A VERY wise physician has said that “every illness has two parts—what it is, and what the patient thinks about it.” What the patient thinks about it is often more important and more troublesome than the real disease. What the patient thinks of life, what life means to him is also of great importance and may be the bar that shuts out all real health and happiness.
The great roots of worry are conscience, fear, and regret. Undoubtedly we ought to be conscientious and we ought to fear and regret evil. But if it is to be better than an impediment and harm, our worry must be largely unconscious, and intuitive. The moment we become conscious of worry we are undone.
SINCE our minds are so constantly filled with anxiety, there would seem to be at least one sure way to be rid of it—to stop thinking. A great many people believe that the mind will become less effective, that life will become dull and purposeless, unless they are constantly thinking and planning and arranging their affairs. The mind may easily and wisely be free from conscious thought a good deal of the time, and that the greatest progress and development in mind often comes when the thinker is virtually at rest, when his mind is to all intents and purposes blank. The busy, unconscious mind does its best work in the serenity of an atmosphere which does not interfere and confuse. A man is not necessarily condemned to tortures of mind because he must rest for a week or a month or a year. There must be anxious times, especially when idleness means dependence, and when it brings hardship to those who need our help. But the invalid must not try constantly to puzzle the matter out. If we do not make ourselves sick with worry, we shall be able sometime to approach active life with sufficient frankness and force. It is the constant effort of the poor, tired mind to solve its problems that not only fails of its object, but plunges the invalid deeper into discouragement and misunderstanding.
How cruel this is, and how unfortunate that it should come more commonly to those who try the hardest to overcome their handicaps, to throw off the yoke of idleness and to be well. It is not so much the idleness, then, as the attempt to overcome its irksomeness that makes this condition painful. The invalid in bed is in a trap, to be tormented by his thoughts unless he knows the meaning of successful idleness. This knowledge may come to him by giving up the struggle against worry and fret; but peace will come surely, steadily, “with healing in its wings,” when the mind is changed altogether, when life becomes free because of a growth and development that finds significance even in idleness, that sees the world with wise and patient eyes. Unfortunately, the idleness of disability often means pain, the wear and tear of physical or nervous suffering. That is another matter. We cannot meet it fully with any philosophy.
Patients very often beg to know the best way to bear pain, how they may overcome the attacks of “nerves” that are harder to bear than pain. The time to bear pain is before and after. Live in such a way in the times of comparative comfort that the attacks are less likely to appear and easier to bear when they do come. After the pain or the “nervous” attack is over, that is the time to prevent the worst features of another. Forget the distress; live simply and happily in spite of the memory, and you will have done all that the patient himself can do to ward off or to make tolerable the next occasion of suffering. Pain itself, pure physical pain, is a matter for the physician’s judgment. It is his business to seek out the causes and apply the remedy.
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. 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 the consequences may be. To do more is to drag and fail. 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 the brave thing to do. We 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 nervous person is often morose and unsocial—perhaps because he is not understood, perhaps because he falls so short of his own ideals. Often he does not find kindred spirits anywhere. We should not drive such a man into conditions that hurt, but if he is truly artistic, and not a snob, he may lead himself into a larger social life without too much sacrifice. The nervous temperament under irritation is very prone to become selfish—and very likely to hide behind this selfishness, calling it temperament.
The man who flies into a passion when he is disturbed, or who spends his days in torment from the noises of the street; the woman of high attainment who has retired into herself, who is moody and unresponsive,—these unfortunates have virtually built a wall about their lives, a wall which shuts out the world of life and happiness. From the walls of this prison the sounds of discord and annoyance are thrown back upon the prisoner intensified and multiplied. The wall is real enough in its effect, but will cease to exist when the prisoner begins to go outside, when he begins to realize his selfishness and his mistake. Then the noises and the irritations will be lost in the wider world that is open to him. After all, it is only through unselfish service in the world of men that this broadening can come. The person who thinks little of his own attitude of mind is more likely to be well controlled and to radiate happiness than one who must continually prompt himself to worthy thoughts. The man whose heart is great with understanding of the sorrow and pathos of life is far more apt to be brave and fine in his own trouble than one who must look to a motto or a formula for consolation and advice.
Deep in the lives of those who permanently triumph over sorrow there is an abiding peace and joy. Such peace cannot come even from ample experience in the material world. Despair comes from that experience sometimes, unless the heart is open to the vital spirit that lies beyond all material things, that creates and renews life and that makes it indescribably beautiful and significant.
