I know a young girl who was ill with strained nerves that showed themselves in weak eyes and a contracted stomach. She is well now—entirely well—but whenever she gets a little tired the old habits of eyes and stomach assert themselves, and she holds firmly on to them, whereas each time of getting overtired might be an opportunity to break up these evil habits by a right amount of rest and a healthy amount of ignoring.
This matter of habit is a very painful thing when it is supported by inherited tendencies. If a young person overdoes and gets pulled down with fatigue the fatigue expresses itself in the weakest part of his body. It may be in the stomach and consequently appear as indigestion; it may be in the head and so bring about severe headaches, and it may be in both stomach and head.
If it is known that such tendencies are inherited the first thought that almost inevitably comes to the mind is: “My father always had headaches and my grandfather, too. Of course, I must expect them now for the rest of my life.” That thought interpreted rightly is: “My grandfather formed the headache habit, my father inherited the habit and clinched it—now, of course, I must expect to inherit it, and I will do my best to see if I cannot hold on to the habit as well as they did—even better, because I can add my own hold to that which I have inherited from both my ancestors.”
Now, of course, a habit of illness, whether it be of the head, stomach, or of both, is much more difficult to discard when it is inherited than when it is first acquired in a personal illness of our own; but, because it is difficult, it is none the less possible to discard it, and when the work has been accomplished the strength gained from the steady, intelligent effort fully compensates for the difficulty of the task.
One must not get impatient with a bad habit in one’s self; it has a certain power while it lasts, and can acquire a very strong hold. Little by little it must be dealt with—patiently and steadily. Sometimes it seems almost as if such habits had intelligence—for the more you ignore them the more rampant they become, and there is a Rubicon to cross, in the process of ignoring which, when once passed, makes the work of gaining freedom easier; for when the backbone of the habit is broken it weakens and seems to fade away of itself, and we awaken some fine morning and it has gone—really gone.
Many persons are in a prison of bad habits simply because they do not know how to get out—not because they do not want to get out. If we want to help a friend out of the habit of illness it is most important first to be sure that it is a habit, and then to remember that a suggestion is seldom responded to unless it is given with generous sympathy and love. Indeed, when a suggestion is given with lack of sympathy or with contempt the tendency is to make the invalid turn painfully away from the speaker and hug her bad habits more closely to herself. What we can do, however, is to throw out a suggestion here and there which may lead such a one to discover the truth for herself; then, if she comes to you with sincere interest in her discovery, don’t say: “Yes, I have thought so for some time.” Keep yourself out of it, except in so far as you can give aid which is really wanted, and accepted and used.