Copyright
George Albert Coe.

The spiritual life : studies in the science of religion online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryGeorge Albert CoeThe spiritual life : studies in the science of religion → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and pulled it up, not to save it, but 'just for the looks
of the thing/ I wanted everything to run abso-
lutely perfectly, and if it did not I was perplexed
and fretted."

Later, when the same young man was preparing
for college, he neglected his health and his religious
and social life, as he says, "all for the sake of being
extremely accurate in unimportant details in geome-
try, Latin, and Greek. Also, in writing essays, I
have rewritten many pages rather than scratch out a
misplaced dot or wrongly crossed 't.' During these
two years in no essay did I ever scratch out with a
knife or otherwise anything, no matter how small,
and never put in a word with a caret. If I made a
mistake I rewrote the whole page. . . . Practically,
after the age of nineteen I was not troubled with
morbid conscientiousness."

Attention may be called to three things in this ac-
count : First, the close^ affinity between this form of
mojbid conscientiousness and anger. It is a case of
what is popularly called "nerves." That is, the
n^rvous_system, through the great tax placed upon it

75



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

in this period of life and through contributory causes,
such as special fatigue and inadequate nutrition, is
in unstable equilibrium, and ready upon trifling
stimuli to tumble over either in the form of anger,
or of excessive feeling, or of motor discharges dis-
proportionate to the occasion. Second, notice that
oversensitiveness of conscience coalesces with "show-
ing off," thus revealing very clearly the sociological
significance of the whole phenomenon. The boy was
overparticular, not to save the grain, but "just for
the looks of the thing." This is the startled response
of one who hears for the first time the voice of the
race speaking within him. Third, notice the exag-
geration of details, and the effort to reach the abso-
lute in conduct. Everything is now put into one
formula, "either or." Nothing but the absolutely
perfect is right ; all else is wrong. The call of con-
science comes to him in the form of law, pure and
simple. Morality is as yet abstract and lacking in
content. He has not yet grasped the notion of
growth or becoming, nor seen that benevolence is
the fulfilling of the law. Right here, no doubt, lies
the root of much of the youth's anguish. The full
authority of duty,

" Stern Daughter of the Voice of God,"

presses down upon his spirit; but it is a yawning
emptiness which he seeks to fill by infinite yearnings

and by absurd slavery to trifles.

76



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

The analysis of this case will apply in large degree
to many others. For instance, a girl of about a
dozen years was plagued with overnice conscien-
tiousness about stealing. She would not take so
much as a pin without permission, or if when visit-
ing any of her friends she found it necessary to take
one, she inflexibly compelled herself to tell the hostess,
saying, "I took one of your pins." This was a very
painful process to her, though she did not see the
absurdity of it, but thought she was merely doing
her duty. She had a similar overwrought sense of
the duties of politeness. She says : "On one occasion
a neighbor took me into her flower garden to pick me
a bouquet. As she picked each flower she put it into
my hand, and each time I said, Thank you.' I was
greatly embarrassed, but a sense of duty compelled
me to keep on offering my gratitude for each separate
flower, until finally the lady assured me that it was
not necessary."

As one grows older, one is likely to become aware
of the unreasonableness of such a conscience, yet may
not be able to resist its commands. A young lady
writes : "I have suffered at intervals ever since I can
remember from what I consider to be a morbid con-
science. However, my training has always been of
such a healthy sort that now I seem to be outgrowing
this tendency, and abnormal conscientiousness crops
out only when I am in considerable physical fatigue.
. . , The reason why I call these spasms of con-
6 77



