, and, indeed, every definite thought, leaves behind it an inclination which is like a material influence, and which makes the next similar thought, or acteasier, and the next dissimilar thought, or ad, more difficult. This is the curse of evil conduct,—that it ever brings forth more evil conduct; and this too is the sure and chief reward of good conduct,—that it strengthens the tendency to good and makes permanent what has been gained. Here is the solemn and tragic fad which lies behind all human life,—that what we have once done we can never change. There it remains, just as it happened, little as we may be inclined to believe, or to admit, that it is there. And hence it is that history truly written is no entertaining drama, ending in general reconciliation and embrace, but a tragedy which describes the movement of destiny.

If, then, one begins, thus to take life seriously, he will soon observe that its main problem does not concern its thought or its faith, still less any outward confession which may leave the soul within quite undisturbed. The real problem of life is simply and solely one of habit, and the end of "all education should be to train people to inclinations toward good. To choose discreetly between good and evil is not always practicable, for human passions are sometimes too strong; but what may be developed is a prompt and spontaneous instinct for the good; and the ideal of human life is one in which all that is good has become sheer habit, and all that is bad is so contrary to nature, that it gives one even a physically perceptible and painful shock. Failing this, all that one calls virtue or piety is but a series of those good intentions with which the path to evil, as to good, may be paved.

What, then, are the most important of good habits? I propose to name a few, not in any systematic fashion; for of systems of morals the modern world seems to have had more than enough, and it is much more likely to give some attention to purely practical suggestions based on practical experience.

The first . and chief rule seems to be this, that one should try rather to cultivate good habits than merely negatively to escape from bad ones. It is much easier in the inner life, as in the outer, to attack positively than to repel defensively; for in aggressive conduct every success brings joy, while in mere resistance much of one's effort seems to have no positive result. The main point to be gained is the habit of prompt resolution, directed immediately toward action. What Voltaire said of the history of nations is in large degree true of human life: "I have noticed that destiny in every case depends upon the at of a moment."

The second principle of good habits is fearlessness. Perhaps this is not possible to acquire inn a high degree without a strong religious faith. This I will not discuss. It is, at any rate, certain that fear is not only the least agreeable of human emotions, so that one should at any cost conquer it, but that it is also the most superfluous. For fear does not prevent the approach of that which is feared; it only exhausts beforehand the strength which one needs to meet the thing he fears. Most of the things which we fear to meet are not in reality so terrible as they appear to be when looked at from afar. When they meet us, they can be borne. The imagination is inclined to picture evils as more permanent and persistent than they are really to be. If, as one's trouble approached, he should say to himself: "This is likely to last about three days," one would in many cases be justified by the event, and, at any rate, would proceed to meet the trouble with a better courage. On the whole, the best defence against fear which philosophy can provide is the conviction that every fear is a symptom of some wrong condition in ourselves. If one search for that weakness and rid himself of it, then, for the most part, fear will vanish also.

Beyond this philosophical defence from fear, however, lie certain spiritual conditions of courage. The chief of these is determining or oneself what are the best blessings of life. First of all, one must acquire as soon as possible the habit of preferring the better things to the worse. He must especially abandon the expethtion of possessing at the same time different things which are contradictory of each other. Here is the secret of failure in many a career. 1n my opinion, a man may not only freely choose his aims in life, but he may attain all those aims which he seriously and wholly desires, provided that for the sake of this desire he is ready to surrender all other desires which are inconsistent with it. The best possessions one can have in life, and the things which, with reasonable sagacity, are the easiest to get, are these: firm moral principles, intellectual discipline, love, loyalty , the capacity for work and the enjoyment of it, spiritual and physical health, and very moderate worldly possessions. No other blessings can be compared with these, and some other possessions are inconsistent with these—for instance, great wealth, great worldly honor and power, habitual self-indulgence. These are the things which people commonly most desire, and which they very often attain, but they must always be attained through the surrender of the better things.

One must, therefore ,promptiy and unhesitatingly determine to surrender the desire for wealth, honor, and luxury, and to take in their place other possessions. Without this determination, there can be no religious or philosophical basis of spiritual education. What seems to be spiritual development ends in unreality, vacillation, at last hypocrisy. It must be confessed that even the best of men are, as a rule, but half-hearted in making this fundamental resolution. They give up under compulsion one or another fragment of their desires. Few are sagacious enough to foresee the choice which sooner or later must be made, and free themselves while they are still young from their prolonged perplexity by one quick and sublime decision.

A further obstacle to any worthy life is the desire for praise, or for pleasure. The man who is dominated by either of these motives is simply a slave of the opinions or tastes of others. Both of these desires must be, with-out compromise, expelled, and sympathy, which one has always at his command, must take their pace. For, if the lower desires have been cast out and no higher impulses enter, then we have simply an unendurable emptiness in life." When the unclean spirit," says the Gospel, "is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places,seeking rest, and findeth none. . . . Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."

Thus, at any cost, and even for the sake of one's own soul, one must make it his habit to cultivate love for others, not first of all inquiring whether they deserve that love or not—a question which is often too hard to answer. For without love life is without joy, especially when one has outgrown his youth. Lacking love, we sink into indifference, and indifference passes easily into aversion, and one's aversions so poison life that life is no better than death.

