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Let us now enter into the more minute details of this subject, and
consider the many opportunities for self-control which may arise in the
course of even this one day. I will begin with moral evil.

You may hear falsehoods asserted, you may hear your friend traduced, you
may hear unfair and exaggerated statements of the conduct of others,
given to the very people with whom they are most anxious to stand well.
These are trials to which you may be often exposed, even in domestic
life; and their judicious management, the comparative advantages to
one's friends or one's self of silence or defence, will require your
calmest judgment and your soundest discretion; qualities which of course
cannot be brought into action without complete self-control. I can
hardly expect, or, indeed, wish that you should hear the falsehoods of
which I have spoken without some risings of indignation; these, however,
must be subdued for your friend's sake as well as your own. You would
think it right to conquer feelings of anger and revenge if you were
yourself unjustly accused, and though the other excitement may bear the
appearance of more generosity, you must on reflection admit that it is
equally your duty to subdue such feelings when they are aroused by the
injuries inflicted on a friend. The happy safeguard, the _instinctive_
test, by which the well-regulated and comparatively innocent mind may
safely try the right or the wrong of every indignant feeling is this: so
far as the feeling is painful, so far is it tainted with sin. To "be
angry and sin not,"[58] there must be no pain in the anger: pain and sin
cannot be separated: there may indeed be sorrow, but this is to be
carefully distinguished from pain. The above is a test which, after
close examination and experience, you will find to be a safe and true
one. Whenever they are thus safe and true, our instinctive feelings
ought to be gratefully made use of; thus even our animal nature may be
made to come to the assistance of our spiritual nature, against which it
is too often arrayed in successful opposition.

I have spoken of the exceeding difficulty of exercising self-control
under such trying circumstances as those above described, and this
difficulty will, I candidly confess, be likely to increase in proportion
to your own honesty and generosity. Be comforted, however, by this
consideration, that, conflict being the only means of forming the
character into excellence, and your natural amiability averting from you
many of the usual opportunities for exercising self-control, you would
be in want of the former essential ingredient in spiritual discipline
did not your very virtues procure it for you.

While, however, I allow you full credit for these virtues, I must insist
on a careful distinction between a mere virtue and a Christian grace.
Every virtue becomes a vice the moment it overpasses its prescribed
boundaries, the moment it is given free power to follow the bent of
animal nature, instead of being, even though a virtue, kept under the
strict control of religious principle.

I must now suggest to you some means by which I have known self-control
to be successfully exhibited and perpetuated, with especial reference to
that annoyance which we have last considered. Instead, then, of dwelling
on the deviations from truth of which I have spoken, even when they are
to the injury of a friend, try to banish the subject from your mind and
memory; or, if you are able to think of it in the very way you please,
try to consider how much the original formation of the speaker's mind,
careless habits, and want of any disciplining education, may each and
all contribute to lessen the guilt of the person who has annoyed you. No
one knows better than yourself that tho original nature of the mind, as
well as its implanted habits, modifies every fact presented to its
notice. Still further, the point of view from which the fact or the
character has been seen may have been entirely different from yours.
These other persons may absolutely have _seen_ the thing spoken of in a
position so completely unlike your mental vision of it, that they are as
incapable of understanding your view as you may be of understanding
theirs. If sincere in your wish for improvement, you had better prove
the truth of the above assertion by the following process. Take into
your consideration any given action, not of a decidedly honourable
nature - one which, perhaps, to most people would appear of an
indifferent nature, - but to your lofty and refined notions deserving of
some degree of reprehension. You have a sufficiently metaphysical head
to be able to abstract yourself entirely from your own view of the case,
and then you can contemplate it with a total freedom from prejudice.
Such a contemplation can only be attempted when no feeling is
concerned, - feeling giving life to every peculiarity of moral sentiment,
as the heat draws out those characters which would otherwise have passed
unknown and unnoticed. I would then have you examine carefully into all
the considerations which might qualify and alter, even your own view of
the case. Dwell long and carefully upon this part of the process. It is
astonishing (incredible indeed until it is tried) how much our opinions
of the very same action may alter if we determinately confine ourselves
to the favourable aspect in which it may be viewed, keeping the contrary
side entirely out of sight.

