The Use Of The Will
Sources: Power Through Repose
IT is not generally recognized that the will can be trained, little
by little, by as steadily normal a process as the training of a
muscle, and that such training must be through regular daily
exercise, and as slow in its effects as the training of a muscle is
slow. Perhaps we are unconsciously following, as a race, the law
that Froebel has given for the beginnings of individual education,
which bids us lead from the "
uter to the inner," from the known to
the unknown. There is so much more to be done to make methods of
muscular training perfect, that we have not yet come to appreciate
the necessity for a systematic training of the will. Every
individual, however, who recognizes the need of such training and
works accordingly, is doing his part to hasten a more intelligent
use of the will by humanity in general.
When muscles are trained abnormally their development weakens,
instead of strengthening, the whole system. Great muscular strength
is often deceptive in the appearance of power that it gives; it
often effectually hides, under a strong exterior, a process of
degeneration which is going on within, and it is not uncommon for an
athlete to die of heart disease or pulmonary consumption.
This is exactly analogous to the frequently deceptive appearance of
great strength of will. The will is trained abnormally when it is
used only in the direction of personal desire, and the undermining
effect upon the character in this case is worse than the weakening
result upon the body in the case of abnormal muscular development. A
person who is persistently strong in having his own way may be found
inconsistently weak when he is thwarted in his own way. This
weakness is seldom evident to the general public, because a man with
a strong will to accomplish his own ends is quick to detect and hide
any appearance of weakness, when he knows that it will interfere
with whatever he means to do. The weakness, however, is none the
less certainly there, and is often oppressively evident to those
from whom he feels that he has nothing to gain.
When the will is truly trained to its best strength, it is trained
to obey; not to obey persons or arbitrary ideas, but to obey laws of
life which are as fixed and true in their orderly power, as the
natural laws which keep the suns and planets in their appointed
spheres. There is no one who, after a little serious reflection, may
not be quite certain of two or three fixed laws, and as we obey the
laws we know, we find that we discover more.
To obey truly we must use our wills to yield as well as to act.
Often the greatest strength is gained through persistent yielding,
for to yield entirely is the most difficult work a strong will can
do, and it is doing the most difficult work that brings the greatest
To take a simple example: a small boy with a strong will is troubled
with stammering. Every time he stammers it makes him angry, and he
pushes and strains and exerts himself with so much effort to speak,
that the stammering, in consequence, increases. If he were told to
do something active and very painful, and to persist in it until his
stammering were cured, he would set his teeth and go through the
work like a soldier, so as to be free from the stammering in the
shortest possible time. But when he is told that he must relax his
body and stop pushing, in order to drop the resistance that causes
his trouble, he fights against the idea with all his little might.
It is all explained to him, and he understands that it is his only
road to smooth speaking; but the inherited tendency to use his will
only in resistance is so strong, that at first it seems impossible
for him to use it in any other way.
The fact that the will sometimes gains its greatest power by
yielding seems such a paradox that it is not strange that it takes
us long to realize it. Indeed, the only possible realization of it
is through practice.
The example of the, little stammering boy is an illustration that
applies to many other cases of the same need for giving up
No matter how actively we need to use our wills, it is often,
necessary to drop all self-willed resistance first, before we begin
an action, if we want to succeed with the least possible effort and
the best result.
When we use the will forcibly to resist or to repress, we are simply
straining our nerves and muscles, and are exerting ourselves in a
way which must eventually be weakening, not only to them, but to the
will itself. We are using the will normally when, without repression
or unnecessary effort, we are directing the muscles and nerves in
useful work. We want "training and not straining" as much for the
will as for the body, and only in that way does the will get its
The world admires a man for the strength of his will if he can
control the appearance of anger, whereas the only strength of will
that is not spurious is that which controls the anger itself. We
have had the habit for so long of living in appearances, that it is
only by a slow process that we acquire a strong sense of their
frailty and lack of genuine value. In order to bring the will, by
training, out of the region of appearances into that of realities,
we must learn to find the true causes of weakness and use our wills
little by little to remove them. To remove the external effect does
no permanent good and produces an apparent strength which only hides
an increasing weakness.
Imagine, for instance, a woman with an emotional, excitable nature
who is suffering from jealousy; she does not call it jealousy, she
calls it "sensitive nerves," and the doctors call it "hysteria." She
has severe attacks of "sensitive nerves" or "hysteria" every time
her jealousy is excited. It is not uncommon for such persistent
emotional strain, with its effect upon the circulation and other
functions of the body, to bring on organic disease. In such a case
the love of admiration, and the strength of will resulting from that
selfish desire, makes her show great fortitude, for which she
receives much welcome praise. That is the effect she wants, and in
the pose of a wonderful character she finds it easy to produce more
fortitude--and so win more admiration.
A will that is strong for the wrong, may--if taken in time--become
equally strong for the right. Perversion is not, at first, through
lack of will, but through the want of true perception to light the
way to its intelligent use.
A man sometimes appears to be without power of will who is only
using a strong will in the wrong way, but if he continues in his
wrong course long enough, his weakness becomes real.
