Sunday, March 15, 2009

Exercise and Effort

Most of us have met with a few eccentric and a good many silly persons, concerning whom the question forces itself, Were these people born with less brain power than others? Probably not; but if they were allowed to grow up without the daily habit of appropriate moral and mental work, if they were allowed to dawdle through youth without regular and sustained efforts of thought or will, the result would be the same, and the brain which should have been invigorated by daily exercise has become flabby and feeble as a healthy arm would be after carried for years in a sling....

The outcome of which is––Do not let the children pass a day without distinct efforts, intellectual, moral, volitional; let them brace themselves to understand; let them compel themselves to do and to bear; and let them do right at the sacrifice of ease and pleasure: and this for many higher reasons, but, in the first and lowest place, that the mere physical organ of mind and will may grow vigorous with work.
From "Exercise" in Preliminary Considerations in Home Education.

Etymology of exercise.

"condition of being in active operation,"
This is the next mention of "habit" in the preliminary considerations. This whole chapter is about the groundwork of moral and intellectual formation, and about the link of body to mind. Here I think she is analogizing the mind and will to muscles. A person confined to his bed for a long time will become atrophied in muscle, and similarly, a person who never really has to exert himself mentally or morally will tend to have trouble doing so when the time comes. Since as she said the large active brain is not contented with entire idleness (and I think this goes for the will, too) it will tend to strike out fitfully in various odd directions. Thus you get the eccentric, not really bad but not able to direct energies to positive good, either. l

Now, the way I am approaching this habit study is to figure out first how it applies to me, an adult. Since children are persons, the application will be somewhat the same for them, or this is my hypothesis. For children, whose brains are more plastic, the *effects* of atrophy or exercise will be more formative... that is, they will engrain themselves in the growing organism in a way that is not so much true of middle-aged adults, who are already formed. Or so I understand it.

For adults, too, though, continual mental and volitional effort is important. You see a lot of middle aged and elderly people who are basically coasting on their childhood formation. But since the natural tendency is to actually lose muscle density (and this seems to be true of mental function, too) -- coasting will actually lead to loss. The surface may continue to look all right, but it becomes a brittle shell of habit and the status quo. In order to avoid this, I think it's important to follow the example of Socrates and keep striving, examining, questioning, enduring, .... not in a sterile rigid way, but because it's truly important as a person ages to become prepared to undertake a good decline and death. Studies show that elderly people who continue to physically and mentally exercise retain function longer and there is no reason why this shouldn't apply to volitional, moral function as well (it's just that this area isn't customarily researched so far as I've seen, though I have seen studies that show that people who continue to be altruistic and socially minded into old age are healthier and happier).

I've been trying to be more conscious myself of daily striving in some area. I realize that if I am not careful, I can let several days slip by without effort. It may LOOK good, even BE good in a way in that I'm doing all the "right things" but it has become reflexive. That is not enough. I know the difference inside myself, even if it isn't apparent on the surface (though a family is a good conscience-check because children and spouses tend to sense emptiness inside even before one is fully aware of it oneself).

See, the point here isn't what you started with.... your natural temperament or upbringing. That is water under the bridge. CS Lewis says that the moral effort required for one person to be a hero might be the same as for another person to smile and be civil first thing in the morning. It's difficult to tell from the outside, but God can see what is going on. Jesus criticized the successful Pharisees but brought the Thief on the cross to Paradise with him. One statement of faith gloriously overbalanced a whole bad life, while lives that were superficially correct could not mask, for Him, an essential sterility and foulness.

Each of us has the same duty to, as St Maximilian Kolbe says,

not permit that evil remain without reparation and destruction;
or that good be without fruit or increase.
So this advice of Charlotte Mason has been a good reminder to me that if I am not making efforts daily, I am doing something equivalent to the man in the parable who buried his coin in the ground. That is, I'm keeping what I have but in the process losing out on real value.

I thought I wouldn't have enough to say about this topic but instead I wrote a lot and still have more to say : ).

No comments: