Strength Of Habit
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Far up in the mountains of Montana are the head-waters of a great river. At different points along the mountain ridges three small streams are fed by springs and mountain brooks, and one of them has its source in a beautiful lake in the National Park. At a point eighty miles from this lake the Madison is joined by the Wisdom and the Gallatin to form the Missouri. From the "Three Forks " the great river, with many a daring leap, flows out from the mountains and foot-hills, through rocky canons, winding valleys and broad prairies, between great States, past flourishing cities, three thousand miles away to its union with the Father of Waters. Up among the mountains at the head-waters the streams are small and little more than mountain brooks. A strong hunter could leap across them, and a child could build a dam that would change their course. But when the Madison has been joined with the other two and the Missouri begins its course to the sea, it moves forward with resistless might, and nothing but the eternal mountains or the hills of God can change its way. It is joined here and there by "large tributaries, and broadened and strengthened it is formed into a highway of commerce. On its broad waters the traffic of the world is carried to the centre of the continent.
Like the Missouri is the formation and power of habit. In childhood it is weak and easily changed. As the years creep on it becomes fixed and settled, other habits cluster around it as accessories and tribu-taries, and the stream flows on, increasing as it goes until it bears the man along, gives direction to his mind and thought, and even colors his character. We have seen, elsewhere, that the great issues of life hang upon little things. A little push of the foot might have sent the ark of Moses careening into the stream, and the leader of a nation been lost. There is a place in the Rocky Mountains where the waters of the Missouri and the Columbia are said to flow within a mile of each other, and there is no doubt a spot where a single grain of sand may change the course of the rain drops as they fall, sending one to the waters of the Columbia and another to the Missouri. The little rivulet that flows down one side of the slope is borne at last to the wide-rolling Pacific, while that which flows down the other slope goes to the sunny Gulf to be mingled with those waters that flow around the globe in oceanic currents. A hinge is a little thing for a great door to swing upon. A single act of child-hood is a little thing in the life of a man ; but that act in childhood, repeated until it becomes the customary act of youth, the involuntary act of young manhood and the deep-settled principle of middle age, is the strongest thing in human life. It rules the man, and he is what he is as a result of his habits. In the sports of childhood he acquires the habit of indolence or energy, and this habit follows him ever after in the work of his school-days he forms intellectual habits that give direction to his opinions and views of life. He is a reader and a scholar for life pretty much as he acquires studious habits at school. In the home-life he is taught a wholesome restraint and, with habits of self-control well formed, the temptations and sins of the world fall away before him as the Britons did before the sword of William at Hastings. And if, in the mistaken folly of indulgent parents, his every wish is gratified and no habit of self-restraint is engendered, the wild young animal goes out into life to fall into a drunkard's career, a felon's cell and an ignominious grave. Oh, the habits of life, so pliant in youth, so strong and fast in mid-life, so irresistible as they carry us down to the ocean of Eternity !
Thus the individual is a creation of habit and is influenced and controlled through life by the ways he has learned in youth. How important then that good habits be learned at the start. "Once attained," says Mathews, "they are a fortune in themselves; for their possessor has disposed thereby of the heavy end of the load of life ; all that remains he can carry easily and pleasantly. On the other hand, bad habits, once formed, will hang forever on the wheels of enterprise, and in the end will assert their supremacy, to the ruin and shame of their victim." Society is much affected by the habits of the individuals which compose it. The people of the metropolis are cultured and have pleasing manners, largely because the whole community have formed habits of courtesy and politeness. Those of a frontier town are rude and uncultivated, because rough habits prevail in that vicinity. Thus habit forms no small part of civilization and, within certain limitations, may be designated as the force that moves the world.