Freedom From Bad Habits
( Originally Published 1920 )
The Story of William Tell.—Freedom is one of the things for which we Americans care more than for life itself. Again and again the Stars and Stripes have gone into battle for freedom, from the time our nation was born in 1776 until we entered the greatest of all wars for liberty in 1917. So we like to hear stories of other peoples who have fought for freedom against heavy odds; and one of the best stories of this kind is about William Tell.
About six hundred years ago, according to this story, the Austrian emperor had sent his soldiers into certain parts of Switzerland to rule over the land. His governor in one part of the country, according to this story, was a man named Gessler, who oppressed the unhappy Swiss people with every kind of cruelty. Among other -wicked and foolish acts, he set up in a certain town a tall pole with an Austrian cap on the top of it, and he ordered that every one who passed should uncover his head before the Austrian cap, as a sign of reverence for the emperor.
There was a party of brave Swiss who were not willing to submit to the tyrants, and among them was a famous bowman named William Tell. (There were no guns like ours, in those days. Men fought with crossbows, which shot arrows instead of bullets.) Tell and his little son walked past the pole one day and did not take off their caps to pay respect to Austria. They were quickly arrested by the soldiers; and Gessler thought of a cruel punishment, which he hoped would frighten the people and make them submit. He balanced an apple on the boy's head and said to the father: "I hear you are a great shot with the crossbow. Let me see you cut that apple in half with an arrow. If you miss it, I will have you put to death."
Gessler thought that both the boy and his father would be frightened, and that Tell would either kill his own son or miss entirely. But the boy stood up as firm as a rock and smiled bravely at his father; and William Tell himself aimed coolly and hit the apple right in the middle, so that it fell in two pieces, without a hair of his son's head being injured. A great shout of joy went up from the people. As the gallant archer turned away, a second arrow fell from his belt.
"What was that second arrow for?" asked the governor.
"To have shot you, if the first had slain my son," replied William Tell.
For this bold reply he was arrested again; but he escaped and later he killed Gessler with one of his swift arrows. According to the story, this was the beginning of the long war in which the Austrians were finally driven from Swiss soil, so that Switzerland became free, as she is to this day.
Some Enemies to Freedom.—Freedom, of course, does not mean that each of us is free to do just as he likes without consideration for the good of other people. A man who is free is one who can do what he believes is right, so long as it does not harm, any one else. The things that Gessler wanted William Tell to do were foolish and wicked. We are all glad the Swiss fought successfully against the Austrians; and we Americans will always be ready to fight against any one who tries by force to make weaker peoples do what is wrong.
There are other things, however, that rob people of their freedom, besides kings and emperors. There are men and women in the United States to-day, men and women in your own state and town, who are not free. Do you know what it is that makes them slaves, that keeps them from doing what they know is really good and right?
You have learned in an earlier chapter something about habits—how easy it is to form them, and how hard it often is to break them after they are formed, whether they be good habits or bad. It is bad habits that rule over these people we have been thinking of, as Gessler tried to rule over the Swiss,—the habit of eating or drinking or smoking some particular thing that is bad for them, that they know is bad for them but have not the strength of character to give up. When a man says, "I cannot get along without my coffee," or "I must have a cigar, for I cannot work without it," or "I am no good without my glass of wine or of whiskey,"—he is not a free man but a slave to a bad habit. It is part of the duty of a good American to keep himself free from such habits, as well as free from tyrants of the human kind.
Tea and Coffee. The fact that tea and coffee some-times become tyrants does not mean that such drinks are necessarily bad. For grown people, particularly when they have been working hard, a cup of tea or coffee is often a good thing. Tea and coffee are what are called stimulants, that is, they make a person who is tired feel fresher and more vigorous for a time.
The use of stimulants, however, is something like urging on a tired horse. Sometimes when there is just a little way farther to go, we may have to do it; but if a tired horse is driven too far, he will break down. If a tired body is forced to work too hard, it is likely to break down, too. Above all, it is very dangerous to depend on stimulants so that we grow to need them all the time, and cannot work or enjoy life without them, Then one has become a slave, which a real American will never be.
A child has no necessity for stimulants at all. Older people may sometimes be so tired that they need them but no healthy child ever does. A child is much more sensitive to the harmful effects of tea and coffee than a grown person; and the use of these drinks may do children serious harm.
The Tobacco Habit.—Another of the habits for which people sometimes give up a good share of their freedom is smoking.
The use of tobacco is more objectionable than the use of tea and coffee. Smoking is an expensive habit, for a good deal of money is burnt up in the course of a year in the form of cigars or cigarettes. It is an un. pleasant habit for those who do not share it, since it fills the air and the clothes and the hair of every one in the room with stale-smelling smoke. It is a habit which may do serious damage to the health. People who smoke a great deal injure the soft, delicate surfaces of the nose and throat and are likely to have a nasty, dry cough as a result. They injure their digestions and their hearts; a heavy smoker cannot exercise actively without panting and puffing, because his heart is usually, not strong enough to supply the needs of his muscles fully. They injure their nerves and their brains. The hand of a hard smoker often trembles as a result of this action upon the nerves. Boys and men who are training for rowing and football and other athletic con-tests are never allowed to smoke.
As in the case of tea and coffee—only much more so—the danger from tobacco is most serious in youth. Grown people can smoke a little without harm, provided they do not form so strong a habit that they are no longer free to stop when they wish. For children and young people, tobacco is always harmful. No boy who wants to be strong and well, a successful man and a good citizen, will touch it in any form.
