AS A MATTER OF COURSE
by Annie Payson Call
IN climbing a mountain, if we know the path and take it as a matter of course, we are free to enjoy the beauties of the surrounding country. If in the same journey we set a stone in the way and recognize our ability to step over it, we do so at once, and save ourselves from tripping or from useless waste of time and thought as to how we might best go round it.
There are stones upon stones in every-day life which might be stepped over with perfect ease, but which, curiously enough, are considered from all sides and then tripped upon; and the result is a stubbing of the moral toes, and a consequent irritation of the nervous system. Or, if semi-occasionally one of these stones is stepped over as a matter of course, the danger is that attention is immediately called to the action by admiring friends, or by the person himself, in a way so to tickle the nervous system that it amounts to an irritation, and causes him to trip over the next stone, and finally tumble on his nose. Then, if he is not wise enough to pick himself up and walk on with the renewed ability of stepping over future stones, he remains on his nose far longer than is either necessary or advisable.
These various stones in the way do more towards keeping a nervous system in a chronic state of irritation than is imagined. They are what might perhaps be called the outside elements of life. These once normally faced, cease to exist as impediments, dwindle away, and finally disappear altogether.
Thus we are enabled to get nearer the kernel, and have a growing realization of life itself.
Civilization may give a man new freedom, a freedom beyond any power of description or conception, except to those who achieve it, or it may so bind him body and soul that in moments when he recognizes his nervous contractions he would willingly sell his hope of immortality to be a wild horse or tiger for the rest of his days.
These stones in the way are the result of a perversion of civilization, and the cause of much contraction and unnecessary suffering.
There is the physical stone. If the health of the body were attended to as a matter of course, as its cleanliness is attended to by those of us who are more civilized, how much easier life might be! Indeed, the various trippings on, and endeavors to encircle, this physical stone, raise many phantom stones, and the severity of the fall is just as great when one trips over a stone that is not there. Don Quixote was quite exhausted when he had been fighting the windmills. One recognizes over and over the truth spoken by the little girl who, when reprimanded by her father for being fretful, said: “It isn’t me, papa, it’s that banana.”
There is also the over-serious stone; and this, so far from being stepped over or any effort made to encircle it, is often raised to the undue dignity of a throne, and not rested upon. It seems to produce an inability for any sort of recreation, and a scorn of the necessity or the pleasure of being amused. Every one will admit that recreation is one swing of life’s pendulum; and in proportion to the swing in that direction will be the strength of the swing in the other direction, and vice versa.
One kind of stone which is not the least among the self-made impediments is the microscopic faculty which most of us possess for increasing small, inoffensive pebbles to good-sized rocks. A quiet insistence on seeing these pebbles in their natural size would reduce them shortly to a pile of sand which might be easily smoothed to a level, and add to the comfort of the path. Moods are stones which not only may be stepped over, but kicked right out of the path with a good bold stroke. And the stones of intolerance may be replaced by an open sympathy,–an ability to take the other’s point of view,–which will bring flowers in the path instead.
In dealing with ourselves and others there are stones innumerable, if one chooses to regard them, and a steadily decreasing number as one steps over and ignores. In our relations with illness and poverty, so-called, the ghosts of stones multiply themselves as the illness or the poverty is allowed to be a limit rather than a guide. And there is nothing that exorcises all such ghosts more truly than a free and open intercourse with little children.
If we take this business of slipping over our various nerve-stones as a matter of course, and not as a matter of sentiment, we get a powerful result just as surely as we get powerful results in obedience to any other practical laws.
In bygone generations men used to fight and kill one another for the most trivial cause. As civilization increased, self-control was magnified into a virtue, and the man who governed himself and allowed his neighbor to escape unslain was regarded as a hero. Subsequently, general slashing was found to be incompatible with a well-ordered community, and forbearance in killing or scratching or any other unseemly manner of attacking an enemy was taken as a matter of course.
Nowadays we do not know how often this old desire to kill is repressed, a brain-impression of hatred thereby intensified, and a nervous irritation caused which has its effect upon the entire disposition. It would hardly be feasible to return to the killing to save the irritation that follows repression; civilization has taken us too far for that. But civilization does not necessarily mean repression. There are many refinements of barbarity in our civilization which might be dropped now, as the coarser expressions of such states were dropped by our ancestors to enable them to reach the present stage of knives and forks and napkins. And inasmuch as we are farther on the way towards a true civilization, our progress should be more rapid than that of our barbaric grandfathers. An increasingly accelerated progress has proved possible in scientific research and discovery; why not, then, in our practical dealings with ourselves and one another?
Does it not seem likely that the various forms of nervous irritation, excitement, or disease may result as much from the repressed savage within us as from the complexity of civilization? The remedy is, not to let the savage have his own way; with many of us, indeed, this would be difficult, because of the generations of repression behind us. It is to cast his skin, so to speak, and rise to another order of living.
Certainly repression is only apparent progress. No good physician would allow it in bodily disease, and, on careful observation, the law seems to hold good in other phases of life.
There must be a practical way by which these stones, these survivals of barbaric times, may be stepped over and made finally to disappear.
The first necessity is to take the practical way, and not the sentimental. Thus true sentiment is found, not lost.
The second is to follow daily, even hourly, the process of stepping over until it comes to be indeed a matter of course. So, little by little, shall we emerge from this mass of abnormal nervous irritation into what is more truly life itself.