WE come now to the brain and its direction of other parts of the body.
What tremendous and unnecessary force is used in talking,–from the aimless motion of the hands, the shoulders, the feet, the entire body, to a certain rigidity of carriage, which tells as powerfully in the wear and tear of the nervous system as superfluous motion. It is a curious discovery when we find often how we are holding our shoulders in place, and in the wrong place. A woman receiving a visitor not only talks all over herself, but reflects the visitor’s talking all over, and so at the end of the visit is doubly fatigued. “It tires me so to see people” is heard often, not only from those who are under the full influence of “Americanitis,” but from many who are simply hovering about its borders. “Of course it tires you to see people, you see them with, so much superfluous effort,” can almost without exception be a true answer. A very little simple teaching will free a woman from that unnecessary fatigue. If she is sensible, once having had her attention brought and made keenly alive to the fact that she talks all over, she ‘will through constant correction gain the power of talking as Nature meant she should, with her vocal apparatus only, and with such easy motions as may be needed to illustrate her words. In this change, so far from losing animation, she gains it, and gains true expressive power; for all unnecessary motion of the body in talking simply raises a dust, so to speak, and really blurs the true thought of the mind and feeling of the heart.
The American voice–especially the female voice–is a target which has been hit hard many times, and very justly. A ladies’ luncheon can often be truly and aptly compared to a poultry-yard, the shrill cackle being even more unpleasant than that of a large concourse of hens. If we had once become truly appreciative of the natural mellow tones possible to every woman, these shrill voices would no more be tolerated than a fashionable luncheon would be served in the kitchen.
A beautiful voice has been compared to corn, oil, and wine. We lack almost entirely the corn and the oil; and the wine in our voices is far more inclined to the sharp, unpleasant taste of very poor currant wine, than to the rich, spicy flavor of fine wine from the grape. It is not in the province of this book to consider the physiology of the voice, which would be necessary in order to show clearly how its natural laws are constantly disobeyed. We can now speak of it only with regard to the tension which is the immediate cause of the trouble. The effort to propel the voice from the throat, and use force in those most delicate muscles when it should come from the stronger muscles of the diaphragm, is like trying to make one man do the work of ten; the result must eventually be the utter collapse of the one man from over-activity, and loss of power in the ten men because of muscles unused. Clergyman’s sore throat is almost always explainable in this way; and there are many laymen with constant trouble in the throat from no cause except the misuse of its muscles in talking. “The old philosopher said the seat of the soul was in the diaphragm. However that may be, the word begins there, soul and body; but you squeeze the life out of it in your throat, and so your words are born dead!” was the most expressive exclamation of an able trainer of the voice.
Few of us feel. that we can take the time or exercise the care for the proper training of our voices; and such training is not made a prominent feature, as it should be, in all American schools. Indeed, if it were, we would have to begin with the teachers; for the typical teacher’s voice, especially in our public schools, coming from unnecessary nervous strain is something frightful. In a large school-room a teacher can be heard, and more impressively heard, in common conversational tones; for then it is her mind that is felt more than her body. But the teacher’s voice mounts the scale of shrillness and force just in proportion as her nervous fatigue increases; and often a true enthusiasm expresses itself–or, more correctly, hides itself–in a sharp, loud voice, when it would be far more effective in its power with the pupils if the voice were kept quiet. If we cannot give time or money to the best development of our voices, we can grow sensitive to the shrill, unpleasant tones, and by a constant preaching of “lower your voices,” “speak more quietly,” from the teacher to herself, and then to her pupils, from mother to child, and from every woman to her own voice, the standard American voice would change, greatly to the national advantage.
I never shall forget the restful pleasure of hearing a teacher call the roll in a large schoolroom as quietly as she would speak to a child in a closet, and every girl answering in the same soft and pleasant way. The effect even of that daily roll-call could not have been small in its counteracting influence on the shrill American tone.
Watch two people in an argument, as the excitement increases the voice rises. In such a case one of the best and surest ways to govern your temper is to lower your voice. Indeed the nervous system and the voice are in such exquisite sympathy that they constantly act and react on each other. It is always easier to relax superfluous tension after lowering the voice.
“Take the bone and flesh sound from your voice” is a simple and interesting direction. It means do not push so hard with your body and so interfere with the expression of your soul. Thumping on a piano, or hard scraping on a violin, will keep all possible expression from the music, and in just the same proportion will unnecessary physical force hide the soul in a voice. Indeed with the voice–because the instrument is finer–the contrast between Nature’s way and man’s perversion is far greater.
