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Fatigue

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

FATIGUE, we are beginning to discover, is one of the first-class themes in modern life. It is an affair not simply of medicine and hygiene, but of morals, of philosophy, of religion—in fact, of the entire human welfare. A new psychology is arising, destined to profoundly alter our whole perspective, a psychology which deduces the conditions of right living from a rigorous and scientific observation of the facts and laws in our mental life. And this psychology is paying special attention to the phenomena, of fatigue. It is studying its relation to the various features, not only of our physical, but also of our mental and moral life. We find there is an ethic of fatigue, almost a religion of it. In that reconstruction of the ethical and religious idea which is arising out of a clearer knowledge of the contents of consciousness, this subject will occupy a foremost place.

What is fatigue ? It is curious how hazy the average notion is. We know it as a phase of feeling associated with certain physical states. When by walking, singing, hammering, or other exercises, the muscles and nerves employed have given off a certain amount of energy, the fact is registered on our consciousness, and we say we are tired. But the feeling here is one thing, and the condition another. The whole of the body is working, perpetually giving off energy. But it is only a portion of the body that produces fatigue as a sensation. The blood circulates, the heart performs its rhythmic motion, the liver secretes, the cells in their myriads form and reform, and all this without sense of weariness. Fatigue, as felt, belongs purely to the voluntary nerves and muscles.

Fatigue is an affair of life, of sentient beings. There is no tiredness in the universe. Its sum of infinite energy continues from age to age its stupendous, complicated movement, without trace of exhaustion. We may speak of a wearing down here and there. Steel, by use, becomes tired and loses its edge. It will regain it by rest. The sun, which is now computed to be at a temperature of three million degrees Fahrenheit, or fourteen thou-sand times hotter than boiling water, may be exhausting its heat, but that is only to have it stored in another form elsewhere. The cosmos as a whole, amid eternal change, retains eternal freshness. How purely local and personal is the idea of fatigue may be realised when we remember that the body of the most weary mortal on the planet at this moment is, as to its every particle, one with a universe that is of everlasting strength. His body in one sense is no more tired than Mont Blanc or the Atlantic Ocean. The fatigue here is really a phase of consciousness, a danger signal giving notice of a physical condition requiring readjustment.

The inner life, which modern science now recognises as distinct from energy, requires a full complement of this energy, stored in the nerve and muscular centres, as the condition of its proper action, and the sense of fatigue is the warning bell rung in the brain when that store has been unduly diminished.

But this is not the end of the analysis. That oneness of mind and body which Spinoza placed at the foundation of his philosophy is being reaffirmed in new ways by modern science. We see how in a thousand directions mental life plays into the bodily and bodily life into the mental. Every physical condition repeats itself in the mind's sensation ; every feeling and thought of the mind reacts immediately upon the body. Henle's researches show that joyful emotions quicken the respiration and make the circulation freer. The depressing emotions, like sorrow and fear, contract the arterial and bronchial muscles and so distinctly interfere with both circulation and breathing. A bright, inspiring thought is the finest of all physicians, whose medicine is working on every organ and every cell of our bodily system and arming it with a new power of life. But not less true and important is the obverse side, that the physical conditions exert their full influence upon the mental and the moral states. It is this side of the matter that the new psychology is specially investigating, with results that must tell to a momentous degree on our entire ethical and religious outlook.

It has shown. for instance, with an almost mathematical precision, that over-fatigue, exhaustion of the nerve-centres, means for the time being a lowering of status of the entire inner man. In this condition his perceptions are less clear, his memory is defective, and, most of all, his volition faculty is weakened. It is precisely when the nerve forces are at low ebb that impulses of the animal nature, kept down and out of sight by the higher interests of the normal manhood, are apt to rush in upon the consciousness and endanger, sometimes to the wreckage point, the entire moral fabric. If the cases could be traced where men of former repute have made shipwreck of character, it would be found in a vast number of instances that they coincided with a period of overstrain, in which the physical reserve balance had been drained away. And where matters have not reached this extremity, yet what minor catastrophies have they to account for ! A domestic explosion which breaks the peace of a household, and for weeks, may be, glooms and shadows two lives, as often as not means simply that a tired husband at the end of his day has met a tired wife, and that a single spark lighting on two overstrained nerve-systems has set both ablaze.

