There was a pretty full meeting at the house of Mrs. Randolph one afternoon toward the middle of January, in spite of the fact that the absence of sidewalks in the Abingdon streets makes walking in the muddy season not the most pleasant exercise in the world. Mrs. Sharpe read a paper on “Self-Control,” which held the attention of the members from beginning to end.
“Any quality which we admire, and yet in which we feel ourselves specially deficient,” so she humbly began, “is likely to seem of the greatest importance in our sight. That may be one reason why I have chosen ‘Self-Control’ for my subject this afternoon; but it is not the only one, for the more 1 have thought about it, the more it has seemed impossible to overstate its importance to us all. A character without it, is like an army without a commanding officer; and without it there can be but one result in any campaign—defeat. It is so strictly fundamental in the building up of a noble character that even truthfulness is dependent on it; for under the influence of uncontrollable fear, for example, even the most truthful are in danger of descending to the use of falsehood. Self-control in diet means health and strength; in expenditure it means honesty and peace of mind; in sickness it is sometimes so important a factor that it is reckoned by, one’s friends as adding much to the chances of recovery. This is true in consumption as well as in nervous diseases. A judge in Boston, who had fought for many years against inherited consumption, was wont to say that he had prolonged his life for many years by controlling his desire to cough. If I may adopt and change the bearing of the hackneyed quotation from Douglass Jerrold, my advice to those about to cough is, ‘Don’t’!
“It is a truism that the very essence of good-breeding is self-control. It is the distinguishing mark of the higher classes the world over. The lower one descends in the social scale, the more the absence of it is noted. Who that has seen the ‘Shaughraun’ played has not laughed at the utter abandonment to her feelings of Conn’s mother, when she discovers that her son is determined to expose himself to the risk of being seized by the officers? What a ludicrous picture she makes—the fat old Irishwoman, jumping up and down with rage, her big mobcap flapping wildly to and fro, while she screeches at the top of her voice! We laugh because the delineation is true to her ignorant, ungoverned nature.
“Self-restraint is not difficult for most women in the presence of a great occasion which calls out all the heroic in the character. It is in the wear and tear of our daily lives that we oftenest need and lose it. Rare is the mother who can keep her equanimity when her child playfully throws down its cup of milk on her new rug; and before the Abingdon woman who can lose her train—the one she ‘must’ take—and still maintain a noble calm, I bow in hopeless admiration!
“For mothers, above all others, this virtue is of vital importance. Jean Paul says, ‘A mother’s scream may echo through a daughter’s life.’ One yielding to a storm of angry passion, or to a violent, unreasonable desire during the three first and most impressionable months, may stamp itself forever on the unborn child. Once it seemed to be the popular notion that a woman’s fancies at that time must all be gratified, at whatever cost; now it is rather the teaching that the woman should control herself, and by the force of her own will divert her mind from unreasonable longings. We all know how dangerous to the nursing child is the nurse’s fit of unrestrained excitement. Convulsions and death itself are recorded among the known results. Self-control at these most important periods is, however, not a virtue that can be suddenly assumed. It must be the habit of the soul. As Jane Eyre forcibly said, when parting from Rochester, ‘Laws and principles are not for the time of no temptation. With my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs, preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all that I have at this hour to hold by.’ The value of self-command is not less for ourselves and our children as they grow in years, and I know no better way of teaching them than by our daily example.
“One day, when I was a very little girl, I was watching my mother make strawberry preserves. I can see the great kettle of boiling liquid now, clear as rubies. Beside the stove stood a large milk pan containing some squash, for ‘company’ pies, with a plenty of milk and eggs in it. ‘Now Bridget,’ said my mother, at last, in a satisfied tone, ‘it is done; take the kettle off.’ This was accomplished, and then, with almost incredible stupidity, the ‘help’ actually emptied the strawberries into the squash! My mother turned her head just too late. She was quick and impulsive, but there escaped from her month only a despairing ‘O Bridget!’ Then, as she saw the girl’s instantly regretful face, she uttered no angry reproaches, no useless lamentations. No doubt, when my tired mother, who was not strong (I lost her at fifteen), went upstairs to rest, she felt disheartened, and thought that her preserves and squash, her time and labor, had all been wasted; but probably she never did for me a more valuable morning’s work than when she gave me that unconscious lesson in sweet self-control.
“Insanity is said to be increasing to an appalling extent. In some of its forms it is said to be defined as ‘an uncontrollable desire’—as for stimulants, dipsomania; for acquisition, kleptomania. In how many instances this uncontrollable desire might have been checked by a wise, strong mother in early life! The switchtender moves the rail on a curve but an inch, and turns the crowded train easily from right to left; but if he allow the locomotive to pass that point, not all the strength of man can make the train swerve from the wrong track. The superintendent of one of our largest lunatic asylums has said, that the insanity of his patients, in a far larger number of cases than most people dream, is directly traceable to a want of the habit of self-control. Not only does the unrestrained indulgence in stimulants, and the gratification of the baser animal passions, stimulate it, but to yield day after day to fits of anger at slight causes, or to allow any idea to gain the mastery over one by continual, unchecked brooding upon it, has the smile terrible tendency. Mothers little realize, he says, the paramount importance of teaching self-control to children if they would save them from ending their days in a hospital for the insane.
