Advice to Youth
by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society
THE POWER OF HABIT.
You all know the meaning of the word habit. When we say
of a young man, that he is habitually studious, amiable, and
respectful, or that he is habitually indolent, negligent and morose,
everybody understands us. No language could be more explicit.
Nor need I say that you will probably be for time and
eternity what your habits make you. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed
to doing evil." Form correct and virtuous habits, and a light sweet as the
morning dawn may be expected to gild all your future pathway! But let your
habits be vicious and depraved, and a cloud darker than midnight will settle
on your prospects forever!
To you this is a topic of vast importance. Your
principles and practices are now just beginning to take root, and
should they grow into habits, you will be likely to carry them to the
grave with you. A volume might be written on the power of habit, but
I must content myself with suggesting a few thoughts.
1. Let us inquire into the FORMATION of habits.
This is a gradual work, an advancing process, in which
the preceding steps always influence those which follow. A habit is formed
by the recurrence again and again of the same internal, or the same external
acts. Such is human nature, that no one settles down suddenly into
fixed opinions, or an established way of life. Men may do wrong, and they
may do right; they may exhibit a holy temper or a sinful one, in a moment;
but the habit is induced by repetition. It takes time for a person to become
so accustomed to a given course, as to be easy and happy in such a course.
Neither occasional good deeds, nor occasional bad deeds constitute
character—or form what in common language we denominate habit.
You will do well to treasure these thoughts in your
minds. Never forget that any one act performed, or any one feeling indulged,
necessarily prepares the way for other acts and feelings of the same kind.
This remark is equally true, whether applied to mental or manual pursuits;
to the movements of the body, or the operations of the mind. A single glass
of wine may be the beginning of a habit which shall lead to intoxication—and
a single vindictive feeling may be the precursor of a train of feelings
which shall lead to murder. What we do once, we more readily and naturally
do a second time, and to continue in a certain path, be it reputable
or disreputable, is more easy than to start.
Such is the connection of things, as constituted by God
himself, and no one can disregard it with impunity. If life is to be spent
in the practice of piety, special care and effort will be required at the
outset; and if it is to be clouded with vice, the farther a person goes the
more rapid will be his descent into evil. The hindrances in the first case,
and the restraints in the second, invariably lose their power as progress is
Let it be noted here, that right feelings are more
to be considered, often, than correct doings. For example, humility
is less an overt act of self-denial, or any number of such acts, than a
habit of watching against the indulgence of pride. Of meekness also we may
say it is not so much an ostensible deed standing prominently forth, as it
is a state of mind contrary to anger and resentment. The same observation
may be made of a habit of sobriety, a habit of self-control, a habit of
industry, a habit of patience, or a habit of kindness. These virtues are
all best reached, by simply keeping aloof from the opposing vices; not
to do evil is often to do well.
But remember that bad habits are more easily formed
than good ones, and are given up with more difficulty. The native
depravity of the heart accounts for this well-known fact—a depravity which
inheres in man and operates with a force which none can fully estimate. It
is for this reason that far less time and pains are requisite to corrupt an
unwary youth, than to engraft upon his character the enduring habits of
righteousness and truth.
Men are self-indulgent and covetous, revengeful and
proud—naturally and spontaneously—without example or teaching. In the
present fallen state, wrong and misery are the result of giving up things to
their own native tendencies. In the natural world, you have only to leave a
field to itself, and you will see it covered with briers and thorns. But if
you would have it filled with beautiful and waving wheat, you must apply
care and toil. It is easy to float down the stream—but to resist the current
and reach the fountain requires effort.
Such statements are full of instruction, and you will do
well to think them over again and again. There are but few things which it
more concerns you to understand than the way in which habits are formed, so
as to become a part of one's abiding character. The value of sound
principles—firm, unwavering, truth-evincing principles—can never be
over-estimated, and no efforts to make them yours can be too great. They are
as necessary to the development of a good and useful character, as the
circulation of the blood in the body, or the rising of the sap in a tree.
2. We shall do well to consider the AMAZING STRENGTH of
Habit is said to be a second nature. What a man gets
accustomed to, let its influence be good or bad, he finds it very difficult
to abandon. We can bend or twist a 'twig' to whatever shape we please, but
let that twig become a 'tree', and it requires the force of a whirlwind to
uproot it. It is one thing for a child to form the habit of prayer and
reading the Scriptures, and quite another thing for the man of gray hairs to
do so. The son may keep from the inebriating cup; but no one can tell what
dreadful struggles it will cost his father to dash it to the ground.
Few are thoroughly aware of the controlling power of
habit. It is possible to train the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the
air, in habits entirely foreign to their nature; and yet these habits when
thus superinduced can scarcely be broken. The process is tedious, before a
dog and a cat can be made to live together in the same cage. But it can be
done, and done so completely that what was previously strange and unnatural,
becomes by habit a part as it were of their very being.
