Culture and Character

CULTURE OF CHARACTER

(a) By Instruction.––A woman's success in life depends on what force of character is in her; and character is to be got, like any other power, by dint of precept and practice: therefore, show the girl what she is, what she is not, how she is to become what she is not, and give her free scope to act and think for herself. What she is, is an exceedingly interesting study to the young girl, and open discussion on this subject helps her out of foolish and morbid feeling. She is full of vague self-consciousness, watching curiously the thoughts and emotions within her––an extraordinary spectacle to her inexperienced mind, leading her to the secret conviction that she is some great one, or, at any rate, is peculiar, different from the people about her. Hence arises much mauvaise honte, shyness, awkwardness; she feels herself the ugly duckling, unappreciated by the waddling ducks about her. She is clumsy enough at present, and is ready to own it; but wait a bit until the full-grown swan appear, and then they will see!

Now, this stage of self-consciousness and ignorant much-doubting self-exaltation, this "awkward age," as people call it, is common to all thoughtful girls who have the wit to perceive that there is more in them than meets the eye, but have not begun to concern themselves about what may or may not be in other people. It is a moral complaint, in which the girl requires treatment and tender nursing––only of a moral kind––as truly as she did when she had measles. If left to herself, she may become captious, morbid, hysterical; the years in which the foundations of sound character should be laid are wasted; and many a peevish, jealous, exacting woman owes the shipwreck of her life to the fact that nobody in her youth taught her to think reasonably of herself and of other people. It is only a few who founder; many girls are graciously saved: but this does not make it the less imperative on the mother to see her child safely through the troublous days of her early youth.

The best physic for the girl is a course of moral and mental science; not necessarily a profound course, but just enough to let her see where she is; that her noble dream of doing something great or good by-and-by––for which achievement she is ready to claim credit beforehand––is shared, in one form or other, by every human being; because the desire of power, the desire of goodness, are common to us all; that the generous impulse, which makes her stand up for her absent friend, and say fierce things in her behalf, is no cause for elation and a sense of superior virtue, for it is but a movement of those affections of benevolence and justice which are implanted in every human breast.

By the time the girl has discovered how much of her is common to all the world, she will be prepared to look with less admiring wonder at her secret self, and with more respect upon other people. For it is not that she has been guilty of foolish pride; she has simply been filled with honest and puzzled wonder at the fine things she has discovered in human nature as seen in herself. All her fault has been the pardonable mistake of thinking herself an exceptional person; for how is it possible that the people about her should have so much in them and so little come of it? Let her know that she is quite right about herself––that she has within her the possibilities she dreams of, and more; but that so have others, and that upon what she makes of herself, not upon what is in her, judgment will be passed.

It is true that a life of stirring action and great responsibility is the readiest means of developing character––better or worse: but not one woman in a thousand leads such a life; and then, not until she has reached maturity. Put into the hands of the girl the means of doing for herself what only exceptional circumstances will do for her; teach her, that is, the principles and methods of self-culture, seeing that you cannot undertake to provide for her the culture of circumstances. To point out these principles and methods in detail would be to go over the ground I have attempted to cover in a former volume. [Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies, Kegan Paul, London] By the time the girl has some insight into the nature of those appetites, affections, emotions, desires, which are the springs of human action; into the extraordinary power of habit, which, though acquired by us, and not born in us, has more compelling force than any or all of the inborn principles of action; into the imperious character of the will, which rules the man, and yet is to be ruled and trained by the man; into the functions of conscience, and into the conditions of the spiritual life,––by the time she has some practical, if only fragmentary, notions on these great subjects, she may be led to consider her own nature and disposition with profit. So far from encouraging the habit of morbid introspection, such a practical dealing with herself is the very best cure for it. She no longer compares herself with herself, and judges herself by herself; but, knowing what are the endowments and what the risks proper to human nature, she is able to think soberly of, and to deal prudently with, herself, and is in a position to value the counsels of her parents.

