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Untroubled Mind, The

VII
SELF-CONTROL

He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew.

Goethe.

A good many writers on self-control and kindred subjects insist that we shall conscientiously and consciously govern our mental lives. They say, “You must get up in the morning with determination to be cheerful.” They insist that in spite of annoyance or trouble you shall keep a smiling face, and affirm to yourself over and over again the denial of annoyance.

I do not like this kind of self-control. I wish I could admire it and approve it, but I find I cannot because it seems to me self-conscious and superficial. It is better than nothing and unquestionably adds greatly to the sum of human happiness. But I do not think we ought to be cheerful if we are consumed with trouble and sorrow. The fact is we ought not to be for long beyond a natural cheerfulness that comes from the deepest possible sources. While we are sad, let us be so, simply and naturally; but we must pray that the light may come to us in our sorrow, that we may be able soon and naturally to put aside the signs of mourning.

The person who thinks little of his own attitude of mind is more likely to be well controlled and to radiate happiness than one who must continually prompt himself to worthy thoughts. The man whose heart is great with understanding of the sorrow and pathos of life is far more apt to be brave and fine in his own trouble than one who must look to a motto or a formula for consolation and advice. Deep in the lives of those who permanently triumph over sorrow there is an abiding peace and joy. Such peace cannot come even from ample experience in the material world. Despair comes from that experience sometimes, unless the heart is open to the vital spirit that lies beyond all material things, that creates and renews life and that makes it indescribably beautiful and significant. Experience of material things is only the beginning. In it and through it we may have experience of the wider life that surrounds the material.

Our hearts must be opened to the courage that comes unbidden when we feel ourselves to be working, growing parts of the universe of God. Then we shall have no more sorrow and no more joy in the pitiful sense of the earth, but rather an exaltation which shall make us masters of these and of ourselves. We shall have a sympathy and charity that shall need no promptings, but that flow from us spontaneously into the world of suffering and need.

Beethoven was of a sour temper, according to all accounts, but he wrote his symphonies in the midst of tribulations under which few men would have worked at all. When we have felt something of the spirit that makes work inevitable, it will be as though we had heard the eternal harmonies. We shall write our symphonies, build our bridges, or do our lesser tasks with dauntless purpose, even though the possessions that men count dear are taken from us. Suppose we can do very little because of some infirmity: if that little has in it the larger inspiration, it will be enough to make life full and fine. The joy of a wider life is not obtainable in its completeness; it is only through a lifetime of service and experience that we can approach it. That is the proof of its divine origin—its unattainableness. “God keep you from the she wolf and from your heart’s deepest desire,” is an old saying of the Rumanians. If we fully obtain our desires, we prove their unworthiness. Does any one suppose that Beethoven attained his whole heart’s desire in his music? He might have done so had he been a lesser man. He was not a cheerful companion. That is unfortunate, and shows that he failed in complete inspiration and in the ordinary kind of self-control. He was at least sincere, and that helped not a little to make him what he was. I would almost rather a man would be morose and sincere than cheerful from a sense of duty.

Our knowledge of the greater things of life must always be substantiated and worked out into realities of service, or else we shall be weak and ineffective. The charity that balks at giving, reacts upon a man and deadens him. I am always insisting that we must not live and serve through a sense of duty, but that we must find the inspiration first. It is better to give ourselves to service not for the sake of finding God, but because we have found Him and because our souls have grown in the finding until we cannot help giving. If we have grown to such a stature we shall be able to meet sorrow and loss bravely and simply. We shall feel for ourselves and for others in their troubles as Forbes Robertson did when he wrote to his friend who had met with a great loss: “I pray that you may never, never, never get over this sorrow, but through it, into it, into the very heart of God.” All this is very unworldly, no doubt, and yet I will venture the assertion that such a standard and such a method will come nearer to the mark of successful and well-controlled living than the most carefully planned campaign of duty. If we plan to make life fine, if we say, in effect, “I will be good and cheerful, no matter what happens,” we are beginning at the wrong end. We may be able to work back from our mottoes to real living, but the chances are we shall stop somewhere by the way, too confused and uncertain to go on. Self-control, at its best, is not a conscious thing. It is not well that we should try to be good, but that we should so dignify our lives with the spirit of good that evil becomes well-nigh impossible to us.



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