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

science morbid is because they seem to be a distinct
hindrance instead of a help in doing what I believe
to be right. I want to do right, my ideal of the right
is very high, but with it all is a terrible sense of self-
distrust. Instead of guiding self in the performance,
conscience seems to dissipate, to scatter, all self's en-
ergy. This waste of energy is immense, and the
results painful. The last attack of this sort was when
I was trying to write [a certain literary production] .
I had an idea which I wished to develop and express
as well as possible. But the thoughts that arose were
condemned as petty, as unworthy. The words that
flowed from my pen were despicable. The structure
seemed miserably weak. Decision, even on the most
minute points, was well-nigh impossible. The ex-
perience was altogether painful, and the struggle
nearly fruitless ; and all through it I was aware that
it was abnormal ; but that did not seem to help mat-
ters. I was overworked at the time* I should advise
a good ten-hour sleep as a cure for, or insurance
against, attacks of this sort. I have always been ex-
tremely sensitive even of little frowns of disapproval,
and from them have suffered cruelly as a child.
This, I believe, is a mild case of morbid conscience."
In this case, which is doubtless typical of a large
class, the sufferer is not deceived at all, but recog-
nizes the fact that her feeling of right and wrong has
become distorted. Another important fact here is

the clear indication of the connection between morbid

78



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

conscientiousness and fatigue. "I now," says the
writer, "seem to be outgrowing this tendency, and
abnormal conscientiousness crops out only when I
am in considerable physical fatigue." The last at-
tack came on when she was overworked. We might
even say that fatigue, however induced, is the neural
basis of morbid conscientiousness. Our experience
in mature life witnesses to this fact. For when we
are tired out we are often brought into a sort of
slavery to our duties, and especially to details ; we are
drawn in so many different directions that we do not
know which way to turn, and we seem incapable of
getting any task quite done. Under these circum-
stances small matters unduly excite us, even when
we are fully aware that there is no good reason for
our agitation. With adolescents this condition may
become habitual and all-absorbing. The victim be-
comes a slave of indecision. He sees considerations
on both sides ofevery question of conduct, is har-
ass_ed_by fear of deciding for the wrong side, and
often ends by letting slip the opportunity for action^
Then comes, perhaps, remorse and mental flagella-
tion for his weak and vacillating character. One
young man says : "I was troubled for several years
by a lack of prompt decision, especially in small mat-
ters. If once I got to arguing with myself over a
thing, I was likely to argue too long, and small emer-
gencies were often too much for me. I derived the

greatest help from learning to ride the bicycle when

79



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

I was twenty years old, for in bicycle riding I found
prompt and accurate decisions necessary, and ap-
parently forced out of me."

This lack of decision is closely akin to certain in-
cipient approaches to fixed or insistent ideas. A
young lady who was much troubled in her early
teens by an oversensitive conscience tells me that, on
one occasion, having been deeply impressed by the
suicide of a neighbor, she conceived an overwhelm-
ing fear that she might kill her mother. It brought
her into sharp anguish of mind for some days, when
she found relief by confiding the trouble to her
mother. A young man who from the advent of
puberty to the age of twenty-five suffered from three
distinct and serious attacks of nervous exhaustion,
and each time endured torments from his conscience,
experienced in one attack at least something ap-
proaching insistent ideas. As he walked along the
street he felt that he must touch every post of the
fence and not step on any crack in the sidewalk ; and
these were not mere passing whims, as they fre-
quently are in childhood, but commanding ideas
which wrung obedience out of him against his own
judgment. The same youth had a consuming fear
of hydrophobia. Something of the same sort is
found in persons who lock and relock the door several
times at night, being unable practically to convince
themselves that they have already completed this

duty. Such a person, though intellectually convinced

80



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

of the folly of his acts, feels impelled to rise from
bed again and again and examine the door lest he
may possibly have made a mistake the other times.
I have found this phenomenon present in many ado-
lescents.

In some cases absolute consistency is the rub.
There may be no lack of decision rather precipi-
tateness of decision growing out of narrow ideas of
right. Thus, a youth who was singing in a church
choir had doubts on doctrinal points. Consequently,
whenever, in the singing of a hymn, he came to a
passage that he could not accept as his own belief
he refused to sing it. Faithful to his misunderstand-
ing of duty, he finally left the choir on this account.

