How often we see a young man develop astounding ability and energy after the death of a parent, or the loss of a fortune, or after some other calamity have knocked the props and crutches from under him. The prison has roused the slumbering fire in many a noble mind. "Robinson Crusoe" was written in prison. The "Pilgrim's Progress" appeared in Bedford Jail. The "Life and Times" of Baxter, Eliot's "Monarchia of Man," and Penn's "No Cross, No Crown," were written by prisoners. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote "The History of the World" during his imprisonment of thirteen years.
Drop a stone down a precipice. By the law of gravitation it sinks with rapidly increasing momentum. If it falls sixteen feet the first second, it will fall forty-eight feet the next second, and eighty feet the third second, and one hundred and forty-four feet the fifth second, and if it falls for ten seconds it will in the last second rush through three hundred and four feet till earth stops it. Habit is cumulative. After each act of our lives we are not the same person as before, but quite another, better or worse, but not the same. There has been something added to, or deducted from, our weight of character.
When a woman was dying from the effects of her husband's cruelty and debauchery from drink she asked him to come to her bedside, and pleaded with him again for the sake of their children to drink no more. Grasping his hand with her thin, long fingers, she made him promise her: "Mary, I will drink no more till I take it out of this hand which I hold in mine." That very night he poured out a tumbler of brandy, stole into the room where she lay cold in her coffin, put the tumbler into her withered hand, and then took it out and drained it to the bottom. John B. Gough told this as a true story. How powerless a man is in the presence of a mighty habit, which has robbed him of will-power, of self-respect, of everything manly, until he becomes its slave!
Walpole tells of a gambler who fell at the table in a fit of apoplexy, and his companions began to bet upon his chances of recovery. When the physician came they refused to let him bleed the man because they said it would affect the bet. When President Garfield was hanging between life and death men bet heavily upon the issue, and even sold pools.
No disease causes greater horror or dread than cholera; yet when it is once fastened upon a victim he is perfectly indifferent, and wonders at the solicitude of his friends. His tears are dried; he cannot weep if he would. His body is cold and clammy and feels like dead flesh, yet he tells you he is warm, and calls for ice water. Have you never seen similar insensibility to danger in those whose habits are already dragging them to everlasting death?
The leper is often the last to suspect his danger, for the disease is painless in its early stages. A leading lawyer and public official in the Sandwich Islands once overturned a lighted lamp on his hand, and were surprised to find that it caused no pain. At last it dawned upon his mind that he was a leper. He resigned his offices and went to the leper's island, where he died. So sin in its early stages is not only painless but often even pleasant.
Rectitude is only the confirmed habit of doing what is right. Some men cannot tell a lie: the habit of truth telling is fixed; it has become incorporated with their nature. Their characters bear the indelible stamp of veracity. You and I know men whose slightest word is unimpeachable; nothing could shake our confidence in them. There are other men who cannot speak the truth: their habitual insincerity has made a twist in their characters, and this twist appears in their speech.
How many men would like to go to sleep beggars and wake up Rothschilds or Astors? How many would fain go to bed dunces and wake up Solomons? You reap what you have sown. Those who have sown dunce-seed, vice-seed, laziness-seed, always get a crop. They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
Habit, like a child, repeats whatever is done before it. Oh, the power of a repeated act to get itself repeated again and again! But, like the wind, it is a power which we can use to force our way in its very teeth as does the ship, and thus multiply our strength, or we can drift with it without exertion upon the rocks and shoals of destruction.
What a great thing it is to "start right" in life. Every young man can see that the first steps lead to the last, with all except his own. No, his little prevarications and dodging will not make him a liar, but he can see that they surely will in John Smith's case. He can see that others are idle and on the road to ruin, but cannot see it in his own case.
There is a wonderful relation between bad habits. They all belong to the same family. If you take in one, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, you will soon have the whole. A man who has formed the habit of laziness or idleness will soon be late at his engagements; a man who does not meet his engagements will dodge, apologize, prevaricate, and lie.
You have seen a ship out in the bay swinging with the tide and the waves; the sails are all up, and you wonder why it does not move, but it cannot, for down beneath the water it is anchored. So we often see a young man apparently well equipped, well educated, and we wonder that he does not advance toward manhood and character. But, alas! We find that he is anchored to some secret vice, and he can never advance until he cuts loose.
The devil does not apply his match to the hard coal; but he first lights the shavings of innocent sins and the shavings the wood, and the wood the coal. Sin is gradual. It does not break out on a man until it has long circulated through his system. Murder, adultery, theft, is not committed in deed until they have been committed in thought again and again.
"Don't write there," said a man to a boy who was writing with a diamond pin on a pane of glass in the window of a hotel. "Why not?" inquired the boy. "You can't rub it out." Yet the glass might have been broken and all trace of the writing lost, but things written upon the human soul can never be removed, for the tablet is immortal.
A young man stood listlessly watching some anglers on a bridge. He was poor and dejected. At length, approaching a basket filled with fish, he sighed, and “If now I had these I would be happy. I could sell them and buy food and lodgings." "I will give you just as many and just as good," said the owner, who chanced to overhear his words, "if you will do me a trifling favor." "And what is that?" asked the other. "Only to tend this line till I come back; I wish to go on a short errand." The proposal was gladly accepted. The old man was gone so long that the young man began to get impatient. Meanwhile the fish snapped greedily at the hook, and he lost all his depression in the excitement of pulling them in. When the owner returned he had caught a large number. Counting out from them as many as were in the basket, and presenting them to the youth, the old fisherman said, "I fulfill my promise from the fish you have caught, to teach you whenever you see others earning what you need to waste no time in foolish wishing, but cast a line for yourself."
Every bit of education or culture is of great advantage in the struggle for existence. The microscope does not create anything new, but it reveals marvels. To educate the eye adds to its magnifying power until it sees beauty where before it saw only ugliness. It reveals a world we never suspected, and finds the greatest beauty even in the commonest things. The eye of an Agassiz could see worlds which the uneducated eye never dreamed of. The cultured hand can do a thousand things the uneducated hand cannot do. It becomes graceful, steady of nerve, strong, skillful, indeed it almost seems to think, so animated is it with intelligence. The cultured will can seize, grasp, and hold the possessor, with irresistible power and nerve, to almost superhuman effort. The educated touch can almost perform miracles. The educated taste can achieve wonders almost past belief. What a contrast this, between the cultured, logical, profound, masterly reason of a Gladstone and that of the hod-carrier who has never developed or educated his reason beyond what is necessary to enable him to mix mortar and carry brick.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Architects of Fate, by Orison Swett Marden)