TO most people self-control means the control of appearances and not the control of realities. This is a radical mistake, and must be corrected, if we are to get a clear idea of self-control, and if we are to make a fair start in acquiring it as a permanent habit.
I am what I am by virtue of my own motives of thought and action, by virtue of what my mind is, what my will is, and what I am in the resultant combination of my mind and will; I am not necessarily what I appear from the outside.
If a man is ugly to me, and I want to knock him down, and refrain from doing so simply because it would not appear well, and is not the habit of the people about me, my desire to knock him down is still a part of myself, and I have not controlled myself until I am absolutely free from that interior desire. So long as I am in hatred to another, I am in bondage to my hatred; and if, for the sake of appearances, I do not act or speak from it, I am none the less at its mercy, and it will find an outlet wherever it can do so without debasing me in the eyes of other men more than I am willing to be debased. The control of appearances is merely outward repression, and a very common instance of this may be observed in the effort to control a laugh. If we repress it, it is apt to assert itself in spite of our best efforts; whereas, if we relax our muscles, and let the sensation go through us, we can control our desire to laugh and so get free from it. When we repress a laugh, we are really holding on to it, in our minds, but, when we control it by relaxing the tension that comes from the desire to laugh, it is as if the sensation passed over and away from us.
It is a well-known fact among surgeons that, if a man who is badly frightened, takes ether, no matter how well he controls his outward behavior, no matter how quiet he appears while the ether is being administered, as soon as he loses control of his voluntary muscles, the fear that has been repressed rushes out in the form of excitement. This is a practical illustration of the fact that control of appearances is merely control of the muscles, and that, even so far as our nervous system goes, it is only repression, and self-repression is not self-control.
If I repress the expression of irritability, anger, hatred, or any other form of evil, it is there, in my brain, just the same; and, in one form or another, I am in bondage to it. Sometimes it expresses itself in little meannesses; sometimes it affects my body and makes me ill; often it keeps me from being entirely well. Of one thing we may be sure, — it makes me the instrument of evil, in one way or another. Repressed evil is not going to lie dormant in us forever; it will rise in active ferment, sooner or later. Its ultimate action is just as certain as that a serious impurity of the blood is certain to lead to physical disease, if it is not counteracted.
Knowing this to be true, we can no longer say of certain people “So-and-so has remarkable self-control.” We can only say, “So-and-so represses his feelings remarkably well: what a good actor he is I” The men who have real self-control do exist, and they are the leaven that saves the race. It is good to know that this habitual repression comes, in many cases, from want of knowledge of the fact that self-repression is not self-control.
But the reader may say, “what am I to do, if I feel angry, and want to hit a man in the face; I am not supposed to hit him am I, rather than to repress my feelings?”
No, not at all, but you are supposed to use your will to get in behind the desire to hit him, and, by relaxing in mind and body, and stopping all resistance to his action, to remove that desire in yourself entirely. If once you persistently refuse to resist by dropping the anger of your mind and the tension of your body, you have gained an opportunity of helping your brother, if he is willing to be helped; you have cleared the atmosphere of your own mind entirely, so that you can understand his point of view, and give him the benefit of reasonable consideration; or, at the very least, you have yourself ceased to be ruled by his evils, for you can no longer be roused to personal retaliation. It is interesting and enlightening to recognize the fact that we are in bondage to any man to the extent that we permit ourselves to be roused to anger or resentment by his words or actions.
When a man’s brain is befogged by the fumes of anger and irritability, it can work neither clearly nor quietly, and, when that is the case, it is impossible for him to serve himself or his neighbor to his full ability. If another person has the power to rouse my anger or my irritability, and I allow the anger or the irritability to control me, I am, of course, subservient to my own bad state, and at the mercy of the person who has the power to excite those evil states just in so far as such excitement confuses my brain.
Every one has in him certain inherited and personal tendencies which are obstacles to his freedom of mind and body, and his freedom is limited just in so far as he allows those tendencies to control him. If he controls them by external repression, they are then working havoc within him, no matter how thoroughly he may appear to be master of himself. If he acknowledges his mistaken tendencies fully and willingly and then refuses to act, speak, or think from them, he is taking a straight path toward freedom of life and action.
One great difficulty in the way of self-control is that we do not want to get free from our anger. In such cases we can only want to want to, and if we use the strength of will that is given us to drop our resistance in spite of our desire to be angry we shall be working toward our freedom and our real self-control.
There is always a capacity for unselfish will, the will of the better self, behind the personal selfish will, ready and waiting for us to use it, and it grows with use until finally it overrules the personal selfish will with a higher quality of power. It is only false strength that supports the personal will, — a false appearance of strength which might be called willfulness and which leads ultimately to the destruction of its owner. Any true observer of human nature will recognize the weakness of mere selfish willfulness in another, and will keep entirely free from its trammels by refusing to meet it in a spirit of resentment or retaliation.
Real self-control, as compared to repression, is delightful in its physical results, when we have any difficult experience to anticipate or to go through. Take, for instance, a surgical operation. If I control myself by yielding, by relaxing the nervous tension which is the result of MY fear, true self-control then becomes possible, and brings a helpful freedom from, reaction after the trouble is over. Or the same principle can be applied if I have to go through a hard trial with a friend and must control myself for his sake, — dropping resistance in my mind and in my body, dropping resistance to his suffering, yielding my will to the necessities of the situation, — this attitude will leave me much more clear to help him, will show him how to help himself, and will relieve him from the reaction that inevitably follows severe nervous strain. The power of use to others is increased immeasurably when we control ourselves interiorly, and do not merely outwardly repress.