And that is not all, or, perhaps, even the worst. It is bad enough to note the evil to which fatigue may introduce us ; to realise, as Hesiod ages ago put it, that then " vice may be found easily ; that her way is smooth and her dwelling-place near." Quite as serious a consideration is the higher life interests against which a constant over-strain bars the door. The things which make a man's career great, the things to see, to think and to do, are possible only to his days of power. It is when our nature is full to overflowing that the supreme visions come. It is then we get lifts of insight which show us a self beyond our self. It is then that men plan their daring deed, the seeming impossible enterprise which, achieved, becomes history. The orator magnetises his audience by his overflow ; when his life fountain can water not his own soul only, but a thousand others. As we realise all this we may say with Voltaire, though in a new sense, " Le superflu, chose Si nécessaire."

With this exposition we may come now to some practical considerations. One is the scientific condemnation of asceticism as an aid to the nobler life. By that, of course, we do not mean the control and severest discipline of the animal nature. There science and the New Testament are at one. But the mediaeval religion of fasts and flagellations and bodily emaciation generally in the supposed interests of sainthood, a religion which in many circles still survives, is by the new psychology proved a false one. Some of the noblest men the world has seen have been martyrs to its delusion. What a picture is that, drawn for us by his biographer, of Pope Gregory the Great, who, brought by his austerities to such a pass that throughout his pontificate he was never a day without pain, transacted his world-business, wrote his letters, composed his treatises, and gave his instructions in music lying on a couch because he was unable to stand or sit ! The story is similar of Bernard, of St. Francis, of a host of noble souls of that time. How much greater had they been, and happier, could they have seen, as we now do, that the soul's inspirations, the mind's thinking, the will's resolutions, are at their mightiest when the physical states are at their best ; that the culture of the body is an integral part of the religious life !

But the subject has more than an individual reference. There is discernible in history such a thing as a fatigue of races. A population over-driven by labour, or exhausted by its passions, will become old and decrepit before its time. To keep a nation young is the highest task of social economy, and that can only be achieved by knowledge of the whole complex law of living. And that is much more than a physical law. A people's entire soul may become fatally fatigued by the limitation of its interests. Vice limits the human interests to a few things—the lowest things. The soul, worked incessantly on this one level, becomes mortally weary, to the hating of its life. That was the secret of the Roman decadence. In Matthew Arnold's words :

On that hard pagan world disgust
And secret loathing fell ;
Deep weariness, and sated lust,
Made human life a hell.

What a spectacle is that of the later Rome which we get in the pages of Cassiodorus, when the enervated population, forgetful of their mighty ancestors, were to the vigorous Gothic race who ruled them, as the Greeks. became later to their masters the Turks !

It is plain, then, that as individuals and as a people we need a philosophy and a religion of fatigue and of rest. When our activities go beyond their limit ; when we work not from our overflow, but from the dregs of our vitality ; when we keep going, not by sleep and rest, but by the stimulant and the spur, we are sinning against the whole Decalogue of life. If we would see our highest, we must limit the output. We must never let work choke our top springs. For joy is not only our heritage ; it is our duty. " La joie de l'esprit," said Ninon, " en marque la force." We want gladness enough, not only to flood our own life, but to flow over perpetually upon our neighbour. And there is no gladness in exhaustion. The highest philosophy of living is to work as the universe works, and to rest as it rests. We want to catch for ourselves the secret of that mighty cosmic rhythm ; to catch the secret of its storing and of its giving forth of energy ; of its repose and its multitudinous motion. The universe finds its rest in the interplay of a myriad of interests. That is how we shall find ours. The wider the keyboard the less strain on this note and that. The vaster the music we make the longer will the instrument last.



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