IT is not generally recognized that the will can be trained, little by little, by as steadily normal a process as the training of a muscle, and that such training must be through regular daily exercise, and as slow in its effects as the training of a muscle is slow. Perhaps we are unconsciously following, as a race, the law that Froebel has given for the beginnings of individual education, which bids us lead from the “outer to the inner,” from the known to the unknown. There is so much more to be done to make methods of muscular training perfect, that we have not yet come to appreciate the necessity for a systematic training of the will. Every individual, however, who recognizes the need of such training and works accordingly, is doing his part to hasten a more intelligent use of the will by humanity in general.
When muscles are trained abnormally their development weakens, instead of strengthening, the whole system. Great muscular strength is often deceptive in the appearance of power that it gives; it often effectually hides, under a strong exterior, a process of degeneration which is going on within, and it is not uncommon for an athlete to die of heart disease or pulmonary consumption.
This is exactly analogous to the frequently deceptive appearance of great strength of will. The will is trained abnormally when it is used only in the direction of personal desire, and the undermining effect upon the character in this case is worse than the weakening result upon the body in the case of abnormal muscular development. A person who is persistently strong in having his own way may be found inconsistently weak when he is thwarted in his own way. This weakness is seldom evident to the general public, because a man with a strong will to accomplish his own ends is quick to detect and hide any appearance of weakness, when he knows that it will interfere with whatever he means to do. The weakness, however, is none the less certainly there, and is often oppressively evident to those from whom he feels that he has nothing to gain.
When the will is truly trained to its best strength, it is trained to obey; not to obey persons or arbitrary ideas, but to obey laws of life which are as fixed and true in their orderly power, as the natural laws which keep the suns and planets in their appointed spheres. There is no one who, after a little serious reflection, may not be quite certain of two or three fixed laws, and as we obey the laws we know, we find that we discover more.
To obey truly we must use our wills to yield as well as to act. Often the greatest strength is gained through persistent yielding, for to yield entirely is the most difficult work a strong will can do, and it is doing the most difficult work that brings the greatest strength.
To take a simple example: a small boy with a strong will is troubled with stammering. Every time he stammers it makes him angry, and he pushes and strains and exerts himself with so much effort to speak, that the stammering, in consequence, increases. If he were told to do something active and very painful, and to persist in it until his stammering were cured, he would set his teeth and go through the work like a soldier, so as to be free from the stammering in the shortest possible time. But when he is told that he must relax his body and stop pushing, in order to drop the resistance that causes his trouble, he fights against the idea with all his little might. It is all explained to him, and he understands that it is his only road to smooth speaking; but the inherited tendency to use his will only in resistance is so strong, that at first it seems impossible for him to use it in any other way.
The fact that the will sometimes gains its greatest power by yielding seems such a paradox that it is not strange that it takes us long to realize it. Indeed, the only possible realization of it is through practice.
The example of the, little stammering boy is an illustration that applies to many other cases of the same need for giving up resistance.
No matter how actively we need to use our wills, it is often, necessary to drop all self-willed resistance first, before we begin an action, if we want to succeed with the least possible effort and the best result.
When we use the will forcibly to resist or to repress, we are simply straining our nerves and muscles, and are exerting ourselves in a way which must eventually be weakening, not only to them, but to the will itself. We are using the will normally when, without repression or unnecessary effort, we are directing the muscles and nerves in useful work. We want “training and not straining” as much for the will as for the body, and only in that way does the will get its strength.
The world admires a man for the strength of his will if he can control the appearance of anger, whereas the only strength of will that is not spurious is that which controls the anger itself. We have had the habit for so long of living in appearances, that it is only by a slow process that we acquire a strong sense of their frailty and lack of genuine value. In order to bring the will, by training, out of the region of appearances into that of realities, we must learn to find the true causes of weakness and use our wills little by little to remove them. To remove the external effect does no permanent good and produces an apparent strength which only hides an increasing weakness.
Imagine, for instance, a woman with an emotional, excitable nature who is suffering from jealousy; she does not call it jealousy, she calls it “sensitive nerves,” and the doctors call it “hysteria.” She has severe attacks of “sensitive nerves” or “hysteria” every time her jealousy is excited. It is not uncommon for such persistent emotional strain, with its effect upon the circulation and other functions of the body, to bring on organic disease. In such a case the love of admiration, and the strength of will resulting from that selfish desire, makes her show great fortitude, for which she receives much welcome praise. That is the effect she wants, and in the pose of a wonderful character she finds it easy to produce more fortitude–and so win more admiration.
A will that is strong for the wrong, may–if taken in time–become equally strong for the right. Perversion is not, at first, through lack of will, but through the want of true perception to light the way to its intelligent use.
A man sometimes appears to be without power of will who is only using a strong will in the wrong way, but if he continues in his wrong course long enough, his weakness becomes real.
