Advice to Youth
by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.
Few things are more necessary to the comfort and success of a young man, than the proper government of his own temper. You can take no part whatever in the concerns of the world, without meeting with much to ruffle your feelings and put your disposition to a severe test. But let your trials of this sort be what they will, it may be laid down as a maxim that—nothing can seriously injure you, if you retain the mastery over yourselves. Other spots may be covered with clouds and shaken with tempests, but that on which the self-controlled man stands will be visited with sunshine.
Solomon places the control of one's self above the exploits of the bravest and most successful heroes. And the statement is not extravagant. There is a moral beauty and magnanimity in being calm in the midst of tumult, and patient under provocation, which can scarcely be found in any other circumstances. "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." Vastly more credit is due to the man who can check the risings of vindictive passion, and preserve at all times the balance of his own mind, than to the most renowned general that ever led an army to battle and to victory. Walls may be scaled and flags unfurled in conquered cities, by men of very little real worth of character; but he who is able to govern himself is fairly entitled to bear away the palm from every other competitor.
My young friends, you cannot but wish to make such honor your own; and the prize, let me tell you, is not beyond your reach. Short as your life has been, you have already seen enough and felt enough of the evils of an excited temper to lead you to weigh with candor what I have to say on the nature and advantages of a proper self-control. This is one of the lessons which you should begin early, and which you will need to be learning all your days.
As to the NATURE of self control, it should be noted that the very term implies difficulty, struggle, conquest. It is the high-spirited horse whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle. It is the lively, dashing stream that needs to be confined by strong embankments. Were there nothing turbulent and impetuous and unruly in man's temper, it would cost no effort to govern himself. There is nothing sinful in indignant feeling, when awakened by an adequate cause, or kept within suitable bounds. The very caution of the Bible, to be slow to anger, implies beyond a doubt that occasions sometimes arise when anger may not only be properly felt, but properly exhibited. There is an indignation which is not in all cases wrong. Anger may, for valid and sufficient causes, kindle in the bosom of a wise man; but it "rests," or takes up its abode, only in the bosom of a fool. Like fire, it is a good servant though a bad master; valuable if kept on the hearth, but destructive if it reaches the roof.
What we need especially is to guard against sudden and undue excitement. It is a great matter to be always so calm and self-collected, that we can look at things as they are, and, if we must be angry, still strive to regulate our anger. This is a difficult task, requiring a stronger and steadier hand than most men possess. Now and then we do indeed meet with an individual of so much native sweetness and amiability of temper, that self-government, in his case, seems to be an easy work. Generally, however, patience under provocation is the result of frequent, prayerful, and persevering exertion. To reach so happy an eminence costs many a painful and self-denying struggle.
One of the most obvious effects of the original apostasy, was to subvert man's government of himself. He then not only broke those bands in sunder, which bound him to his Maker, but he deranged and unhinged all the laws of his own moral constitution. From that moment passion got the ascendency over reason, and his bosom became the abode of excited and misguided temper. So disloyal did man's feelings become to his better judgment, that he needs to be restored to himself, almost as much as he needs to be restored to his Maker. Indeed the one recovery is in some degree always connected with the other, and is a proof of its genuineness.
The injunction of inspired truth is, "Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." Anger provokes anger. One hard word calls out another, just as fire kindles fire, until what was at first a bare spark, apparently not worth regarding, bursts out into an uncontrollable flame. Once it might have been extinguished by a single glass of water or by the slightest tread of the foot; but now it rages on, rioting in its own power, and forests, barns and houses are swept away in its devastating course.
We should also fix it deeply in our minds, that there is something really noble in Christian self-control. It is not everyone that has strength enough of good principle to rise above the customs of an ungodly world, and bear reproaches with serene and uncomplaining dignity. Rarely can we find such an illustration of real, genuine magnanimity. We have seen it somewhere strikingly said, that it is easier to be a martyr, than to gain the victory over a bad temper! This is strong language, but perhaps no stronger than truth will justify. To be calm in the midst of tumult, to keep cool when suffering provocation, and to repress anger rather than give it vent, is a surer evidence of sound religious principle than to mount the scaffold or embrace the stake!
There is nothing weak or mean-spirited in pursuing such a course as this. What an example of wise, virtuous and elevated self-government is given us in the conduct of the brave and unselfish Nehemiah. There were many things to irritate and annoy that good man; and indeed he tells us that he was "very angry." But his anger betrayed him into no foolish expressions, and never lessened his respect for himself. The real dignity of his character he preserved, and forgot not what was due to the standing of the Governor of Israel.
The self-possessed man thinks before he speaks, and deliberates before he acts. Anger has been called temporary insanity—and justly is it so called, because, for the time-being, it dethrones reason and leaves the bosom a prey to every ungovernable feeling. Most sins are weak at first, and come to maturity by degrees. But anger is born in full strength, and hurries the individual on to the perpetration of irretrievable mischief—without thought, reflection or prayer. Before he is aware, he has taken a step, which, one hour after, he would not have taken for the world. The fatal word has been uttered, and cannot be recalled—the injury has been done, and cannot be repaired. "Beginning a quarrel is like opening a floodgate," and hence we are exhorted—"so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out." Our comfort and our safety, under God, consist in being always master of ourselves.
We must learn to put the best possible construction upon the doubtful conduct of others. We are not to regard every man as an enemy who does not meet us with a smile, or to jostle him off the walk because he chooses a particular side. The very fact that we are forever suspecting evil, will go far to create the evil which we thus allow ourselves to suspect. How much better is it to think all is right, and go calmly and fearlessly forward.
Nothing is more common than to be mistaken, when we attempt to judge of the motives of men. What we are so ready to consider and resent as so many indications of malice, may be the result of mere inadvertence, and of the very same inadvertence with which we ourselves are every day chargeable. The direst catastrophes have often grown out of language which was not intended to convey the least harm. While the world continues as it now is, we shall find it impossible to get on without having our feelings sometimes chafed and our temper tried. But what is to be gained by being suspicious and asking for explanations? When the two goats, in Luther's fable, met on a narrow bridge, they escaped their mutual ruin by one's lying down that the other might walk over him.
Seasons of angry excitement are seasons of delusion, in which our opinions are generally erroneous, and our decisions extreme. We are tempted then to mitigate the disturbance which our own bad feelings have excited. But this is not the time to speak or act. What we need, is to wait until the dust settles and the mists disappear, that we may the better see where the path of true comfort and dignity lies. Kindness shown us is often like lines drawn in the sand, which the next wave is sure to obliterate; while anything in the shape of an injury, real or imaginary, leaves a mark which seems never to wear out.
As for stopping at every corner to defend our reputation, it is all a mistake. "A lying tongue is but for a moment," and if we treat unfounded reports with neglect, other people will commonly do so too. The best way to build up a fair reputation, is to be sure to act right—and leave our reputation with God. Slander may generally be lived down, but it can seldom, if ever, be talked down.
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