A WOMAN who had had some weeks of especially difficult work for mind and body, and who had finished it feeling fresh and well, when a friend expressed surprise at her freedom from fatigue, said, with a smiling face: “Oh! but I took great care of myself all through it: I always went to bed early, and rested when it was possible. I was careful to eat only nourishing food, and to have exercise and fresh air when I could get them. You see I knew that the work must be accomplished, and that if I were over-tired I could not do it well.” The work, instead of fatiguing, had evidently refreshed her.
If that same woman had insisted, as many have in similar cases, that she had no time to think of herself; or if such care had seemed to her selfish, her work could not have been done as well, she would have ended it tired and jaded, and would have declared to sympathizing friends that it was “impossible to do a work like that without being all tired out,” and the sympathizing friends would have agreed and thought her a heroine.
A well-known author, who had to support his wife and family while working for a start in his literary career, had a commercial position that occupied him every day from nine to five. He came home and dined at six, went to bed at seven, slept until three, when he got up, made himself a cup of coffee, and wrote until he breakfasted at eight. He got all the exercise he needed in walking to and from his outside work and was able to keep up this regular routine, with no loss of health, until he could support his family comfortably on what he earned from his pen. Then he returned to ordinary hours.
A brain once roused will take a man much farther than his strength; if this man had come home tired and allowed himself to write far into the night, and then, after a short sleep, had gone to the indispensable earning of his bread and butter, the chances are that his intellectual power would have decreased, until both publishers and author would have felt quite certain that he had no power at all.
The complacent words, “I cannot think of myself,” or, “It is out of the question for me to care for myself,” or any other of the various forms in which the same idea is expressed, come often from those who are steadily thinking of themselves, and, as a natural consequence, are so blinded that they cannot see the radical difference between unselfish care for one’s self, as a means to an end, and the selfish care for one’s self which has no other object in view.
The wholesome care is necessary to the best of all good work. The morbid care means steady decay for body and soul.
We should care for our bodies as a violinist cares for his instrument. It is the music that comes from his violin which he has in mind, and he is careful of his instrument because of its musical power. So we, with some sense of the possible power of a healthy body, should be careful to keep it fully supplied with fresh air; to keep it exercised and rested; to supply it with the quality and quantity of nourishment it needs; and to protect it from unnecessary exposure. When, through mistake or for any other reason, our bodies get out of order, instead of dwelling on our discomfort, we should take immediate steps to bring them back to a normal state.
If we learned to do this as a matter of course, as we keep our hands clean, even though we had to be conscious of our bodies for a short time while we were gaining the power, the normal care would lead to a happy unconsciousness. Carlyle says, and very truly, that we are conscious of no part of our bodies until it is out of order, and it certainly follows that the habit of keeping our bodies in order would lead us eventually to a physical freedom which, since our childhood, few of us have known. In the same way we can take care of our minds with a wholesome spirit. We can see to it that they are exercised to apply themselves well, that they are properly diverted, and know how to change, easily, from one kind of work to another. We can be careful not to attempt to sleep directly after severe mental work, but first to refresh our minds by turning our attention into entirely different channels in the way of exercise or amusement.
We must not allow our minds to be over-fatigued any more than our bodies, and we must learn how to keep them in a state of quiet readiness for whatever work or emergency may be before them.
There is also a kind of moral care which is quite in line with the care of the mind and the body, and which is a very material aid to these,–a way of refusing to be irritable, of gaining and maintaining cheerfulness, kindness, and thoughtfulness for others.
It is well known how much the health of any one part of us depends upon all the others. The theme of one of Howells’s novels is the steady mental, moral, and physical degeneration of a man from eating a piece of cold mince-pie at midnight, and the sequence of steps by which he is led down is a very natural process. Indeed, how much irritability and unkindness might be traced to chronic indigestion, which originally must have come from some careless disobedience of simple physical laws.
When the stomach is out of order, it needs more than its share of vital force to do its work, and necessarily robs the brain; but when it is in good condition this force may be used for mental work. Then again, when we are in a condition of mental strain or unhealthy concentration, this condition affects our circulation and consumes force that should properly be doing its work elsewhere, and in this way the normal balance of our bodies is disturbed.
The physical and mental degeneration that follows upon moral wrong-doing is too well known to dwell upon. It is self-evident in conspicuous cases, and very real in cases that are too slight to attract general attention. We might almost say that little ways of wrongdoing often produce a worse degeneration, for they are more subtle in their effects, and more difficult to realize, and therefore to eradicate.
The wise care for one’s self is simply steering into the currents of law and order,–mentally, morally, and physically. When we are once established in that life and our forces are adjusted to its currents, then we can forget ourselves, but not before: and no one can find these currents of law and order and establish himself in them, unless he is working for some purpose beyond his own health. For a man may be out of order physically, mentally, or morally simply for the want of an aim in life beyond his own personal concerns. No care is to any purpose–indeed, it is injurious–unless we are determined to work for an end which is not only useful in itself, but is cultivating in us a living interest in accomplishment, and leading us on to more usefulness and more accomplishment. The physical, mental, and moral man are all three mutually interdependent, but all the care in the world for each and all of them can only lead to weakness instead of strength, unless they are all three united in a definite purpose of useful life for the benefit of others.
Even a hobby re-acts upon itself and eats up the man who follows it, unless followed to some useful end. A man interested in a hobby for selfish purposes alone first refuses to look at anything outside of his hobby, and later turns his back on everything but his own idea of his hobby. The possible mental contraction which may follow, is almost unlimited, and such contraction affects the whole man.
It is just as certain a law for an individual that what he gives out must have a definite relation to what he takes in, as it is for the best strength of a country that its imports and exports should be in proper balance. Indeed, this law is much more evident in the case of the individual, if we look only a little below the surface. A man can no more expect to live without giving out to others than a shoemaker can expect to earn his bread and butter by making shoes and leaving them piled in a closet.
To be sure, there are many men who are well and happy, and yet, so far as appearances go, are living entirely for themselves, with not only no thought of giving, but a decided unwillingness to give. But their comfort and health are dependent on temporary conditions, and the external well-being they have acquired would vanish, if a serious demand were made upon their characters.
Happy the man or woman who, through illness of body or soul, or through stress of circumstances, is aroused to appreciate the strengthening power of useful work, and develops a wholesome sense of the usefulness and necessity of a rational care of self!
Try to convince a man that it is better on all accounts that he should keep his hands clean and he might answer, “Yes, I appreciate that; but I have never thought of my hands, and to keep them clean would make me conscious of them.” Try to convince an unselfishly-selfish or selfishly-unselfish person that the right care for one’s self means greater usefulness to others, and you will have a most difficult task. The man with dirty hands is quite right in his answer. To keep his hands clean would make him more conscious of them, but he does not see that, after he had acquired the habit of cleanliness, he would only be conscious of his hands when they were dirty, and that this consciousness could be at any time relieved by soap and water. The selfishly-unselfish person is right: it is most pernicious to care for one’s self in a self-centred spirit; and if we cannot get a clear sense of wholesome care of self, it is better not to care at all.
With a perception of the need for such wholesome care, would come a growing realization of the morbidness of all self-centred care, and a clearer, more definite standard of unselfishness. For the self-centred care takes away life, closes the sympathies, and makes useful service obnoxious to us; whereas the wholesome care, with useful service as an end, gives renewed life, an open sympathy, and growing power for further usefulness.
We do not need to study deeply into the laws of health, but simply to obey those we know. This obedience will lead to our knowing more laws and knowing them better, and it will in time become a very simple matter to distinguish the right care from the wrong, and to get a living sense of how power increases with the one, and decreases with the other.