( Originally Published 1879 )
HABIT in a child is at first like a spider's web; if neglected it becomes a thread of twine; next, a cord of rope; finally, a cable—then who can break it? There are habits contracted by bad example, or bad management, before we have judgment to discern their approaches, or because the eye of reason is laid asleep, or has not compass of view sufficient to look around on every quarter.
O, the tyranny, the despotism of a bad habit ! Cole-ridge, one of the subtlest intellects and finest poets of his time, battled for twenty years before he could emancipate himself from his tyrant, opium. He went into voluntary imprisonment. He hired a man to watch 'him day and night, and keep him by force from tasting the pernicious drug. He formed resolution after resolution. Yet, during all the best years of his life, he wasted his substance and his health, neglected his family, and lived degraded and accursed because he had not resolution to abstain. He would lay plans to cheat the very man whom he paid to keep the drug from him, and bribe the jailor to whom he had voluntarily surrendered himself.
Terrible, terrible is the despotism of a bad habit. The case of Coleridge is an extreme one of course. But there are many, whose eyes these lines will meet, who are as truly thé slaves of a perverted appetite as he. Their despot may be opium, tobacco, drink, or worse; but they are so completely under the dominion of their master, that nothing short of a moral war of independence, which should task all their own strength, and all they could borrow from others, would suffice to deliver them.
J. B. Gough uses the following as a powerful illustration : I remember once riding from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. I said to a gentleman, "What river is that, sir?" " That," he said, "is Niagara river."
"Well, it is a 'beautiful stream, said I; "bright and fair and glassy; how far off are the rapids ?"
" Only a mile or two," was the reply.
"Is it possible that only a mile from us we shall find the water in the turbulence which it must show near to the falls?"
"You will find it so, sir." And so I found it; and the first sight of Niagara I shall never forget. Now, launch your bark on that Niagara river; it is bright, smooth, beautiful and glassy. There is a ripple at the bow; the silver wave you leave behind adds to the enjoyment.
Down the stream you glide, oars, sails and helm in proper trim, and you set out on your pleasure excursion. Suddenly some one cries out from the bank, "Young men, ahoy!"
"What is it?"
"The rapids are below you."
"Ha! ha ! we have heard of the rapids, but we are not such fools as to get there. If we go too fast, then we shall up with the helm and steer to the shore; we will set the mast in the socket, hoist the sail, and speed to the land. Then on, boys; don't be alarmed-there is no danger."
"Young men, ahoy there!"
"What is it?"
" The rapids are below you!" "Ha! ha ! we will laugh and quaff; all things delight us. What care we for the future ! No man ever saw it. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. We will enjoy life while we may; will catch pleasure as it flies. This is enjoyment; time enough to steer out of danger when we are sailing swiftly with the current."
"Young men, ahoy!"
"What is it?"
"Beware! Beware! The rapids are below you!"
Now you see the water foaming all around. See how fast you pass that point! Up with the helm! Now turn ! Pull hard ! quick ! quick ! quick ! pull for your lives ! pull till the blood starts from the nostrils, and the veins stand like whip-cords upon the brow ! Set the mast in the socket! hoist the sail ! —ah ! ah ! it is too late ! Shrieking, cursing, howling, blaspheming, over they go.
Thousands go over the rapids every year, through the power of habit, crying all the while, "When I find out that it is injuring me I will give it up!"
Few people form habits of wrong-doing deliberately or willfully; they glide into them by degrees and almost unconsciously,.. and before they are aware of danger, the habits are confirmed and require resolute and persistent effort to effect 'a change. "Resist beginning," was a maxim of the ancients, and should be preserved as a landmark in our day. Those who are prodigal or passionate, or indolent, or visionary, soon make shipwreck of themselves, and drift about the sea of life, the prey of every wind and current, vainly shrieking for help, till at *last they drift away into darkness and death.
Take care that you are not drifting. See that you have fast hold of the helm. The breakers of life forever roar under the lee, and adverse gales continually blow on the shore. Are you watching how she heads? Do you keep a firm grip of the wheel? If you give way but for one moment you may drift hopelessly into the boiling vortex. Young men, take care! It rests with yourselves alone under God, whether you reach port triumphantly or drift to ruin.
Be not slow in the breaking of a sinful custom; a quick, courageous resolution is better than a gradual deliberation; in such a combat, he is the bravest soldier who lays about him without fear or wit. Wit pleads, fear disheartens; he that would kill hydra, had better strike off one neck than five heads; fell the tree, and the branches are soon cut off.
Whatever be the cause, says Lord Kames,. it is an established fact, that we are much influenced by custom; it hath an effect upon our pleasures, upon our actions, and even upon our thoughts and sentiments. Habit makes no figure during the vivacity of youth; in middle age it gains ground; and in old age, governs without control. In that period of life, generally speaking, we eat at a certain hour, take exercise at a certain hour, go to rest at a certain hour, all by the direction of habit; nay, a particular seat, table, bed, comes to be essential; and a habit in any of these cannot be contradicted without uneasiness.
Man, it has been said, is a bundle of habits; and habit is second nature. Metastasio entertained so strong an opinion as to the power of repetition in act and thought, that he said, "All is habit in mankind, even virtue itself."
Evil habits must be conquered, or they will conquer is and destroy our peace and happiness.
Vicious habits are so great a stain upon human nature, said Cicero, and so odious in themselves, that every person actuated by right reason would avoid them, though he was sure they would always be concealed both from God and man, and had no future punishment entailed upon. them.
Vicious habits, when opposed, offer the most vigorous resistance on the first attack. At each successive encounter this resistance grows fainter and fainter, until finally it ceases altogether and the victory is achieved.
Habit is man's best friend or worst enemy; it can. exalt him to the highest pinnacle of virtue, honor and happiness, or sink him to the lowest depths of vice, shame and misery.
We may form habits of honesty, or knavery; truth, or falsehood; of industry, or idleness; frugality, or extravagance; of patience, or impatience; self-denial, or self-indulgence; of kindness, cruelty, politeness, rudeness, prudence, perseverance, circumspection. In short there is not a virtue, nor a vice; not an act of body, nor of mind, to which we may not be chained down by this despotic power.
It is a great point for young men to begin well; for it is in the beginning of life that that system of conduct is adopted which soon assumes the force of habit. Begin well, and the habit of doing well will become quite as easy as the habit of doing badly. Pitch upon that course of life which is the most excellent, and habit will render it the most delightful. Well begun is half ended, says the proverb; and a good beginning is half the battle. Many promising young men have irretrievably injured themselves by a first false step at the commencement of life; while others, of much less promising talents, have succeeded simply by beginning Well, and going onward. The good practical beginning is, to a certain extent, a pledge, a promise, and an assurance, of the ultimate prosperous issue. There is many a poor creature, now crawling through life, miserable himself and the cause of sorrow to others, who might have lifted up his head and prospered, if, instead of merely satisfying himself with resolutions of well-doing, he had actually gone to work and made a good practical beginning.