Again, conscience often becomes morbid over the
question of one's lifework. Myriads of adolescents
worry and weep over the problem of what they are
good for, and whether they ought not to become
missionaries, or at least ministers. Concerning this
group of cases two remarks may be of service. In
the first place, many, perhaps most, of these struggles
occur where the intention to do right already exists.
They are therefore less a fight between a defined self-
ish motive and a defined unselfish one than a mere
floundering about in the confusion wrought by self-
distrust. I have known young men to hestitate to
follow their common sense lest selfish motives might
have corrupted even that. In such cases the defect

is not selfishness, but rather an overrefmement, or

81



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

double distillation, of unselfishness. It is an unself-
ing that paralyzes both judgment and will.

A second remark concerning this lifework fever
is that there is often a tendency to decide upon the
ministry, or missionary work, or some heroic occu-
pation, simply and solely through confusion between
the form and the content of duty. We have seen
that youth is a time when the absoluteness of the
moral imperative strongly overawes the mind; that
self-sacrifice now becomes beautiful, and that a long-
ing may arise to annihilate one's self for some glori-
ous cause. If, now, there already exists a firm notion
that the ministry or any other occupation is a pecul-
iarly unselfish one, the oversensitive conscience may
at once interpret its acute desires for righteousness
as a call from high heaven to this particular work.
Thus, through confusion produced by mere associa-
tion of ideas, a particular occupation becomes identi-
fied with the form or imperativeness of duty itself.
The reasoning is this : I ought to live a wholly un-
selfish life, therefore I will be a minister.

What has just been said is not a guess at the truth,
but a report of fact. A young man, for example,
who was obviously ill-adapted for the ministry, and
who, on the other hand, felt strong moral drawing
toward another field of usefulness, w r as neverthe-
less plagued with a feeling that he ought to be a
minister. He consulted a person older than himself,

and received this advice: "Possibly what you take

82



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

to be a call to the ministry is rather a call to com-
pleteness in your consecration. Go and settle this
latter question first, and ask yourself whether you
are equally willing to serve God as a business man or
as a minister." After several weeks the youth re-
turned and announced his conviction that he had
been called to divine service as a business man.

Right here, in psychological misunderstandings,
I am convinced, lies one explanation of the tenacity
with which unadaptable, stupid, or otherwise ineffi-
cient men insist that they are called of God to preach
the Gospel. Perhaps the most striking experience in
their entire moral history has been a morbid anxiety
about their lifework. Having no means of guessing
that it is morbid, they interpret it as the divine Spirit
tugging at their wills and soliciting them to preach.

We hear a great deal -in these days about a dearth
of able preachers. May it not be that the grade is
being kept low, first, by our placing too much con-
fidence in the subjective, individual impressions of
candidates who, instead of being really called, are
simply suffering from the consequences of nerve
fatigue; and, second, by our failure deliberately to
solicit and guide toward the ministry the young men
whom the Churches judge to be strongest in the
requisite qualities? It is surely allowable to suppose
that the divine will with respect to the ministry may
be made manifest through a careful use of enlight-
ened judgment. Furthermore, is there any valid

83



THF SPIRITUAL I IFE

reason why we should not suggest to the right kind
of young men that their possession of the gifts itself
constitutes a call ?

Trouble of conscience over one's personal reli-
gious status is another form of morbidness. It is
very common in Churches that put much stress upon
assurance, or the witness of the Spirit. I find this
phenomenon present in the history of forty per cent
of the young men and forty-four per cent of the
young women whose reports I have in my possession.
Some of these reports reveal an almost tragic amount
of suffering on this point. Certainly in some cases
the trouble was not merely unfortunate teaching,
but also an unfortunate condition of the nervous sys-
tem. Not infrequently such a period of religious un-
rest coincides with a period of obvious ill health. I
have before me an account of a young girl who be-
came a mental and physical wreck with the delusion
in her head that she had committed the unpardonable
sin. This girl had always been very nervous and
very religious. She was finally rescued by a woman
who cured her by faith. The correlation of doubts
with ill health is apparent, also, in the following ac-
count from a young man : "I must have been about
twelve years old when I had, as I supposed, a reli-
gious change, and joined the Church. From that
time for about five years I was continually in a state
of unrest and trouble, magnifying, as I now think,

perfectly innocent things into sins of the deepest dye.

