I wish I had a trade!—It would animate my arms and tranquilize my brain.
“Doe ye nexte thynge.”—Old English Proverb.
Since our minds are so constantly filled with anxiety, there would seem to be at least one sure way to be rid of it—to stop thinking.
A great many people believe that the mind will become less effective, that life will become dull and purposeless, unless they are constantly thinking and planning and arranging their affairs. I believe that the mind may easily and wisely be free from conscious thought a good deal of the time, and that the greatest progress and development in mind often comes when the thinker is virtually at rest, when his mind is to all intents and purposes blank. The busy, unconscious mind does its best work in the serenity of an atmosphere which does not interfere and confuse.
It is true that the greatest conceptions do not come to the untrained and undisciplined mind. But do we want great conceptions all the time? There is a technical training for the mind which is, of course, necessary for special accomplishments, but this is quite another matter. Even this kind of thought must not obtrude too much, lest we become conscious of our mental processes and so end in confusion.
One of the greatest benefits of work with the hands, or of objective and constructive work with the mind, is that it saves us from unending hours of thinking. Work should, of course, find its fullest justification as an expression of faith. If we have ever so dim a vision of a greater significance in life, of its close relationship to infinite things, we become thereby conscious of the need of service, of the need of work. It is the easy, natural expression of our faith, the inevitable result of a spiritual contact with the great working forces of the world. It is work above all else that saves us from the disasters of conflicting thought.
A few years ago a young man came to me, suffering from too much thinking. He had just been graduated from college and his head was full of confused ideas and emotions. He was also very tired, having overworked in his preparation for examinations, and because he had not taken the best care of his body. The symptoms he complained of were sleeplessness and worry, together with the inevitable indigestion and headache. Of course, as a physician, I went over the bodily functions carefully, and studied, as far as I might, into the organic conditions. I could find no evidence of physical disease. I did not say, “There is nothing the matter with you”; for the man was sick. I told him that he was tired, that he had thought too much, that he was too much concerned about himself, and that as a result of all this his bodily functions were temporarily upset. He thought he ought to worry about himself, because otherwise he would not be trying to get well. I explained to him that this mistaken obligation was the common reason for worry, and that in this case, at least, it was quite unnecessary and even harmful for him to go on thinking about himself. That helped a little, but not nearly enough, because when a man has overworked, when he has begun to worry, and when his various bodily functions show results of worry, no reasoning, no explanations, can wholly relieve him. I said to this young man, “In spite of your discomforts, in spite of your depression and concern in regard to yourself, you will get well if you will stop thinking about the matter altogether. You must be first convinced that it is best for you to stop thinking, that no harm or violence can result, and then you must be helped in this direction by going to work with your hands—that will be life and progress, it will lead you to health.”
Fortunately I had had some experience with nervous illness, and I knew that unless I managed for this man the character and extent of his work, he would not only fail in it, but of its object, and so become more confused and discouraged. I knew the troubled mind, in this instance, might find its solace and its relief in work, but that I must choose the work carefully to suit the individual, and I must see that the nervously fatigued body was not pushed too hard.
In the town where I live is a blacksmith shop, presided over by a genial old man who has been a blacksmith since he was a boy, and in whose hands iron is like clay. I took my patient down to the smithy and said, “Here is a young man whom I want to put to work. He will pay for the chance. I want you first to teach him to make hand-wrought nails.” This was a good deal of a joke to the smith and to the patient, but they saw that I was in earnest and agreed to go ahead. We got together the proper tools and proceeded to make nails, a job which is really not very difficult. After an hour’s work, I called off my patient, much to his disgust, for he was just beginning to be interested. But I knew that if he were to keep on until fatigue should come, the whole matter would end in trouble. So the next day, with some new overalls and a leather apron added to the equipment, we proceeded to another hour’s work. We went on this way for three or four days, before the time was increased.
The interest of the patient was always fresh, he was eager for more, and he did not taste the dregs of fatigue. Yet he did get the wholesome exercise, and he did get the strong turning of the mind from its worry and concern. Of course, the rest of the day was taken care of in one way or another, but the work was the central feature. In a week, we were at it two hours a day, in three weeks, four hours, and in a month, five hours. He had made a handsome display of hand-wrought nails, a superior line of pokers and shovels for fireplaces, together with a number of very respectable andirons. On each of these larger pieces of handiwork my patient had stamped his initials with a little steel die that was made for him. Each piece was his own, each piece was the product of his own versatility and his own strength. His pride and pleasure in this work were very great, and well they might be, for it is a fine thing to have learned to handle so intractable a material as iron. But in handling the iron patiently and consistently until he could do it without too much conscious thinking, and so without effort, he had also learned to handle himself naturally, more simply and easily.
As a matter of fact, the illness which had brought this boy to me was pretty nearly cured by his blacksmithing, because it was an illness of the mind and of the nerves, and not of the body, although the body had suffered in its turn. That young man, instead of becoming a nervous invalid as he might have done, is now working steadily in partnership with his father, in business in the city. I had found him a very interesting patient, full of originality and not at all the tedious and boresome person he might have been had I listened day after day, week after week to the recital of his ills. I was willing to listen,—I did listen,—but I also gave him a new trend of life, which pretty soon made his complaints sound hollow and then disappear.
Of course, the problem is not always so simple as this, and we must often deal with complexities of body and mind requiring prolonged investigation and treatment. I cite this case because it shows clearly that relief from some forms of nervous illness can come when we stop thinking, when we stop analyzing, and then back up our position with prescribed work.
There may be some nervous invalids who these lines who will say, “But I have tried so many times to work and have failed.” Unfortunately, such failure must often occur unless we can proceed with care and with understanding. But the principle remains true, although it must be modified in an infinite variety to meet the changing conditions of individuals.
I see a great many people who are conscientiously trying to get well from nervous exhaustion. They almost inevitably try too hard. They think and worry too much about it, and so exhaust themselves the more. This is the greater pity because it is the honest and the conscientious people who make the greatest effort. It is very hard for them to realize that they must stop thinking, stop trying, and if possible get to work before they can accomplish their end. We shall have to repeat to them over and over again that they must stop thinking the matter out, because the thing they are attempting to overcome is too subtle to be met in that way. So, if they are fortunate, they may rid themselves of the vagueness and uncertainty of life, until all the multitude of details which go to make up life lose their desultoriness and their lack of meaning, and they may find themselves no longer the subjects of physical or nervous exhaustion.