Experience of material things is only the beginning. In it and through it we may have experience of the wider life that surrounds the material. Life is serious—alas, too serious—and full enough of pathos. We cannot joke about its troubles; they are real. But, at least, we need not magnify them. Why should we act as though everything depended upon our efforts, even the changing seasons and the blowing winds. No doubt we are responsible for our own acts and thoughts and for the welfare of those who depend upon us. The trouble is we take unnecessary responsibilities so seriously that we overreach ourselves and defeat our own good ends.
We have all about us instances of the effectiveness of the lighter touch as applied to serious matters. The life of the busy surgeon is a good example. He may be, and usually is, brimming with sympathy, but if he were to feel too deeply for all his patients, he would soon fail and die. He goes about his work and he puts through a half-dozen operations in a way that would send cold shivers down the back of the uninitiated. And yet he is accurate and sure as a machine. If he were to take each case upon his mind in a heavy, consequential way, if he were to give deep concern to each ligature he ties, and if he were to be constantly afraid of causing pain, he would be a poor surgeon. His work, instead of being clean and sharp, would suffer from over-conscientiousness. He might never finish an operation for fear his patient would bleed to death. Such a man may be the reverse of flippant, and yet he may actually enjoy his somber work. Cruel and bloodthirsty? Not at all. These men—the great surgeons—are as tender as children. But they love their work; they really care very deeply for their patients. The successful ones have the lighter touch and they have no time for worry.
There is a natural gayety in most of us which helps more than we realize to keep us sound. The pity is that when responsibilities come and hardships come, we repress our lighter selves sternly, as though such repression were a duty. Better let us guard the springs of happiness very, very jealously. The whistling boy in the dark street does more than cheer himself on the way. He actually protects himself from evil, and brings courage not only to himself, but to those who hear him.
Do not hold for false cheerfulness that is sometimes affected, but a brave show of courage in a forlorn hope will sometimes win the day. It is infinitely more likely to win than a too serious realization of the danger of defeat. The show of courage is often not a pretense at all, but victory itself. The need of the world is very great and its human destiny is in our hands. Half of those who could help to right the wrongs are asleep or too selfishly immersed in their own affairs. We need more helpers like the skylights. Most of us are far too serious. The slumberers will slumber on, and the worriers will worry, the serious people will go ponderously about until someone shows them how ridiculous they are and how pitiful.
THE unrepentant sinner walks abroad. Unfortunately for us moralists he seems to be having a very good time. We must not condone him, though he may be a very lovable person; neither must we altogether condemn him, for he may be repentant in the very best way of all ways, the way that forgets much and leaves behind more, because life is so fine that it must not be spoiled, and because progress is in every way better than retrospection. The fact is, that repentance is too often the fear of punishment, and such fear is, to say the least, unmanly.
We would rather be a lovable sinner than one of the people who repent because they cannot bear to think of the consequences. Knowledge and fear of consequences undoubtedly keep a great many young people from the so-called sins of ignorance. But there must be something behind knowledge and fear of consequences to stop the youth of spirit from doing what he is inclined to do. Over and over again we must go back to the appreciation of life’s dignity and beauty in the world if we are to find a balance and a character that will “deliver us from evil.” Many a man has followed the best of advice for a time, and has become discouraged because the promised results did not materialize. It is disappointing, surely, to have lived upon a diet for months only to find that you still have dyspepsia, or to have followed certain rules of morality with great precision and enthusiasm without obtaining the untroubled mind.
We are accustomed to see results in the material world and naturally expect them everywhere. The trouble is we do not always recognize improvements when we see them, and we insist upon certain preconceived changes as a result of our endeavors. The physician is apt rashly to promise definite physical accomplishments in a given time. He is courting disappointment and distrust when he does so. We all want to get relief from our symptoms, and we are inclined to insist upon a particular kind of relief so strongly that we fail to appreciate the possibilities of another and a better relief which may be at hand. The going astray in this particular is sometimes very unfortunate.
There was a man to rush frantically from one doctor to another, trying to obtain relief for a particular pain or discomfort, unwilling to rest long enough to find out that the trouble would have disappeared naturally if he had taken the advice of the first physician, to live without impatience and within his limitations.
A man grows better, more human, more intelligent, as he practices the virtues. He is safer, no doubt, and the world is better. It is even true that, by the constant practice of virtues, he may come finally to espouse goodness and become thoroughly good. That is the hopeful thing about it and the reason why we may consistently ask or demand the routine practice of the virtues.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Untroubled Mind, by Herbert J. Hall)