As soon as this has been carried to the utmost, you must further (that
my experiment may be fairly tried) endeavour to throw yourself, in
imagination, not only into the position, but also into the natural and
acquired mental and moral perceptions of the person whose action you are
taking into your consideration. For this purpose you must often
imagine - natural dimness of perception, absence of acute sensibility,
indifference to wounding the feelings of others from mere carelessness
and want of reflective powers, little natural conscientiousness, an
entire absence of the taste or the power of metaphysical examination
into the effect produced by our actions. All these natural deficiencies,
you must further consider, may in this case be increased by a totally
neglected education, - first, by the want of parental discipline, and
afterwards of that more important self-education which few people have
sufficient strength of character to subject themselves to. Lastly, I
would have you consider especially the moral atmosphere in which they
have habitually breathed: according to the nature of this the mental
health varies as certainly as the physical strength varies in a bracing
or relaxing air. A strong bodily constitution may resist longer, and
finally be less affected by a deleterious atmosphere than a weak or
diseased frame; and so it is with the mental constitution. Minds
insensibly imbibe the tone of the atmosphere in which they most
frequently dwell; and though natural loftiness of character and natural
conscientiousness may for a very long period resist such influences, it
cannot be expected that inferior natures will be able to do so.

You are then to consider whether the habits of mind and conversation
among those who are the constant associates of the persons you blame
have been such as to cherish or to deaden keen and refined perceptions
of moral excellence and nobility of mind; still further, whether their
own literary tastes have created around them an even more penetrating
atmosphere; whether from the elevated inspirations of appreciated
poetry, from the truthful page of history, or from the stirring
excitements of romantic fiction, their heart and their imagination have
received those lofty lessons for which you judge them responsible,
without knowing whether they have ever received them.

There is still another consideration. While the actions of those who are
not habitually under the control of high principle depend chiefly on the
physical constitution, as they are too often a mere yielding to the
immediate impulse of the senses, their judgment of men and things, on
the contrary, when uninfluenced by _personal_ feeling, depend probably
more on that keen perception of the beautiful which is the natural
instinct of a superior organization. Morality and religion will indeed
supply the place of these lofty _natural_ instincts, by giving habits of
mind which may in time become so burnt in, as it were, that they assume
the form of natural instincts, while they are at once much safer guides
and much stronger checks.

It is surprising that a mere sense of the beautiful will often confer
the clearest perceptions of the real nature of moral excellence. You may
hear the devoted worldling, or the selfish sensualist, giving the
highest and most inspiring lessons of self-renunciation, self-sacrifice,
and devotedness to God. Their lessons, truthful and impressive, because
dictated by a keen and exquisite perception of the beautiful, which ever
harmonizes with the precepts and doctrines of Christianity, have
kindled in many a heart that living flame, which in their own has been
smothered by the fatal homage of the lips and of the feelings only,
while the actions of the life were disobedient. Often has such a writer
or speaker stood in stern and truthfully severe judgment on the weak
"brother in Christ" when he has acted or spoken with an inconsistency
which the mere instinct of the beautiful would in his censor have
prevented. Such censors, however, ought to remember that these weak
brethren, though their instincts be less lofty, their sensibility less
acute, live closer to their principles than they themselves do to their
feelings; for the moment the natural impulse, in cases where that is the
only guide, is enlisted on the side of passion, the perception of the
beautiful is entirely sacrificed to the gratification of the senses.
When the animal nature comes into collision with the spiritual, the
highest dictates of the latter will be unheeded, unless the supremacy of
the spiritual nature be habitually maintained in practice as well as in
theory. In short, that keen perception of the true and the beautiful,
which is an essential ingredient in the formation of a noble character,
becomes, in the case of the self-indulgent worldling, only an increase
of his responsibility, and a deepening dye to his guilt. At present,
however, I suppose you to be sitting in judgment on those who are
entirely destitute of the aids and the responsibilities of a keen sense
of the beautiful: by nature or by education they know or have learned
nothing of it. How different, then, from your own must be their estimate
of virtue and duty! Add this, therefore, to all the other allowances
you have to make for them, and I will answer for it that any action
viewed through this qualifying medium will entirely change its aspect,
and your blame will most frequently turn to pity, though of course you
can feel neither sympathy nor respect.