Further, our dislikes must be directed, not against people, but against things. Good and evil are too much mingled in persons to be justly distinguished, and each unjust judgment reads upon those who have permitted themselves to be unjust and embitters their lives. Therefore, permit neither your philosophy nor your experience to crowd out of your life the power to love. Dismiss the preliminary question of another's right to be loved. Love is the only way of keeping one's inner life in peace, and of maintaining an interest in people and in things. Without it, both people and things become by degrees an annoyance and affront. Thus love is, at the same time, the highest worldly wisdom. One who loves is always, though unconsciously, wiser than one who does not. If you incline to say with the poet:

"This is my creed and this will ever be, To love and hate as others may treat me!"

live for a while by this creed, and you will learn soon enough how much of hate and how little of love you are likely to receive.

In all the points thus far indicated, and especially in the last, there is no place for halfway conduct. There must be a complete and absolute decision, with no petty and clever computations of consequences. And in addition to these more decisive rules of habit, there are many smaller ones which go to reinforce and make practicable the larger principles. For instance, there is the Gospel command:"Let the dead bury their dead." The (lead are the best people to do this work. If one refrain from controversy about what is past an d gone, then, one may give himself to. tasks of positive construction,and not merely to treat destructive work which, even if it be essential should be subordinate. Many a me-mortal has been dedicated to those who destroy which should have been reserved for those who fulfil.

And yet, one must not let himself be cheated. He must not even be thought to be easily duped. He must let the would-be clever people know that he reads their thoughts and knows what they are seeking. One may, as I have already said, read such thoughts quite thoroughly ifone be no longer blinded by any selfishness of his own.

Apart from this degree of self-defence, which is so far necessary, the better plan in general is to see the good side of people and o take for granted that there is good in them. Then it not only happens that they often make the effort to be good and become actually better through one's appreciation of them, but it also happens that one is saved from a personal experience of regret or distress. For intercourse with persons whom one recognizes as bad, demoralizes one's own nature, and in the case of sensitive persons may go so far as to have even a physical effect. What is bad needs no severity of criticism or of reproach. In most cases it needs only to be brought to the light. Then, even if the man protest that he is not bad, his conscience judges him. Therefore, when one must blame others, he should proceed with great calmness, speak of the matter without disguise and without glossing, but simply and without passion. Passionate reproaches seldom do good, and good people who lack sympathy are apt to bevery trying. There is a kind of virtuous character not unfamiliar in some Protestant circles which to those who differ from its convictions seems to have no capacity for love. 1t is especially aggravating to young people, so that they often prefer the company of the vicious to that of moral but cold-blooded friends.

Finally, it may not appear possible for you to be equally friendly with everybody. Well, then, discriminate among people, but' always in favor of the humble, the poor, the simple, the uneducated, the children, even the animals and plants. Never, on the other hand, if you desire a quiet mind, seek the favor of important people, and never expect gratitude for condescension to the humble, but count the love they have for you as precious as you do your love for them.

There are many other of these lesser in of good habits which I might still further mention, and if my reader should recall them, he is not to regard them as unrecognized by me. I only invite him, in the first place, to put to pratical use my list as thus far suggested. As he does so, let him notice—as he soon must notice—that it is much more to his purpose to begin practically with one good habit than to begin by making a complete catalogue of all. The real difficulty in this cultivation of good habits --indeed the only difficulty—is in ridding the heart of its natural selfishness. For selfishness is the practical obstacle to good habits, though it may pretend to believe in them. No one who understands himself will deny that there is in every one a curious tendency to moral degeneration. 1t is often something that literally borders on depravity. Now, this inclination to evil is to be conquered only by a superior force; and the whole problem, both of philosophy and of religion,—a problem as old as the world and yet new with each individual,—is summed up in the question:

Where shall I find this superior force which shall make me inclined to goodness and shall renew that spiritual health which is essential for the right conduct of life?"

To this question, there are still given many different answers. Dante, in the famous twenty-seventh canto of the Purgatorio, says:

"When underneath us was the stairway all Run o'er, and we were on the highest step, Virgilius fastened upon me his eyes,

And said:

By intellect and art I here have brought thee.":

By the guidance of reason, then, the traveller has been led to the Holy Mountain, where at last he hears his guide say:

" Take thine own pleasure for thy guide henceforth; Beyond the steep ways and the narrow art thou."

And yet—and here we notice a marked in-consistency in the great mediaeval poet and Paytone+One—it is an angel who bears these mortal souls across the sea and brings them to the foot of this mountain, and another angel repeatedly restrains them from re-turning on their way, even when they have passed the Gate of Grace; and by the diamond threshold, beyond which none may pass without his bidding, sits a third angel, to whom one may approach only by a miracle of God's grace. In all this journey, then, the "intellect and art" which accompany the traveller play, we must confess, a very limited role.

This great question, however, of the moral dynamic is, for the moment, not my theme, and its answer is, I doubt not, to be finally reached only by the way of personal experience. Only this is to be sad one's self-discipline begins with the discipline of the will. First of all comes the definite resolution to pursue one worth end of life with singleness of mind and to turn from all that is opposed to it. Given this decision of the will, and there follows the capacity to act. And this search is not in vain, when one determines to make it a universal and an unreserved search, and to recognize the power that is attained as the only possible proof that the right way has been found. Whatever brings with it no sense of sup-porting, calming, ethical power is not true, and whatever does contribute this power must, at least, have some degree of truth in it. 1n the future, any philosophy of life which proposes to be more effective than our present philosophy must meet this test. All else leads astray.

"Why is it that we shrink away

When death, our friend, draws near some day? We see the shadowy presence stand,

But not the gift within the hand!

So shrinks from love the human heart Is though, like death, love came to part, For where love enters, self must die And lift find love its destiny.

O death of self.! Pass like the night,' And waken us from death to light!"

Home | More Articles | Email: