Cultivation Of Habit
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The author will not soon forget the surprise with which he once stepped into a. nail-mill and saw the feeders at their work Two hundred men and boys sat in long rows, upon high stools in front of the nail-machines. The feeders, as these artisans are called, sit there before the machines to supply and adjust the iron from which the nails are cut. The iron is rolled thin, cut in strips to correspond to the length of the nails, and then heated to redness. It is now brought to the feeders. They fasten it into a little instrument called a "feeding-stock" which they manage with their hands. The work of the feeder consists in placing the heated iron between the jaws of the machine, until a piece is clipped off, then turning it over quickly, he places it again in position and a nail is made with every revolution of the balance-wheel of the machine before him. These movements must all be accomplished with a wonderful rapidity and precision, and the feeders often become so expert that they can cut a hundred nails per minute ; and this for ten working hours a day. The motions required are done with the forearm and the wrist, and the feeder is obliged to acquire not only the habit of rapid movement, but also to gain strength sufficient to insure him against fatigue.
Let the reader imagine himself holding a broom-stick with a heavy, piece of iron fastened to the lower end of it. This he grasps firmly and is obliged to turn it over and over one hundred times a minute, while the nails patter like rain as they fall on the iron chute below. And thus the work goes on unweariedly for ten hours until upwards of sixty thousand nails have been made by one man in one day. The rapidity and skill with which these men work is marvelous, and one can scarcely believe his eyes as he stands by and sees them accomplish so great results with so little apparent effort.
The wonderful dexterity which these men acquire, aptly illustrates the manner in which a habit may be cultivated. We may well suppose that the first efforts of the nail feeder are very awkward and slow, that it takes him many days to acquire ease and endurance in his work. just so it is with any habit we may acquire. From slow and painful acts at first, we get skiff and strength as we proceed, until we act as by second nature and forget how we have acquired the habit which we unconsciously obey. Youth. is the natural time of acquiring habits of life; but it is not impossible to fall into new ways in mature years. Habits, though of almost irresistible might, can be broken and new ones learned. A man may, by due exercise of the will, break up any habit to which he has been addicted and supplant it by a new one The history of every reformed drunkard, gambler or thief is an illustration of this fact. 'Habits of a life-long duration are overcome and the man enters upon new purposes, new habits and a new life.- So too, the major part of the struggle which a Christian under-goes in ceasing to do evil and learning to do well, lies in the conflict with old habit, that keeps ever returning to assert its power. But at each victory the old habit loses power and the new one gains strength, until the old is lost sight of and swallowed up in the new. That is indeed a supreme moment in life when, after long struggle, an evil habit goes down before the rising tide of a better reason and a better hope.
The chief value of good habit lies in its reserve power. It continually prepares a man for better and higher work. It furnishes him a basis to work upon, when he stands in the presence of great opportunities. It is good habit, more than anything else, that makes a man ready for an emergency. When a crisis comes he can rely upon past experience, and in self-confidence, can enter upon untried duties, with a reasonable certainty of success. It is not a fortuitous circumstance that the young lawyer can rise to address a jury for the first time and be equal to the occasion. There is a long discipline and a habit of application and close thought back of that hour of triumph and brilliant success. When a man stands in the presence of an emergency that requires the exercise of great ability, he cannot create that ability upon a moment's notice. There is need of a prior discipline and training that results in good and healthful habit. Then can he rise equal to the occasion and know that his life is well begun.