On the other hand, the practice of dwelling only on the aggravating
circumstances of a case, will magnify into crime a trifling and
otherwise easily forgotten error. This is a fact in the mind's history
of which few people seem to be aware, and only few may be capable of
understanding. Its truth, however, may be easily proved by watching the
effect of words in irritating one person against another, and
increasing, by repeated insinuations, the apparent malignity of some
really trifling action. No one, probably, has led so blessed a life as
not to have been sometimes pained by observing one person trying to
exasperate another, who is, perhaps, rather peacefully inclined, by
pointing out all the aggravating circumstances of some probably
imaginary offence, until the listener is wrought up to a state of angry
excitement, and induced to look on that as an exaggerated offence which
would probably otherwise have passed without notice. What is in this
case the effect of another's sin is a state often produced in their own
mind by those who would be incapable of the more tangible, and therefore
more evidently sinful act of exciting the anger of one friend or
relative against another.

The sin of which I speak is peculiarly likely to be that of a
thoughtful, reflective, and fastidious person like yourself. It is
therefore to you of the utmost importance to acquire, and to acquire at
once, complete control over your thoughts, - first, carefully
ascertaining which those are that you ought to avoid, and then guarding
as carefully against such as if they were the open semblance of positive
sin. This is really the only means by which a truthful and candid nature
like your own can ever maintain the deportment of Christian love and
charity towards those among whom your lot is cast. You must resolutely
shut your eyes against all that is unlovely in their character. If you
suffer your thoughts to dwell for a moment on such subjects, you will
find additional difficulty afterwards in forcing them away from that
which is their natural tendency, besides having probably created a
feeling against which it will be vain to struggle. It is one of the
strongest reasons for the necessity of watchful self-control, that no
mind, however powerful, can exercise a direct authority over the
feelings of the heart; they are susceptible of indirect influence alone.
This much increases the necessity of our watchfulness as to the indirect
tendencies of thoughts and words, and our accountability with respect to
them. Our anxiety and vigilance ought to be altogether greater than if
we could exercise over our feelings that direct and instantaneous
control which a strong mind can always assert in the case of words and
actions.

Unless the indirect influence of which I have spoken were practicable,
the warnings and commands of Scripture would be a mockery of our
weakness, - a cruel satire on the helplessness of a victim whose efforts
to fulfil duty must, however strenuous, prove unavailing. The child is
commanded to honour his parent, the wife to reverence her husband; and
you are to observe attentively that there is no exception made for the
cases of those whose parents or husbands are undeserving of love and
reverence. There must, then, be a power granted, to such as ask and
_strive_ to acquire it, of closing the mental eyes resolutely against
those features in the character of the persons to whom we are bound by
the ties of duty, which would unfit us, if much dwelt upon, for
obedience in such important particulars as the love and reverence we are
commanded to feel towards them.

