It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be.
It is a good thing to have a sound body, better to have a sane mind, but neither is to be compared to that aggregate of virile and decent qualities which we call character.
The only effective remedy against inexorable necessity is to yield to it.
When I go about among my patients, most of them, as it happens, “nervously” sick, I sometimes stop to consider why it is they are ill. I know that some are so because of physical weakness over which they have no control, that some are suffering from the effects of carelessness, some from wilfulness, and more from simple ignorance of the rules of the game. There are so many rules that no one will ever know them all, but it seems that we live in a world of laws, and that if we transgress those laws by ever so little, we must suffer equally, whether our transgression is a mistake or not, and whether we happen to be saints or sinners. There are laws also which have to do with the recovery of poise and balance when these have been lost. These laws are less well observed and understood than those which determine our downfall.
The more gross illnesses, from accident, contagion, and malignancy, we need not consider here, but only those intangible injuries that disable people who are relatively sound in the physical sense. It is true that nervous troubles may cause physical complications and that physical disease very often coexists with nervous illness, but it is better for us now to make an artificial separation. Just what happens in the human economy when a “nervous breakdown” comes, nobody seems to know, but mind and body coöperate to make the patient miserable and helpless. It may be nature’s way of holding us up and preventing further injury. The hold-up is severe, usually, and becomes in itself a thing to be managed.
The rules we have wittingly or unwittingly broken are often unknown to us, but they exist in the All-Wise Providence, and we may guess by our own suffering how far we have overstepped them. If a man runs into a door in the dark, we know all about that,—the case is simple,—but if he runs overtime at his office and hastens to be rich with the result of a nervous dyspepsia—that is a mystery. Here is a girl who “came out” last year. She was apparently strong and her mother was ambitious for her social progress.
That meant four nights a week for several months at dances and dinners, getting home at 3 a.m. or later. It was gay and delightful while it lasted, but it could not last, and the girl went to pieces suddenly; her back gave out because it was not strong enough to stand the dancing and the long-continued physical strain. The nerves gave out because she did not give her faculties time to rest, and perhaps because of a love affair that supervened. The result was a year of invalidism, and then, because the rules of recovery were not understood, several years more of convalescence. Such common rules should be well enough understood, but they are broken everywhere by the wisest people.
The common case of the broken-down school teacher is more unfortunate. This tragedy and others like it are more often, I believe, due to unwise choice of profession in the first place. The women’s colleges are turning out hundreds of young women every year who naturally consider teaching as the field most appropriate and available. Probably only a very small proportion of these girls are strong enough physically or nervously to meet the growing demands of the schools. They may do well for a time, some of them unusually well, for it is the sensitive, high-strung organism that is appreciative and effective. After a while the worry and fret of the requirements and the constant nag of the schoolroom have their effect upon those who are foredoomed to failure in that particular field. The plight of such young women is particularly hard, for they are usually dependent upon their work.
It is, after all, not so much the things we do as the way we do them, and what we think about them, that accomplishes nervous harm. Strangely enough, the sense of effort and the feeling of our own inadequacy damage the nervous system quite as much as the actual physical effort. The attempt to catch up with life and with affairs that go on too fast for us is a frequent and harmful deflection from the rules of the game. Few of us avoid it. Life comes at us and goes by very fast. Tasks multiply and we are inadequate, responsibilities increase before we are ready. They bring fatigue and confusion. We cannot shirk and be true.
Having done all you reasonably can, stop, whatever may be the consequences. That is a rule I would enforce if I could. To do more is to drag and fail, so defeating the end of your efforts. If it turns out that you are not fit for the job you have undertaken, give it up and find another, or modify that one until it comes within your capacity. It takes courage to do this—more courage sometimes than is needed to make us stick to the thing we are doing. Rarely, however, will it be necessary for us to give up if we will undertake and consider for the day only such part of our task as we are able to perform. The trouble is that we look at our work or our responsibility all in one piece, and it crushes us. If we cannot arrange our lives so that we may meet their obligations a little at a time, then we must admit failure and try again, on what may seem a lower plane. That is what I consider the brave thing to do. I would honor the factory superintendent, who, finding himself unequal to his position, should choose to work at the bench where he could succeed perfectly.
The habit of uncertainty in thought and action, bred, as it sometimes is, from a lack of faith in man and in God, is, nevertheless, a thing to be dealt with sometimes by itself. Not infrequently it is a petty habit that can be corrected by the exercise of a little will power. I believe it is better to decide wrong a great many times—doing it quickly—than to come to a right decision after weakly vacillating. As a matter of fact, we may trust our decisions to be fair and true if our life’s ideals are beautiful and true.
We may improve our indecisions a great deal by mastering their unhappy details, but we shall not finally overcome them until life rings true and until all our acts and thoughts become the solid and inevitable expression of a healthy growing regard for the best in life, a call to right living that is no mean dictum of policy, but which is renewed every morning as the sun comes out of the sea. However inconsequential the habit of indecision may seem, it is really one of the most disabling of bad habits. Its continuance contributes largely to the sum of nervous exhaustion. Whatever its origin, whether it stands in the relation of cause or effect, it is an indulgence that insidiously takes the snap and sparkle out of life and leaves us for the time being colorless and weak.
Next to uncertainty, an uninspired certainty is wrecking to the best of human prospects. The man whose one idea is of making himself and his family materially comfortable, or even rich, may not be coming to nervous prostration, but he is courting a moral prostration that will deny him all the real riches of life and that will in the end reward him with a troubled mind, a great, unsatisfied longing, unless, to be sure, he is too smug and satisfied to long for anything.
The larger life leads us inevitably away from ourselves, away from the super-requirements of our families. It demands of them and of ourselves an unselfishness that is born of a love that finds its expression in the service of God. And what is the service of God if it is not such an entering into the divine purposes and spirit that we become with God re-creators in the world—working factors in the higher evolution of humanity? While we live we shall get and save, we shall use and spend, we shall serve the needs of those dependent upon us, but we shall not line the family nest so softly that our children become powerless. We shall not confine our charities to the specified channels, where our names will be praised and our credit increased.
We shall give and serve in secret places with our hearts in our deeds. Then we may possess the untroubled mind, a treasure too rich to be computed. We shall not have it for the seeking; it may exist in the midst of what men may call privations and sorrows; but it will exist in a very large sense and it will be ours. The so-called hard-headed business man who never allows himself to be taken advantage of, whose dealings are always strict and uncompromising, is very apt to be a particularly miserable invalid when he is ill. I cannot argue in favor of business laxity,—I know the imperative need of exactness and finality,—but I do believe that if we are to possess the untroubled mind we must make our lives larger than the field of dollars and cents. The charity that develops in us will make us truly generous and free from the reaction of hardness.
It is a great temptation to go on multiplying the rules of the game. There are so many sensible and necessary pieces of advice which we all need to have emphasized. That is the course we must try to avoid. The child needs to be told, arbitrarily for a while, what is right, and what is wrong, that he must do this, and he must not do that. The time comes, however, when the growing instinct toward right living is the thing to foster—not the details of life which will inevitably take care of themselves if the underlying principle is made right. It must be the ideal of moral teaching to make clear and pure the source of action. Then the stream will be clear and pure. Such a stream will purify itself and neutralize the dangerous inflow along its banks. It is true that great harm may come from the polluted inflows, but they will be less and less harmful as the increasing current from the good source flows down.
We shall have to look well to our habits lest serious ills befall, but that must never be the main concern or we shall find ourselves living very narrow and labored lives; we shall find that we are failing to observe one of the most important rules of the game.