The novice in the use of opium, must lay his account with
nausea, headache, and languor; but let indulgence grow into a habit, and he
finds it almost like parting with life itself, to break it off. As often as
the hour returns, be it morning or noon, or night, the appetite is aroused
and demands gratification. There is something within, which like the
horseleech cries, give, give. The demand becomes imperative beyond that for
Could you see this matter in its true light, you would
tremble at the thought of being addicted to a bad habit. Why the doing of a
particular act, especially when it is so unpleasant at first, should beget a
disposition to repeat it and even render it agreeable, we need not inquire.
It is sufficient for all practical and useful purposes, to know that such is
unquestionably the fact. It is in recognition of this general and uniform
law of the human constitution, that the Bible utters its most energetic
warnings and gives forth its loudest notes of alarm. "Sudden destruction,"
"destruction without remedy" is to come upon such as have acquired the habit
of hardening their necks in the midst of reproof. An old man's bones are
represented as being "full of the sins of his youth, which shall lie down
with him in the dust."
If examples of the iron force of habit are called
for, we have them in abundance. All are aware what adamantine chains
encircle the man, who has unhappily become accustomed to the stimulating
influence of intoxicating drinks. It was not always with him, as it
is now. At first he took a glass not to appear singular, or to nerve his arm
for his daily task, or to help him bear some physical pain, or drive away a
cloud of trouble. There was then no love of intoxicating drink for its own
sake. But soon drinking became a habit; and how strong the habit, let
broken-hearted parents, a weeping wife and children, and an undone eternity
reveal! Resistance seems out of the question. "If," said such a one, "a
glass of wine stood before me, and I knew that endless misery must be the
consequence of drinking it, I could not refrain."
Equally overpowering perhaps is the habit of gambling.
Tales sufficient, one would think, to melt any heart not made of rock, are
told of the effects of this vice, on character, fortune and domestic peace;
and yet its thraldom is unbroken! To give a single case—A man in one of our
large cities had become opulent, and made his fortune by the unrighteous
avails of the gaming table. For a time, all appeared well. But at length he
met with a villain more adroit than himself, played deeply, and was
unsuccessful. With a heavy heart he went home, and was found the next
morning, hanging on one of the timbers of his own bed-chamber—a blackened
and frightful corpse!
These, beloved youth, are alarming illustrations, but
they are not of unusual occurrence. Mark how the habit of falsehood
grows upon a man, until from simple exaggeration in little things, he comes
to be so notorious a liar that his word is not worth a straw. One may be
long in reaching this sad eminence; but when it is reached, all is lost. The
plainest truths passing through such a man's lips, are almost as surely
falsified, as rays of light passing through water are refracted. Much the
same thing may be said of theft and profaneness, Sabbath-breaking and
infidelity. When the habit of these vices is formed, it is a miracle of
mercy if they are ever abandoned!
Yet, blessed be God, there is a bright side to this
picture. If bad habits acquire at length a giant hold upon the mind
and heart, it is encouraging that there is some degree at least of the same
force in good ones. Men do not easily turn aside, after walking for
years in the right path. "Oh," said a profligate descendant of pious
ancestors, upon retiring after an evening of jest and merriment, "I wish I
could forget the prayers which my mother taught me." You may all recollect
the confession of the late John Randolph of Roanoke. "I would have been a
French atheist, had it not been that my mother used to call me to her, when
a little boy, to repeat the Lord's prayer." This saved him from the evil
Such facts are instructive to parents, but they make a
special demand upon the attention of youth. You, who are now in the bloom
of life, are every day weaving for yourselves a web of habits, and when
formed, it will have strength beyond all your power to break it! Could
you see this subject in its true light, how carefully would you avoid the
very first fatal step! Be careless, be indolent, be skeptical, be
irreligious, be intemperate now—and you will find where you are, and what
you are—when recovery is hopeless! Or be early thoughtful, sober-minded and
pious—and you will lay up for time to come, blessings untold. "All the paths
of the Lord are mercy and truth to such as walk in them."
3. Mark for a moment the EFFECTS which habit produces.
These are apparent every day, and not to take them into
account is unwise indeed. Break up a man's habits, even by improving what
you call his comforts, and you often make him miserable. It is usually no
kindness to the aged, to take them from their cottage, their frugal fare and
their early meals, and place them in the mansions and surround them with the
ceremonies of fashionable life. Changes of this sort, make them with
whatever kind intentions you please, are irksome, and seldom fail to produce
discontent. Men who have become opulent by habits of strict attention to
business, always perhaps run some risk when they retire from the throng and
bustle of life. The quiet and the shade of the country cannot keep the
thoughts away from the counting-room and the exchange.