Even where there is such high principle and such uncommon strength of
character as to induce perseverance in the mere external forms of
obedience, how vain are all such while the heart has turned aside from
the appointed path of duty, and broken those commands of God which, we
should always remember, have reference to feeling as well as to
action: - "Honour thy father and thy mother;"[59] "Let the wife see that
she reverence her husband."[60]

In the habitual exercise of that self-control which I now urge upon you,
you will experience an ample fulfilment of that promise, - "The work of
righteousness shall be peace."[61] Instead of becoming daily further and
further severed from those who are indeed your inferiors, but towards
whom God has imposed duties upon you, you will daily find that, in
proportion to the difficulty of the task, will be the sweetness and the
peace rewarding its fulfilment. No affection resulting from the most
perfect sympathy of mind and heart will ever confer so deep a pleasure,
or so holy a peace, as the blind, unquestioning, "unsifting"[62]
tenderness which a strong principle of duty has cherished into
existence.

Glorious in every way will be the final result to those who are capable
(alas! few are so) of such a course of conduct. Far different in its
effects from the blind tenderness of infatuated passion is the noble
blindness of Christian self-control. While the one warms into existence,
or at least into open manifestation, all the selfishness and wilfulness
of the fondled plaything, the other creates a thousand virtues that were
not known before. Flowers spring up from the hardest rocks, the coldest,
sternest natures are gradually softened into gentleness, the faults of
temper or of character that never meet with worrying opposition, or
exercise unforgiving influence, gradually die away, and fade from the
memory of both. The very atmosphere alone of such rare and lovely
self-control seems to have a moral influence resembling the effects of
climate upon the rude and rugged marble, - every roughness is by degrees
smoothed away, and even the colouring becomes subdued into calm harmony
with all the features of its allotted position.

To the rarity of the virtue upon which I have so long dwelt, we may
trace the cause of almost all the domestic unhappiness we witness
whenever the veil is withdrawn from the secrets of _home_. Alas! how
often is this blessed word only the symbol of freely-indulged
ill-tempers, unresisted selfishness, or, perhaps the most dangerous of
all, exacting and unforgiving requirements. While the one party select
their home as the only scene where they may safely and freely vent their
caprices and ill-humours, the other require a stricter compliance with
their wishes, a more exact conformity with their pursuits and opinions,
than they meet with even from the temporary companions of their lighter
hours. They forget that these companions have only to exert themselves
for a short time for their gratification, and that they can then retire
to their own home, probably to be as disagreeable there as the relations
of whom the others complain. For then the mask is off, and they are at
liberty, - yes, at liberty, - freed from the inspection and the judgments
of the world, and only exposed to those of God!

My friend, I am sure you have often shared in the pain and grief I feel,
that in so few cases should home be the blessed, peaceful spot that
poetry pictures to us. There is no real poetry that is not truth in its
purest form - truth as it appears to eyes from which the mists of sense
are cleared away. Surely our earthly homes ought to realize the
representations of poetry; they would then become each day a nearer,
though ever a faint type of, that eternal home for which our earthly
one ought daily to prepare us.

Poetry and religion always teach the same duties, instil the same
feelings. Never believe that any thing can be truly noble or great, that
any thing can be really poetical, which is not also religious. The poet
is now partly a priest, as he was in the old heathen world; and though,
alas! he may, like Balaam, utter inspirations which his heart follows
not, which his life denies, yet, like Balaam also, his words are full of
lessons for us, though they may only make his own guilt the deeper.

I have been led to these concluding considerations respecting poetry by
my anxiety that you should turn your refined tastes and your acute
perceptions of the beautiful to a universally moral purpose. There is no
teaching more impressive than that which comes to us through our
passions. In the moment of excited feeling stronger impressions may be
made than by any of the warnings of duty and principle. If these latter,
however, be not motives co-existent, and also in strength and exercise,
the impressions of feeling are temporary, and even dangerous. It is only
to the faithful followers of duty that the excitements of romance and
poetry are useful and improving. To such they have often given strength
and energy to tread more cheerfully and hopefully over many a rugged
path, to live more closely to their beau-idéal, a vivid vision of which
has, by poetry, been awakened and refreshed in their hearts.

