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Among the various capabilities of our nature, we find none more important in its influence, or more striking in its adaptations to our wants, than the power of habit. By this power, every effort, whether of mind or body, is facilitated, and actions which at first require laborious attention become, on repetition, so easy and familiar as to appear almost the result of natural instincts. Not more skilfully are the organs of sight and hearing adapted to the functions they have to perform, not more beautifully do they harmonize with the laws which regulate the external world, than this power harmonizes with the action of our various faculties, and is adapted, in all the circumstances of our present state of trial and discipline, to aid us in every endeavor, and to carry us finally through every difficulty.
Without such a power, indeed, progress would be next to impossible. The same laborious effort which is required in our first attempts would attend each repetition of them, and a lifetime would scarcely suffice to give us that elementary acquaintance with the objects around us, and that facility in adapting ourselves to them, which is now attained by every child in the first two or three years of his existence.
If we examine any of those actions of our daily life which we perform almost unconsciously, we shall find that the most trivial arnong them has required the powerful aid of habit to render it easy ; though the absence of all effort now makes us forget that it was ever needed. In reading and writing, for example, how completely has custom effaced all recollection of the difficulties which drew many a childish tear, and which seem almost insurmountable to those who first encounter them in maturer years. If we watch a beginner, whether man or child, in the art of reading, and observe how slowly and laboriously he learns first to distinguish the characters, next to assemble them into syllables, then to connect the syllables into words, and, finally, to catch the meaning of sentences which our experienced eyes have seized at a glance, we shall appreciate the assistance which has not only enabled us to conquer all these difficulties, but has transformed the once irksome task into the easiest and pleasantest of our occupations. In another operation equally familiar to many of us, - the reading and playing of music, — we have a still stronger instance of the power of habit in facilitating what once seemed almost impossible. The process in this case is much more complicated. The written notes must be associated with the sounds which they indicate; the fingers must be taught the motions which produce these sounds, time must be attended to, the still more difficult union of bass and treble must be mastered, two characters must be read, two varieties of time considered, two hands managed at once! Yet this process, complicated and laborious as it is, custom can make easy to a child.
We have chosen these instances on account of their familiarity ; but the force of habit is no less strikingly exhibited in its effects on character. Every faculty of the intellect, every moral affection, whether good or evil, may be trained by exercise into habits of action which attain almost the strength and certainty of instincts. The importance of this power as an instrument of education can, therefore, scarcely be overrated.
The formation of habits may be said, indeed, to constitute almost the whole work of education. The natural disposition and the circumstances of life which vary with each individual are beyond our control, but we can create habits which shall mould character to the form we choose it to assume, and prepare the mind for any events that may occur.
We cannot foresee every difficulty in study or in action which may require careful inquiry or prompt decision, but we can train ourselves to the habitual investigation of truth, and to that clearness of views which facilitates judgment. We cannot provide against every temptation which may assail us, but we can acquire that habitual sense of duty, and command over our own passions, which makes obedience to principle comparatively easy under any circumstances.
It is to the influence of habits, and not to individual acts (which may be prompted by a momentary impulse), that we must look to give worth and consistency to conduct. Our social and domestic life is made or marred by the habits which have grown into a second nature. It is not in any occasional act of civility or kindness that the charm of either home or society consists, but in the habits of courtesy and benevolence, whose outward expression is our manner, - an expression which, if not habitual, can rarely be borrowed with success. No isolated and temporary efforts, however strenuous, will enable us to carry on business or to succeed in any pursuit, but only habits of method, perseverance, and industry.
The moral influence of habits over the minds of our associates is equally great. An individual act, even of the noblest heroism, will produce a comparatively small effect. It dazzles for a while, but it is too far above the ordinary course of human life to be imitated. We behold it with admiration, but too seldom think of applying its principles to our own humbler circumstances. But if we trace the course of one habitually guided by pure and lofty principle, one who, though never, perhaps, distinguished by any striking act, holds steadily on his way through all the vicissitudes of life, till we feel that it were as difficult for him to break through the habits of truth and moral goodness, which have become part of his nature, as for others to shake off the yoke of habitual vice and folly ; we shall see the influence of such a character stealing insensibly upon all who come within its sphere, winning admiration and confidence even from those whose practice is most different, and challenging the imitation of others, who, however weak and unsteady themselves, can still love virtue and desire to walk in her paths.