(b) By Training, in Practical Affairs.––These counsels come to her aid in the small practical affairs of life, as telling her, not what she must do, but the principles on which she should act. Thus: she goes to the draper's; looks at this stuff, at that, at the other; now she will have this, now the other; no, neither will do; and at last she turns to her mother in despair and says, "You choose." That will not do; that is, by so much, a failure in life. Her mother takes her to task. Before she goes "shopping," she must use her reason, and that rapidly, to lay down the principles on which she is to choose her dress––it is to be pretty, becoming, suitable for the occasions on which it is to be worn, in harmony with what else is worn with it. Now, she goes to the shop; is able to describe definitely what she wants; to say "No" instantly to the wrong thing, "Yes" to the right; judgment is prompt to decide upon the grounds already laid down by reason; and what is more, the will steps in to make the decision final, not allowing so much as a twinge of after-regret for that "sweet thing" which she did not buy. For the sake of cultivating decision of character, even a leap in the dark, like that of Sydney Smith's little maid, Bunch, when she chose, quick as thought, between venison and wild duck, having never tasted either, is to be preferred to the endless dilly-dallying, deliberation, taking of advice here and there, in which the lives of some women are passed––to the trial of their friends.

Again, she is given to dawdling: a letter, some slight household task, "lasts out"; an hour is spent on what should be done in fifteen minutes. Want of attention is, probably, the failing her mother comes down upon. Many a mother of energetic character brings up for herself a dawdling daughter, for this reason––the mother is so "managing," so ready to settle the employments and amusements of everybody about her, that the girl's only chance of getting a few minutes at her own disposal is to dawdle; and this leads to small deceptions, furtive readings of story-books, any of the subterfuges of the weak in dealing with the strong.

The mother's task in dealing with her growing daughter is one of extreme delicacy. It is only as her daughter's ally and confidante she can be of use to her now. She will keep herself in the background, declining to take the task of self-direction out of her daughter's hands. She will watch for opportunities to give word or look of encouragement to every growing grace. She will deal with failings with a gentle hand, remembering that even failures in veracity or integrity, distressing as they are, arise usually from the very moral weakness which she is setting herself to strengthen.

On discovering such fault, the mother will not cover her daughter with shame; the distress she feels she will show, but so that the girl perceives her mother is sharing her sorrow, and sorrowing for her sake. What is the root of the error? No due sense of the sanctity of truth, an undue fear of consequences, chiefly of loss of esteem. The girl is betrayed into a deliberate lie; she has not, she says, written such and such a letter, said such and such words, you knowing all the time that she has done this thing. Deal gently with her: she is no longer a child to be punished or "disgraced" at her parents' pleasure; it is before her own conscience she must stand or fall now. But do not let her alone with the hopeless sense that there is no more to be done for her. Remember that conscience and intellect are still immature, that will is feeble. Give her simple sincere teaching in the nature of truth. Let her know what truth is––the simple statement of facts as they are; that all our spoken words deal with facts, and that, therefore, the obligation of truth is laid upon them all; we should never open our lips without speaking the truth. That even a jest which misleads another is a lie; that perfect truthfulness, in thought, speech and act, is an obligation laid upon us by God. That the duty is binding, not only with regard to our friends, but towards every one with whom we hold speech.

The Christian mother will add deeper teaching about the Truth from Whom all truth proceeds. She will caution her daughter as to the need of self-recollectedness in speech. She says she is "quite well, thank you" when she has a headache; that she "will be done in a minute" when the minute means half an hour; these departures from fact slip out, without thought––therefore, think first, and speak after. But such trifles surely do not matter? if so, who may cast a stone? Most of us might mend our ways in this matter; but every guard she can place upon herself is of real value to the girl with an inadequate sense of truth, as a means of training herself in the truthful habits which go to form a truthful character. Then, train her by trusting her. Believe her always; give her opportunities to condemn herself in speaking the truth, and her courage will answer the demand upon it.

A bare enumeration of the duties which truthfulness comprehends, of the vices which are different forms of lying, is helpful and instructive. The heart rises and resolves upon the mere hearing that veracity is that truthfulness in common talk which is careful to state the least important fact as it is; that simplicity tells its tale without regard to self, without any thought of showing self to advantage in the telling; that sincerity tells the whole truth purely, however much it might be to the speaker's advantage to keep any part back; that frankness is the habit of speaking of our own affairs openly and freely––a duty we owe to the people we live amongst; that fidelity, the keeping of our trusts, in great things and small, belongs to the truthful character.