84



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

And, as I tried to bind myself down to a perfectly
correct course and, as a matter of fact, failed, I was
continually in a state of remorse, and also continually
thinking of myself and my acts, till I came to be al-
most unbearable to myself. When about eighteen
I was taken sick. . . . After my recovery I had lost
all the supersensitiveness."

But not merely in states of positive ill health are
these doubts of one's personal religious status to be
found. They are liable to be found wherever reli-
gious teachers have induced young per sons to practice
a spiritual barometry and thermometry upon them-
selves. Of course, however, the weed grows most
rank where the power of resistance of the nervous
system is lessened by fatigue. As maturity ap-
proaches, and power consequently ripens, the doubts
can be, and are frequently, banished by an act of will.
The following account is fairly representative of a
considerable class of persons : "When I was about
twelve years old I began to assume the outward
forms of a religious life. I met all the conditions of
being a Christian as far as I understood them, and at
fourteen joined the Church. But from about this
time until I was twenty I was constantly haunted by
the thought that I did not know for sure whether I
was a Christian or not. I prayed, and read the Bible,
and struggled bitterly with my secret doubts, though
I hardly mentioned them to anyone else. There were

times when it seemed to me that I would walk into

85



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

the fire if such torture could cure my mental agony.
But all in vain. At last I became ashamed and dis-
gusted, and decided that, having done my duty as far
as I knew how, I would not be bothered any more.
That ended it."

Is it not monstrous that sensitive souls who have
loyally dedicated themselves to God should be per-
mitted, through causes within our control, to suffer
this purgatory of doubt whether God accepts the
offering?

In all the sorts of morbidness here described three
distinct causes are likely to contribute each its share :
First, the general yeastiness of the mind at the time
of the change from childhood to adulthood ; second,
unwise teaching, or lack of wise teaching ; third, an
overburdened nervous system. This general subject
might have been discussed with propriety under any
one of these heads. If I have seemed to place reli-
gious and moral difficulties in unusually close prox-
imity to physiology, it is because of a conviction that
untold spiritual treasure is slipping from our hands
simply because we forget that religious states, as well
as other states of mind, stand in a reciprocal relation
with states of the brain and nervous system. Fur-
thermore, there has long prevailed when, indeed,
was it otherwise? a habit of trying to control ef-
fects without controlling causes. It is so easy to
scold, or to exhort one to have trust, or to reason out

how one ought to feel, but so hard to get at the actual

86



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

causes of our states, that we allow ourselves to
choose the smoother path.

But perhaps enough has been said to show the
necessity of tracing religio-moral difficulties to their
causes, and to indicate what some of those causes are.
All of which ought to cast at least a little light upon
the functions of the wise parent or other religious
guide. For such a guide to add to any existing irri-
tability by laying still heavier burdens upon the con-
science, by multiplying the doubts, by adding blacker
hues to the outlook upon life this is next thing to
crime. And this is precisely what may be done by
telling a young person to examine his heart frequent-
ly ; or by painting before him the rigors of the moral
law without equal emphasis upon the beauty of the
moral ideal ; or by appealing to his fears ; or by de-
scribing his duties and privileges as though there
were no difference in capacity between him and a
mature person ; or by telling him that doubt is sin,
and that life is a continual fight with snakes in the
gr^ss. The victim of such teaching may be religious,
but he is pretty certain to be spiritually deformed
also. What religion ought to do for youths is not to
increase their already overdriven subjectivity, but
to restore it to equilibrium with objective interests.
And not only does wrong teaching deform the moral-
religious nature, it also tends to injure the body it-
self. For the relation between body and mind is
reciprocal. One young man, in his report of his ex-

87



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

perience, insists that a period of two years of physical
distress was induced directly by excessive religious
irritation.