Medicines and When to Use Them.—When you are ill, the doctor is sent for, and sometimes perhaps he gives you medicines. These medicines, or the sub-stances they contain, called drugs, are given for particular effects they have on the body, to remedy some-thing that is going wrong. For instance, if a person is very ill and his heart is weak, a stimulant drug may be given to make the heart beat more strongly. Only the doctor can know when drugs should be given, what ones to use and how much of each; and even doctors nowadays do not use drugs nearly as much as they used to.
Yet some people who ought to know better take medicines without asking the doctor at all, medicines perhaps which are sold at the drug store with labels claiming that they will cure all sorts of diseases. Such medicines are almost always useless. Many of them are absolute frauds, put up simply to cheat people out of their money; and others contain dangerous drugs which may do very serious harm.
The most dangerous of all medicines are certain drugs which affect the brain and nerves, and which people get in the habit of taking and soon cannot get along without. The most unfortunate people on earth are those who have lost their freedom by becoming slaves certain of these drugs.
The only safe rule is never to use medicines or drugs of any kind, except under the doctor's orders.
Alcohol as a Drug: There is one harmful drug which many people have unfortunately used more or less regularly in their daily life. This drug is alcohol, which is present in wines of various kinds and ale and beer, and in much larger amount in "strong drinks," such as rum, gin, brandy, and whiskey.
Alcohol is not a stimulant, like tea or coffee. It does not wake a person up, but rather puts him partly to sleep. At first it affects only certain parts of the brain and particularly the inhibitions which you learned about in Chapter V. What do you think will be the result if something happens to make the inhibitions work less effectively? A person who has taken a drug of this kind would be likely to do things and say things that he would have too much sense and judgment to do or say if he were not under its influence, would he not? That is just the effect of alcoholic drinks if they are used immoderately; and a very little may prove immoderate for many people. So the alcoholic drinks are excellent examples of things that take away the freedom which is the privilege of every American citizen, the freedom to do always what one really believes to be right and proper to do. No one who is under the influence of alcohol is a free man.
The Effect of Alcoholic Drinks on Health.—When alcoholic drinks are used in large quantities, they do direct damage to many different organs of the body. They may injure the delicate walls of the stomach. They damage the liver and the kidneys. They cause disease in the heart and the walls of the blood vessels. These effects are so serious that people who drink a large amount of alcoholic liquor—and also those who drink only moderate amounts but do it as a regular thing year after year—do not live so long, on the average, as those who are free from this habit.
Alcoholic Drinks and Success in Life.—Long before alcohol shows its effect upon the health of the liver and blood vessels and the other organs mentioned, it begins to influence the nerves and brain, and through them lessens the power to do any sort of hard and skilful work. Even a single drink of the stronger alcoholic liquors affects the quickness of a man's nerves and the accuracy of his actions. He becomes a little bit slow and a little bit clumsy.
The world nowadays has not much use for slow and clumsy people. In the factory and in the office, a man or a woman must think quickly and act quickly; and the one who will get to the top is the one who can do the work best and in the shortest time. So most of the large employers of labor long ago decided not to em-ploy men who drank alcoholic liquor. Many railroads, for instance, forbade their men to use alcohol at all. Think what might happen on a railroad if the engineer's brain were not perfectly clear and his, hand perfectly steady. The lives of the people on the train may depend on his seeing a signal and stopping at the right moment; and those lives will be in danger if he has clouded his brain by drinking alcoholic liquor.
It is not only personal success that a man gives up if he becomes a slave to the habit of using alcohol. The railroad engineer who wrecks his train because he was not sober is himself one of hundreds who may perhaps be killed as a result. Whenever we do any of our work badly, it hurts some one else.
The Cost of Alcohol.—The habit of using alcoholic drinks is a very expensive and a very wasteful habit. It wastes health, on account of the direct damage done to the drinkers. It wastes time and energy, on account of the poorer work they do. It wastes the money which it costs to build and keep up the factories where the alcoholic drinks are made. It wastes the valuable food substances which are used to make them.
Most alcoholic liquors are made from grains of various kinds. You know that during the Great War there was not enough grain in the world to feed all the people who needed it; so that in Belgium and France and Russia there were many people who were very hungry. In the years after the war, too, there was great suffering because people could not get the necessary food. It is clearly a poor plan to take the grain that men and women and children need to keep them alive, and turn it into alcoholic drinks which can only do harm.
Alcohol in War Time and After.—When a nation goes to war, every one must work harder and better than ever before for the common good. The men in the army, the men and the women in the factories and on the farms and in the shipyards, the women who are saving food at home and working for the Red Cross,—yes, and the children, too, in the Junior Red Cross,—every one must do his or her very best. There is no room any more for people who are made slow and stupid by the use of alcohol.
So,very early in the Great War which began in 1914 Russia stopped the sale of strong alcoholic drinks. Then France and England passed laws to limit the use of strong drinks. They knew that no nation can do anything with all its might if its people are dulled by alcohol. America came into the war, and the same thing happened here. President Wilson stopped the making of strong alcoholic drinks during the war, and the Congress at Washington passed an amendment to, the Constitution of the United States which forbade the sale of all kinds of alcoholic liquors and which, having been agreed to by more than three-quarters of the states, became a part of the Constitution.
These lessons learned in war time as to the harmful effects of alcohol will not be forgotten. As a result of the war, it seems likely that millions of people will be freed from the habit of using alcoholic liquors, a habit which has perhaps done more harm in the world than even tyrannical emperors. and kings.