And on the other hand, I do not regard it as a fortuitous circumstance that a young man pauses before a saloon and enters to take the first step in a series of disgraces. There is always a habit of lesser indulgence back of that crisis in a young man's life. In the slow formation of his habits there comes a time when he is ripe for the indulgence of the wine cup, and his drunkenness is as often a matter of character as it is of temptation. Bad men are always trying to find some way out of the responsibility for their evil deeds. They often complain that the excesses of their later life have been forced upon them by the faults of their home trainings or the irresistible power of temptation. This is generally the plea of a coward, the excuse of inherent, habitual badness. To the man of sound habits, temptations to evil have little or no enticements. They fall away from before him like pigmies before the tread of a giant. If his habits are right; he is fortified against a thousand temptations that lead men astray. But if the man is already schooled in indulgence, if he is idle, restless and wretched from lack of rational employment, he becomes an easy prey to all forms of vice. Over-indulgence in recreation leads him naturally to the habit of indolence or that of harmful, wasteful sport. The indulgence of the pipe makes a man less secure against the indulgence of the cup. Every step taken in this direction makes the next all the easier, and there is no dividing line between the comparatively innocent irregularities of youth and the crimes and besottedness of mature years. Men always come by slow approaches to the commission of great crimes. Murderers are not made by a fortuitous at late in manhood. Thieves do not become so in a moment of time, nor do robbers take up their trade 'without a long preparatory schooling of some kind. It is the cultivation of wrong habit and the supremacy of evil tendency in character, that culminates at last in these outbreaks of great wrong-doing.
Every now and then the community is profoundly stirred by the unexpected wickedness of some prominent and respected citizen. A man who has enjoyed the confidence of everybody for a score of years, perhaps, falls suddenly and hopelessly into bestiality and crime. He may have been a Sunday-school superintendent, or a prominent church member. He may have been in a bank, the trusted agent of other people's money. If so, his fall may seem the more inexplicable ; but it is no less true to life. The greatest rascals of recent times have been those who have enjoyed the unlimited confidence of their friends and business acquaintances, From a great height of apparent goodness, they plunge swiftly into a great depth of actual badness. They drag down with them ruined homes, weeping wives and heart-broken children into a pit of horrible infamy. The community stands aghast, that a man can fall from an exemplar life to the level of a thief, a sneak and a villian. Men can hardly credit their senses, when they hear that such a man has had such a fall.
The truth is, there are no such falls. The secret work of habit that lies behind these astounding crimes is deeply hidden from human eyes. The community does not see that the thief, the defaulter, the suddenly-revealed libertine has been under long training for his nefarious work. The processes by which a heart is hardened, a conscience seared, and character dethroned are not discoverable in the wrecks of a ruined life. A man who thus flashes into view as a great criminal has long been condemned before the bar of his own conscience. He has been a thief at heart for years. He has dwelt long on the possibilities of murder. He has contemplated his crime, whatever it be, until it has lost its hideousness and assumed an agreeable aspect. Men never commit such deeds "on the spur of the moment." Habit is too strong; character too omnipotent; the high sentiments of manhood too mighty, to be trailed in the dust in the first skirmish with temptation. We do not believe that men are made wicked or virtuous by any extempore process. Character is a growth ; habit is a growth, and both are revealed in human conduct. Sooner or later the real man will come to the front. Out of the concealments and subterfuge of years, the man of crime steps forth, at last, into the light of day to show to the world what his life has been.
Habit is thus capable of cultivation. An act performed again and again, with persistent purpose, becomes at last an unconscious force that directs life and character. And with care and diligence we may develop good habits as well as bad ones, and surround ourselves with a garment of defense against the evil tendencies of life. Indeed the chief utility of a thorough, education consists in the power of habit which it engenders, to fortify a man against the tendencies to indolence and evil. One may learn to be cheerful, or he may learn to look upon the gloomy side of things. From the cultivation of such habit, a man may become an extreme optimist, or, like the pessimist, he may paint the sun and sky with the sombre hues of his own gloomy mind. In like manner a man may become careful or careless, thrifty or unthrifty, prompt or tardy, or pretty much what he will as the result of his acquired habits. This is his self-education and is given largely into his own hand to make or mar a life.
This matter of supplanting bad habits by the assiduous cultivation of good ones has not received that attention which the importance of the subject deserves. We hear much about bad habits and their deleterious effects upon society at large ; but we do not hear so much about the benefits of good habits. Our people need to be reminded that a good habit binds as fast and holds as long as an evil habit. And it is thoroughly practicable to change our habits and cultivate new ones that shall give assistance to a successful career, instead of hindering it.