Thus the Lucretias and Portias who perhaps first stirred our youthful emotions of admiration for female fortitude and greatness of mind are seldom regarded as models for imitation. But who can read the life of Lady Rachel Russell without being touched with a far deeper feeling than mere admiration? Who that traces her through her pure and noble career, that follows her to the nursery of her children, the study of her husband, watches her in all the relations of life as the Christian wife and mother and mistress, but feels that such goodness comes home to every human heart, that, high though it be, it is not too high to be imitated by all, and that the heroism with which she met
the heaviest trial that could fall on woman, and subdued her own agony that she might cheer and serve to the last the husband she so truly loved, was the result, not of momentary or high-wrought excitement, but of the habits of self-command, piety, and devotedness which she had acted on through life, and which are equally attainable by the lowest and least gifted of
Children are very susceptible of this influence of character, and it may therefore justly be considered an important agent in their education. It is impossible to say how soon a child begins to feel the influence of habitual goodness, to perceive that there is a guiding principle at work, producing order and ministering comfort to all within his little sphere of observation. He may not know how to value each act of self-conquest, but he is early sensible of the effects of habitual self-command and steadiness, in which he recognizes a power he cannot resist. The habits, good or bad, of the mother, constitute the moral atmosphere of the child; they are the objects of his unconscious imitation, and are far more efficacious in forming his mind and character than the most elaborate teaching. Surely this is in itself a sufficient motive to urge women to form good habits.
- Since custom is the principal magistrate of human life,” says Lord Bacon, “ let men by all means endeavor to obtain good customs.? The first requisite, therefore, in the task of self-education, is to learn the means by which good customs may be obtained ; that these means are little understood, or very imperfectly applied, is evident from the frequent failure of wellmeant systems of education, to which the proverbial cases of the spendthrift sons of prudent fathers, and the profligate children of religious parents, bear melancholy witness. However admirable the precepts inculcated, there is in such systems no endeavor to form the habits whence a certain course of action will flow. The failure cannot be attributed to ignorance of the power of habit, which has passed into a proverb, and must therefore proceed from inattention to the mode of its operation. Until we know how habits are formed, it will be vain to hope for success in educating ourselves or others.
The whole theory of the formation of habits is admirably stated by Dr. Butler.* It rests on that law of our nature by which passive impressions have a tendency to grow weaker, whilst actions become more easy and familiar on repetition. An act is an exercise of the will : it is the voluntary exertion of some power or faculty of the mind or body. To sit, to stand, are bodily acts. To observe, reflect, and judge, are acts of the intellect. To worship God, or injure our neighbor, are moral acts. So likewise, in this sense, as Dr. Butler remarks, intentions good or evil are moral acts ; for in all these, volition is the essential condition of their performance. The frequent repetition of them will produce a tendency to act in that particular manner; in other words, a habit. Passive impressions, on the other hand, are impressions made on the mind by causes external to itself, and independent of the will. The mind is passive under them, that is to say, it can neither will to feel or not to feel them. The pleasure which we receive from a fine picture, and the pain caused by a discordant sound, are passive impressions made on the mind through the senses. Experience has made us acquainted with the effect of habit in weak, ening impressions of this kind. We often cease to perceive sights and sounds with which we have become familiar. The Londoner is almost unconscious of the noises which distract his country visitor, and is equally heedless of the display of wealth and unceasing activity, which fills the stranger with admiration. The rich man derives no pleasure from the luxuries to which he is accustomed; whilst, for the same reason, the poor man does not feel the deprivation of them. The repetition of passive impressions, therefore, tends only to produce insensibility to the objects which once excited them.
There is, of course, a natural limit to this insensibility to passive impressions produced by repetition. No habit can destroy the sense of pain, deaden the pangs of hunger, or eradicate the natural instincts of our being, leading us to seek ease, and freedom, and happiness. Were this limitation forgotten,