If a woman who begins her nervous degeneration by indulging herself
in jealousy--which is really a gross emotion, however she may refine
it in appearance--could be made to see the truth, she would, in many
cases, be glad to use her will in the right direction, and would
become in reality the beautiful character which her friends believe
her to be. This is especially true because this moral and nervous
perversion often attacks the finest natures. But when such
perversion is allowed to continue, the sufferer's strength is always
prominent in external dramatic effects, but disappears oppressively
when she is brought face to face with realities.
Many people who are nervous invalids, and many who are not, are
constantly weakening themselves and making themselves suffer by
using their wills vigorously in every way _but_ that which is
necessary to their moral freedom: by bearing various unhappy effects
with so-called stoicism, or fighting against them with their eyes
tight shut to the real cause of their suffering, and so hiding an
increasing weakness under an appearance of strength.
A ludicrous and gross example of this misuse of the will may be
observed in men or women who follow vigorously and ostentatiously
paths of self-sacrifice which they have marked out for themselves,
while overlooking entirely places where self-denial is not only
needed for their better life, but where it would add greatly to the
happiness and comfort of others.
It is curious a such weakness is common with people who are
apparently very intelligent; and parallel with this are cases of men
who are remarkably strong in the line of their own immediate
careers, and proportionately weak in every other phase of their
lives. We very seldom find a soldier, or a man who is powerful in
politics, who can answer in every principle and action of his life
to Wordsworth's "Character of the Happy Warrior."
Absurd as futile self-sacrifice seems, it is not less well balanced
than the selfish fortitude of a jealous woman or than the apparent
strength of a man who can only work forcibly for selfish ends. The
wisest use of the will can only grow with the decrease of
"Nervous" women are very effective examples of the perversion of a
strong will. There are women who will work themselves into an
illness and seem hopelessly weak when they are not having their own
way, who would feel quite able to give dinner parties at which they
could be prominent in whatever role they might prefer, and would
forget their supposed weakness with astonishing rapidity. When
things do not go to please such women, they are weak and ill; when
they stand out among their friends according to their own ideal of
themselves and are sufficiently flattered, they enter into work
which is far beyond their actual strength, and sooner or later break
down only to be built up on another false basis.
This strong will turned the wrong way is called "hysteria," or
"neurasthenia," or "degeneracy." It may be one of these or all
three, _in its effect,_ but the training of the will to overcome the
cause, which is always to be found in some kind of selfishness,
would cure the hysteric, give the neurasthenic more wholesome
nerves, and start the degenerate on a course of regeneration. At
times it would hardly surprise us to hear that a child with a
stomach-ache crying for more candy was being treated for "hysteria"
and studied as a "degenerate." Degenerate he certainly is, but only
until he can be taught to deny himself candy when it is not good for
him, with quiet and content.
There are many petty self-indulgences which, if continually
practised, can do great and irreparable harm in undermining the
will. Every man or woman knows his own little weaknesses best, but
that which leads to the greatest harm is the excuse, "It is my
temperament; if I were not tardy, or irritable, or untidy,"--or
whatever it may be,--"I would not be myself." Our temperament is
given us as a servant, not as a master; and when we discover that an
inherited perversion of temperament can be trained to its opposite
good, and train it so, we do it not at a loss of individuality, but
at a great gain. This excuse of "temperament" is often given as a
reason for not yielding. The family will is dwelt upon with a pride
which effectually prevents it from keeping its best strength, and
blinds the members of the family to the weakness that is sure to
come, sooner or later, as a result of the misuse of the inheritance
of which they are so proud.
If we train our wills to be passive or active, as the need may be,
in little things, that prepares us for whatever great work may be
before us. just as in the training of a muscle, the daily gentle
exercise prepares it to lift a great weight.
Whether in little ways or in great ways, it is stupid and useless to
expect to gain real strength, unless we are working in obedience to
the laws that govern its development. We have a faculty for
distinguishing order from disorder and harmony from discord, which
grows in delicacy and strength as we use it, and we can only use it
through refusing disorder and choosing order. As our perception
grows, we choose more wisely, and as we choose more wisely, our
perception grows. But our perceptions must work in causes, not at
all in effects, except as they lead us to a knowledge of causes. We
must, above all, train our wills as a means of useful work. It is
impossible to perfect ourselves for the sake of ourselves.
It is a happy thing to have been taught the right use of the will as
a child, but those of us who have not been so taught, can be our own
fathers and our own mothers, and we must be content with a slow
growth. We are like babies learning to walk. The baby tries day
after day, and does not feel any strain, or wake in the morning with
a distressing sense of "Oh! I must practise walking to-day. When
shall I have finished learning?" He works away, time after time
falling down and picking himself up, and some one day finally walks,
without thinking about it any more. So we, in the training of our
wills, need to work patiently day by day; if we fall, we must pick
ourselves up and go on, and just as the laws of balance guide the
baby, so the laws of life will carry us.
When the baby has succeeded in walking, he is not elated at his new
power, but uses it quietly and naturally to accomplish his ends. We
cannot realize too strongly that any elation or personal pride on
our part in a better use of the will, not only obstructs its growth,
but is directly and immediately weakening.
A quiet, intelligent use of the will is at the root of all
character; and unselfish, well-balanced character, with the insight
which it develops, will lead us to well-balanced nerves.