The surest way to control these difficulties is, first,
through physical hygiene and, in some cases, medical
treatment. Nutritious but not stimulating food,
proper regulation of the digestive system, plenty of
sleep and of fresh air these have direct spiritual
value. Then comes mental hygiene; that is, mental
occupations and exercises that take the attention
from self and send it out toward free and joyous
associations and activities. Especially necessary is a
life of cheerful, but not too intense or excessive, ac-
tivity. This last grows out of the fact, before no-
ticed, that the will of the adolescent is less developed
than the feelings and the intellect. It is from this
weakness of will that arises much of his feeling of
being pent up, of being shut off from life, of having
no outlook upon the world. What is needed here is
training in self-expression, and this can be promoted
by wise guidance of the mental and physical powers
the mental powers largely through hearty, uncon-
strained social intercourse, the physical powers
through games and athletic exercises as well as
through work.

Finally, greater than all else is sympathy. Noth-
ing, indeed, can be a substitute for a personality that
appreciates all that the youth feels but cannot under-
stand. These neophytes, entering with fear and



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

trembling upon their initiation into manhood and
womanhood, do not ask our pity, but they do need
to get acquainted with us so as to find out how grown
persons feel and think and act. Once more, it is the
revelation of humanity, which is the revelation of
divinity, that heals the woes of the world.

Psychological Aspects of Certain Temptations.

What are the most common moral struggles of
youth? Apparently a bad temper heads the general/
list. Next, in the case of males, comes difficulty with)
the sexual nature a struggle for wholesomeness of
both mind and body. To discuss either of these
darker features of the young life about us is not an
agreeable task. But, if we ask what is useful rather
than what is pleasant, we shall agree that the moral
and spiritual guides of youth should not shrink from
fully understanding the nature and causes of the
evils which they seek to remedy or to prevent.

How, then, shall we understand bad temper? If
possible, let us secure a psychological view of the
facts as distinguished from all popular or theological
theories of the relation of this fault to depravity,
moral law, and the responsibility that grows out of
freedom. Let us admit, what is very fact, that our
self-knowledge is not sufficiently developed to enable
us to tell with accuracy just what measure of freedom
may be exercised in any single act. It is undoubtedly

possible to indulge ill temper by what has every

89



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

appearance of being the most fully voluntary choice.
Yet this is not the rise of ill temper, but only the
encouragement of it or the refusal to suppress it.
Granted, then, that through our voluntary attitude
toward it it may become habitual, or even a matter
of disposition, we still need to know how the thing
itself originally springs into being.

Again, psychology can neither affirm nor deny
that there may be in all temptation some influence
from Satan or other evil spirits. Our observation
does not extend so far. As for depravity, to which
in other days all the angers of even infancy were
ascribed, we shall at this point assume no posi-
tive attitude whatever. We may remain psycholog-
ically noncommittal all the more easily because it
plainly appears that the psychology of temptation is
the same whatever our theory of depravity may be.
Thus, if by depravity we mean some taint of the soul,
we shall expect it to manifest itself only in particular
acts which have definite correlations with brain func-
tions, as well as with other mental states. On the
other hand, if by depravity we mean that something
of the beast remains in us because of our evolution
from lower forms of life, the modes of its manifesta-
tion will still be the same.

It must be frankly admitted, nevertheless, that
when we view the facts from the psychological and
the evolutionary points of view the very problems

which theories of Satan and of depravity try to solve

90



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

assume a new meaning, or even tend to lose their
meaning. Theoretically it is always possible to find
room in our ignorance of details for any desired kind
of factor; yet practically we find the problem shift-
ing, and we tend to finish our study without caring
to answer all the questions that may have been upper-
most at the beginning.

Ill temper is simply a misapplication of a useful j
and even necessary function. This is sometimes ex-
pressed by saying that temper is as necessary to a
man as it is to a steel tool, but that evil arises when
temper is uncontrolled. Another popular expression
of the same thing, and an amusing one, too, is the
distinction often made between anger and "right-
eous indignation." Of course this distinction of
names is adhered to simply for the sake of saving a
theory the theory, namely, that all anger is sinful.
Now, a moment's self-analysis will show that "right-
eous indignation" is nothing but righteous anger.


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryGeorge Albert CoeThe spiritual life : studies in the science of religion → online text (page 5 of 16)