If a woman who begins her nervous degeneration by indulging herself in jealousy–which is really a gross emotion, however she may refine it in appearance–could be made to see the truth, she would, in many cases, be glad to use her will in the right direction, and would become in reality the beautiful character which her friends believe her to be. This is especially true because this moral and nervous perversion often attacks the finest natures. But when such perversion is allowed to continue, the sufferer’s strength is always prominent in external dramatic effects, but disappears oppressively when she is brought face to face with realities.
Many people who are nervous invalids, and many who are not, are constantly weakening themselves and making themselves suffer by using their wills vigorously in every way but that which is necessary to their moral freedom: by bearing various unhappy effects with so-called stoicism, or fighting against them with their eyes tight shut to the real cause of their suffering, and so hiding an increasing weakness under an appearance of strength.
A ludicrous and gross example of this misuse of the will may be observed in men or women who follow vigorously and ostentatiously paths of self-sacrifice which they have marked out for themselves, while overlooking entirely places where self-denial is not only needed for their better life, but where it would add greatly to the happiness and comfort of others
It is curious a such weakness is common with people who are apparently very intelligent; and parallel with this are cases of men who are remarkably strong in the line of their own immediate careers, and proportionately weak in every other phase of their lives. We very seldom find a soldier, or a man who is powerful in politics, who can answer in every principle and action of his life to Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Warrior.”
Absurd as futile self-sacrifice seems, it is not less well balanced than the selfish fortitude of a jealous woman or than the apparent strength of a man who can only work forcibly for selfish ends. The wisest use of the will can only grow with the decrease of self-indulgence.
“Nervous” women are very effective examples of the perversion of a strong will. There are women who will work themselves into an illness and seem hopelessly weak when they are not having their own way, who would feel quite able to give dinner parties at which they could be prominent in whatever rôle they might prefer, and would forget their supposed weakness with astonishing rapidity. When things do not go to please such women, they are weak and ill; when they stand out among their friends according to their own ideal of themselves and are sufficiently flattered, they enter into work which is far beyond their actual strength, and sooner or later break down only to be built up on another false basis.
This strong will turned the wrong way is called “hysteria,” or “neurasthenia,” or “degeneracy.” It may be one of these or all three, in its effect, but the training of the will to overcome the cause, which is always to be found in some kind of selfishness, would cure the hysteric, give the neurasthenic more wholesome nerves, and start the degenerate on a course of regeneration. At times it would hardly surprise us to hear that a child with a stomach-ache crying for more candy was being treated for “hysteria” and studied as a “degenerate.” Degenerate he certainly is, but only until he can be taught to deny himself candy when it is not good for him, with quiet and content.
There are many petty self-indulgences which, if continually practised, can do great and irreparable harm in undermining the will. Every man or woman knows his own little weaknesses best, but that which leads to the greatest harm is the excuse, “It is my temperament; if I were not tardy, or irritable, or untidy,”–or whatever it may be,–“I would not be myself.” Our temperament is given us as a servant, not as a master; and when we discover that an inherited perversion of temperament can be trained to its opposite good, and train it so, we do it not at a loss of individuality, but at a great gain. This excuse of “temperament ” is often given as a reason for not yielding. The family will is dwelt upon with a pride which effectually prevents it from keeping its best strength, and blinds the members of the family to the weakness that is sure to come, sooner or later, as a result of the misuse of the inheritance of which they are so proud.
If we train our wills to be passive or active, as the need may be, in little things, that prepares us for whatever great work may be before us. just as in the training of a muscle, the daily gentle exercise prepares it to lift a great weight.
Whether in little ways or in great ways, it is stupid and useless to expect to gain real strength, unless we are working in obedience to the laws that govern its development. We have a faculty for distinguishing order from disorder and harmony from discord, which grows in delicacy and strength as we use it, and we can only use it through refusing disorder and choosing order. As our perception grows, we choose more wisely, and as we choose more wisely, our perception grows. But our perceptions must work in causes, not at all in effects, except as they lead us to a knowledge of causes. We must, above all, train our wills as a means of useful work. It is impossible to perfect ourselves for the sake of ourselves.
It is a happy thing to have been taught the right use of the will as a child, but those of us who have not been so taught, can be our own fathers and our own mothers, and we must be content with a slow growth. We are like babies learning to walk. The baby tries day after day, and does not feel any strain, or wake in the morning with a distressing sense of “Oh! I must practise walking to-day. When shall I have finished learning?” He works away, time after time falling down and picking himself up, and some one day finally walks, without thinking about it any more. So we, in the training of our wills, need to work patiently day by day; if we fall, we must pick ourselves up and go on, and just as the laws of balance guide the baby, so the laws of life will carry us.
When the baby has succeeded in walking, he is not elated at his new power, but uses it quietly and naturally to accomplish his ends. We cannot realize too strongly that any elation or personal pride on our part in a better use of the will, not only obstructs its growth, but is directly and immediately weakening.
A quiet, intelligent use of the will is at the root of all character; and unselfish, well-balanced character, with the insight which it develops, will lead us to well-balanced nerves.