To others, on the contrary, the danger exceeds the profit. By the
excitement of admiration they may be deceived into the belief that
there must be in their own bosoms an answering spirit to the greatness,
the self-sacrifice, the pure and lofty affections they see represented
in the mirror of poetry. They are deceived, because they forget that we
have each within us two natures struggling for the mastery. As long as
we practically allow the habitual supremacy of the lower over the
higher, there can be no real excellence in the character, however a mere
sense of the beautiful may temporarily exalt the feelings, and thus
increase our responsibility, and consequent condemnation.

I am sure you have experimentally understood the subject on which I have
been writing. I am sure you have often risen from the teaching of the
poet with enthusiasm in your heart, ready to trample upon all those
temptations and difficulties which had, perhaps an hour before, made the
path of self-denial and self-control apparently impracticable.

Receive such intervals of excitement as heaven-sent aids, to help you
more easily over, it may be, a wearying and dreary path. They are most
probably sent in answer to prayer - in answer to the prayers of your own
heart, or to those of some pious friend.

Our Father in heaven works constantly by earthly means, and moulds the
weakest, the often apparently useless instrument to the furtherance of
his purposes of mercy, one of which you know is your own sanctification.
It is not his holy word only that gives you appointed messages and helps
exactly suited to your need. The flower growing by the way-side, the
picture or the poem, the works of God's own hand, or the works of the
genius which he has breathed into his creature Man, may all alike bear
you messages of love, of warning, of assistance.

Listen attentively, and you will hear - clearer still and clearer - every
day and hour. It is not by chance you take up that book, or gaze upon
that picture; you have found, because you are on the watch for it, in
the first, a suggestion that exactly suits your present need, in the
latter an excitement and an inspiration which makes some difficult
action you may be immediately called on to perform comparatively easy
and comparatively welcome.

There is a deep and universal meaning in the vulgar[63] proverb, "Strike
while the iron is hot." If it be left to cool without your purpose being
effected, the iron becomes harder than ever, the chains of nature and of
habit are more firmly riveted.

There are some other features of self-control to which I wish, though
more cursorily, to direct your attention. They have all some remote
bearing on your moral nature, and may exercise much influence over your
prospects in life.

Like many other persons of a refined and sensitive organization, you
suffer from the very uncommon disease of shyness. At the very time,
perhaps, when you desire most to please, to interest, to amuse, your
over-anxiety defeats its own object. The self-possession of the
indifferent generally carries off the palm from the earnest and the
anxious. This is ridiculous; this is degrading. What you wish to do you
ought to be able to do, and you will be able, if you habitually
exercise control over the physical feelings of your nature.

I am quite of the opinion of those who hold that shyness is a bodily as
well as a mental disease, much influenced by our state of health, as
well as by the constitutional state of the circulation; but I only put
forward this opinion respecting its origin as additional evidence that
it too may be brought under the authority of self-control. If the grace
of God, giving efficacy and help to our own exertions, can enable us to
resist the influence of indigestion and other kinds of ill-health upon
the temper and the spirits, will not the same means be found effectual
to subdue a shyness which almost sinks us to the level of the brute
creation by depriving us of the advantages of a rational will? Even this
latter distinguishing feature of humanity is prostrated before the
mysterious power of shyness.

You understand, doubtless, the wide distinction that exists between
modesty and shyness. Modesty is always self-possessed, and therefore
clear-sighted and cool-headed. Shyness, on the contrary, is too confused
either to see or hear things as they really are, and as often assumes
the appearance of forwardness as any other disguise. Depriving its
victims of the power of being themselves, it leaves them little freedom
of choice, as to the sort of imitations the freaks of their animal
nature may lead them to attempt. You feel, with deep annoyance, that a
paroxysm of shyness has often made you speak entirely at random, and
express the very opposite sentiments to those you really feel,
committing yourself irretrievably to, perhaps, falsehood and folly,


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Online LibraryAn English LadyThe Young Lady's Mentor A Guide to the Formation of Character. In a Series of Letters to Her Unknown Friends → online text (page 7 of 19)