“One of the experts in the frightful Guiteau trial stated, under the sanctity of his oath, that he had never known a case where insanity was directly transmitted, but that people were sometimes born strongly predisposed to it. If this be true, as it probably is, it behooves all to raise every safe-guard against the terrible tendency by teaching self-government in early youth. Is not the trend of our time toward parental indulgence, in its rebound from the undue severity of earlier days, in a measure responsible for the increase of insanity? Is it not as important, however, that our children’s characters should be strong as that their childhood should be entirely pleasant? May it not be feared that when-we too carefully avoid denying them a gratification—even when in our hearts we doubt the harmlessness of it—we are far from helping them to practice that self-government upon which their future usefulness and happiness, perhaps even the continuance of their reason, may depend?
“If, then, this virtue is so nearly all-important, the great question is, How shall we acquire it? It seems to me that one way to accomplish the desired end is to gain the knowledge of what should be done in some one great and sudden emergency. To know such a simple fact as that a mustard-bath for the feet is always safe, and will sometimes save life in case of a violent congestion, will prevent us from ignominiously standing and wringing our hands when the emergency occurs.
“Another simple but efficient help is to have command at least of the voice. In a discussion, he who preserves the outward semblance of calmness is sure to come off best. Whatever else you do or fail to do when excited, keep your voice down. When you reprove a servant or a child for an offense which makes you inwardly boil with indignation, if you will only pitch your voice on a low key, and resolutely keep it there, you will be mistress of the situation—and yourself. I have read of a mother who said that for her it was the only safe course to reprove her children in a whisper, so much reason had she to distrust her naturally violent temper.
“Will you pardon me if I draw another illustration from my own experience? On the night of the Portland fire, one of the family to which I belong was dangerously ill with disease of the heart. All realized that any exhibition of fear by us might be fatal to him, and we resolved that no loud, excited voice should be heard in the house. It was wonderful how the necessity for outward self-control steadied and helped the household daring that night of terror. Even our servants caught the contagion of calmness and quiet, and worked with a coolness that was amazing as the household goods were hurriedly packed amid the lurid glare of the rapidly approaching flames and the falling of cinders. We thought at the time, as we calmly spoke to one another in low tones, that a single loud cry would have broken the spell and ruined all our plans.
“I think you will agree with me that the one great help of helps (for I cannot extend the discussion farther) is the habit of looking up for strength to ONE who is mightier than we—who is unmoved among all the changes and upturnings of time, and who has promised to all who feel the need of something firm to set their feet upon, ‘Ask, and ye shall receive.’ If only every day in our often too hurried and worried lives, we would take but fifteen minutes for retirement, for quiet self-recollection and prayer, strength and calmness would surely come to us. Things around us would assume their due proportions; the trifles and worries that seem at the moment supreme would grow less important in our eyes, as our life gained in perspective, and we came to see more clearly the outlines of that vast and unknown future, which, whether we ignore it or not, lies yet before each of us. Faber unlocks the true secret of self-control when he sings,—
“‘Keep quietly to GOD, and think
Upon the eternal years!'”
“Is there, then, no limit to the mother’s responsibility?” asked Mrs. Hollins, as the reading closed. “The words we have just heard are calculated to make us tremble, and stand in awe before our children. We must thank the essayist for the last words, for, truly, but for the strength that lies outside of us, we mothers with weak nerves, overburdened and frail bodies, would sink under the cares that accumulate with the sacred duties of motherhood.”
“The suggestion that the voice should be kept down, that we should ‘speak small, like a woman,’ as Shakespeare has it, is a good one,” said Mrs. Berkeley; “and yet I have seen the time when I have felt almost indignant with the gentle mother who seemed to lack the fire and force that would have stopped the teasing of a child pleading for a forbidden pleasure.”
“By all means let us not fail to be firm and decided,” said Mrs. Follen, “and not too weak to express righteous indignation when a child’s act calls for it. At the same time we must avoid the bane of our life and the destroyer of home comfort—the habit of scolding.”
“If we accept the testimony of experts,” said Mrs. Emory, “and believe that the fearful scourge of insanity is on the increase, we shall indeed do well to begin to teach ourselves and our children the power of self-control, which, in other words, amounts to doing on all occasions the right thing because it is right. Keeping back the harsh word, uttering the tender one, when every impulse of our nature tends to force us to do otherwise, is indeed hard, but it can be done. Keeping close to the sinless ONE is the only way for human nature to gain and retain self-control, for with His help all things are possible.”
— Mothers in Council, Signs of the Times, 5/7/1885
Related: The Sanctified Life