One of the first cares with a nervous invalid, or with any one who suffers at all from overstrained nerves, should be for a quiet, mellow voice. It is not an invariable truth that women with poorly balanced nerves have shrill, strained voices. There is also a rigid tone in a nervously low voice, which, though not unpleasant to the general ear, is expressive to one who is in the habit of noticing nervous people, and is much more difficult to relax than the high pitched voices. There is also a forced calm which is tremendous in its nervous strain, the more so as its owner takes pride in what she considers remarkable self-control.
Another common cause of fatigue with women is the useless strain in sewing. “I get so tired in the back of my neck” is a frequent complaint. “It is because you sew with the back of your neck” is generally the correct explanation. And it is because you sew with the muscles of your waist that they feel so strangely fatigued, and the same with the muscles of your legs or your chest. Wherever the tired feeling comes it is because of unnatural and officious tension, which, as soon as the woman becomes sensible of it, can be stopped entirely by taking two or three minutes now and then to let go of these wrongly sympathetic muscles and so teach them to mind their own business, and sew with only the muscles that are needed. A very simple cause of over-fatigue in sewing is the cramped, strained position of the lungs; this can be prevented without even stopping in the work, by taking long, quiet, easy breaths. Here there must be no exertion whatever in the chest muscles. The lungs must seem to expand from the pressure of the air alone, as independently as a rubber ball will expand when external pressure is removed, and they must be allowed to expel the air with the same independence. In this way the growth of breathing power will be slow, but it will be sure and delightfully restful. Frequent, full, quiet breaths might be the means of relief to many sufferers, if only they would take the trouble to practise them faithfully,–a very slight effort compared with the result which will surely ensue. And so it is with the fatigue from sewing. I fear I do not exaggerate, when I say that in nine cases out of ten a woman would rather sew with a pain in her neck than stop for the few moments it would take to relax it and teach it truer habits, so that in the end the pain might be avoided entirely. Then, when the inevitable nervous exhaustion follows, and all the kindred troubles that grow out of it she pities herself and is pitied by others, and wonders why God thought best to afflict her with suffering and illness. “Thought best!” God never thought best to give any one pain. He made His laws, and they are wholesome and perfect and true, and if we disobey them we must suffer the consequences! I knock my head hard against a stone and then wonder why God thought best to give me the headache. There would be as much sense in that as there is in much of the so-called Christian resignation to be found in the world to-day. To be sure there are inherited illnesses and pains, physical and mental, but the laws are so made that the compensation of clear-sightedness and power for use gained by working our way rightly out of all inheritances and suffering brought by others, fully equalizes any apparent loss.
In writing there is much unnecessary nervous fatigue. The same cramped attitude of the lungs that accompanies sewing can be counteracted in the same way, although in neither case should a cramped attitude be allowed at all Still the relief of a long breath is always helpful and even necessary where one must sit in one position for any length of time. Almost any even moderately nervous man or woman will hold a pen as if some unseen force were trying to pull it away, and will write with firmly set jaw, contracted throat, and a powerful tension in the muscles of the tongue, or whatever happens to be the most officious part of this especial individual community. To swing the pendulum to another extreme seems not to enter people’s minds when trying to find a happy medium. Writer’s paralysis, or even the ache that comes from holding the hand so long in a more or less cramped attitude, is easily obviated by stopping once in an hour or half hour, stretching the fingers wide and letting the muscles slowly relax of their own accord. Repeat this half-a-dozen times, and after each exercise try to hold the pen or pencil with natural lightness; it will not take many days to change the habit of tension to one of ease, although if you are a steady writer the stretching exercise will always be necessary, but much less often than at first.
In lifting a heavyweight, as in nursing the sick, the relief is immediate from all straining in the back, by pressing hard with the feet on the floor and thinking the power of lifting in the legs. There is true economy of nervous force here, and a sensitive spine is freed from a burden of strain which might undoubtedly be the origin of nervous prostration. I have made nurses practise lifting, while impressing the fact forcibly upon them by repetition before they lift, and during the process of raising a body and lowering it, that they must use entirely the muscles of the legs. When once their minds have full comprehension of the new way, the surprise with which they discover the comparative ease of lifting is very pleasant. The whole secret in this and all similar efforts is to use muscular instead of nervous force. Direct with the directing power; work with the working power.