Be careful then to start aright—and afterwards be
satisfied to keep quietly on in the path of rectitude. Once learn to
master the difficulties of your allotment, to resist the temptations that
lie in your path, and to rise superior to the ridicule of the world, and you
will, almost as a matter of course, find your bosom filled with happy
emotions. The chief struggle is at the outset. The individual who rises
early to his study or his trade, soon acquires a habit of looking out upon
'the beauties of the morning', which renders him cheerful and contented.
Life to such a one has a brightness and buoyancy which the indolent and
listless never enjoy. Even duties that are at first trying and difficult,
become such sources of real pleasure, that we often hear the laborer
singing merrily at his anvil and the loom.
Only be sure that the course is right and just, and as
soon as it becomes habitual it will produce positive enjoyment. God thus
intermingles comforts with the trials, crosses and burdens of life—and so
arranges things, as one happily says, that the purest water is filtered
I can scarcely be too earnest in impressing these
thoughts on your attention. If considerate and observing at all, you cannot
help seeing how habits of order and temperance and industry—promote health,
peace of mind, and prosperity. Not only is the noonday of such a morning
warm and genial, but its evening-tide is calm and serene. It is pleasant to
mark the fresh countenance, the firm step, and the green old age of one,
whose habits of sleep, labor, food and recreation have all been good. A
bright and cheerful light is almost sure to shine upon such a path to its
very close. What a contrast this to the haggard looks and trembling limbs of
the man, whose bad habits have fixed a brand upon him which he must carry to
the grave! Do what he may afterwards, traces of the old evil will remain and
stick to him until the end.
Good habits are everything to a young man. Point me to a
boy in the community, who is growing up thoughtful, industrious, and
discreet, no matter how humble his circumstances—and I venture to predict
that his future course in the world will be useful and honorable. Rare
indeed are the instances in which such a one is beguiled in later life from
the paths of uprightness. The good habits he has formed, in addition to
their own intrinsic power, will be sure to draw around him a thousand kindly
influences, all strengthening the bonds of virtue. But what can be
anticipated for an idle, intemperate, disorderly young man? In some lucid
moment of after-life, he may resolve upon reformation—but his habits, like
so many strong ropes, fasten him to the ways in which he has long been
walking. It seems impossible for him now to be anything different from what
he has been.
The mind, also, suffers from bad habits as well as
the body. Let a person once lose his delicacy of feeling, and a wound is
inflicted which many a day of sorrow cannot heal. The bad book that he
allows himself to read, the obscene talk in which he indulges, and the
impure objects on which he fastens his thoughts, will be sure to make blots
hard to be effaced. Even true repentance has no power to wash away the
stain. Regret it as he may, the unhallowed imaginations once loved and
cherished, will not now depart at his bidding.
Hear what strong and emphatic language the celebrated
Lord Brougham uses on this point—"I trust everything under God to habit,
upon which in all ages the Lawgiver as well as the Schoolmaster has mainly
to place his reliance. It is habit which makes every duty easy, and casts
the difficulties upon a deviation from the customary course. Make sobriety a
habit—and intemperance will be hateful. Make prudence a habit—and
prodigality will seem like a crime. Make honesty a habit—and fraud will be
abhorred. Give a child the habit of sacredly regarding truth, and he will as
soon think of rushing into a hurricane, as of telling a falsehood." These
are broad declarations, and yet they are evidently founded on a deep
acquaintance with human nature.
May I not hope then, that you will lay all this seriously
to heart. There are instances, blessed be God, in which the idle become
industrious; the drunkard abandons his cups; the swearer learns to fear an
oath; and the dissolute embrace a life of purity. Nothing is too hard for
the Lord. But these cases are so rare as not to be expected in the ordinary
course of Providence. What you desire to be, five, ten, twenty, or forty
years hence—that strive to be and pray to be at once. Pluck up the sapling
before it grows into a tree! Check the disease before it seizes upon the
vitals. Meet the enemy on the borders, and allow him not to penetrate the
If you would ever love the Bible, begin to read it
carefully and prayerfully now. If you would ever put your trust in Christ,
begin to study the beauties of the cross now. If you would ever live a holy
life, begin to fear and obey God now. Now you have a tablet of wax on which
to inscribe characters of loveliness, and peace and salvation. A few years
hence this wax will be granite. Be chaste like Joseph, be humble like Moses,
be temperate like Daniel—and the habit will remain until your heads are laid
on their last pillow. Trials will come, when we shall see what you are, and
what you will do. It is a storm that gives a sight of the depths of the sea;
and it is a season of temptation, that gives us a glimpse of one's real
Go out into the world with bad habits, and I tremble for
the result. With good habits, and God's blessing, you will be safe
everywhere, in city or country, counting-house or mechanic's shop, student's
room or clerk's office.