It often happens that a drunkard who is supposed to be “cured,” returns to his habit, simply because he has wanted his drink all the time, and has only been taught to repress his appetite; if he had been steadily and carefully taught real self-control, he would have learnt to control and drop his interior desire, and thus keep permanently free. How often we see intemperance which had shown itself in drink simply turned into another channel, another form of selfish indulgence, and yet the victim will complacently boast of his self-control. An extreme illustration of this truth is shown in the case of a well-known lecturer on temperance. He had given up drink, but he ate like a glutton, and his thirst for applause was so extreme as to make him appear almost ridiculous when he did not receive it.
The opportunities for self-control are, of course, innumerable; indeed they constitute pretty much the whole of life. We are living in freedom and use, real living use, in proportion as we are in actual control of our selfish selves, and led by our love of useful service. In proportion as we have through true self-control brought ourselves into daily and hourly obedience to law, are we in the freedom that properly belongs to our lives and their true uses.
When once we have won our freedom from resistance, we must use that freedom in action, and put it directly to use. Sometimes it will result in a small action, sometimes in a great one; but, whatever it is, it must be done. If we drop the resistance, and do not use the freedom gained thereby for active service, we shall simply react into further bondage, from which it will be still more difficult to escape. Having dropped my antagonism to my most bitter enemy, I must do something to serve him, if I can. If I find that it is impossible to serve him, I can at least be of service to someone else; and this action, if carried out in the true spirit of unselfish service, will go far toward the permanent establishment of my freedom.
If a circumstance which is atrociously wrong in itself makes us indignant, the first thing to do is to drop the resistance of our indignation, and then to do whatever may be within our power to prevent the continuance of such wrong. Many people weaken their powers of service by their own indignation, when, if they would cease their excited resistance, they would see clearly how to remedy the wrong that arouses their antagonism. Action, when accompanied by personal resistance, however effective it may seem, does not begin to have the power that can come from action, without such resistance. As, for instance, when we have to train a child with a perverse will, if we quietly assert what is right to the child, and insist upon obedience without the slightest antagonistic feeling to the child’s naughtiness, we accomplish much more toward strengthening the character of the child than if we try to enforce our idea by the use of our personal will, which is filled with resistance toward the child’s obstinacy. In the latter case, it is just pitting our will against the will of the child, which is always destructive, however it may appear that we have succeeded in enforcing the child’s obedience. The same thing holds true in relation to an older person, with the exception that, with him or her, we cannot even attempt to require obedience. In that case we must, — when it is necessary that we should speak at all, — assert the right without antagonism to what we believe to be their wrong, and without the slightest personal resistance to it. If we follow this course, in most cases our friend will come to the right point of view, — sometimes the result seems almost miraculous, — or, as is often the case, we, because we are wholesomely open-minded, will recognize any mistake in our own point of view, and will gladly modify it to agree with that of our friend.
The trouble is that very few of us feel like working to remedy a wrong merely for the sake of the right, and therefore we must have an impetus of personal feeling to carry us on toward the work of reformation. If we could once be strongly started in obedience to the law from love of the law itself, we should find in that impersonal love a clear light and power for effective action both in the larger and in the smaller questions of life.
There is a popular cry against introspection and an insistence that it is necessarily morbid, which works in direct opposition to true self-control. Introspection for its own sake is self-centred and morbid, but we might as well assert that it is right to have dirty hands so long as we wear gloves, and that it is morbid to want to be sure that our hands are clean under our gloves, as to assert that introspection for the sake of our true spiritual freedom is morbid. If I cannot look at my selfish motives, how am I going to get free from them? It is my selfish motives that prevent true self-control.
It is my selfish motives that prompt me to the false control of repression, which is counterfeit and for the sake of appearances alone. We must see these motives, recognize and turn away from them, in order to control ourselves interiorly into line with law. We cannot possibly see them unless we look for them. If we look into ourselves for the sake of freedom, for the sake of our greater power for use, for the sake of our true self-control, what can be more wholesome or what can lead us to a more healthy habit of looking out from ourselves into the lives and interests of others? The farther we get established in motives that are truly unselfish, the sooner we shall get out of our own light, and the wider our horizon will be; and the wider our horizon, the greater our power for use.
There must, of course, be a certain period of self-consciousness in the process of finding our true self-control, but it is for the sake of an end which brings us more and more fully into a state of happy, quiet spontaneity. If we are working carefully for true self-control we shall welcome an unexpected searchlight from another mind. If the searchlight brings into prominence a bit of irritation that we did not know was there, so much the better. How could we free ourselves from it without knowing that it was there? But as soon as we discover it we can control and cast it off. A healthy introspection is merely the use of a searchlight which every one who loves the truth has the privilege of using for the sake of his own growth and wilfulness, and circumstances often turn it full upon us, greatly to our advantage, if we do not wince but act upon the knowledge that it brings. It is possible to acquire an introspective habit which is wholesome and true, and brings us every day a better sense of pro. portion and a clearer outlook.
With regard to the true control of the Pleasurable emotions, the same principle applies.
People often grow intensely excited in listening to music, — letting their emotions run rampant and suffering in consequence a painful reaction of fatigue. If they would learn to yield so that the music could pass over their nerves as it passes over the strings of a musical instrument, and then, with the new life and vigor derived from the enjoyment, would turn to some useful work, they would find a great expansion in the enjoyment of the music as well as a new pleasure in their work.
Real self-control is the subjugation of selfishness in whatever form it may exist, and its entire subordination to spiritual and natural law. Real self-control is not self-centred. In so far as we become established in this true self-control, we are upheld by law and guided by the power behind it to the perfect freedom and joy of a useful life.