Overworking the Mind

MY grandmother was a notable housekeeper; that is to say, she did a great many things that were unnecessary. The forbiddingly neat parlor was perhaps harmless, but hardly so much could be said for those wonderful biscuits and preserves that made Grandmother’s suppers seem, as I look back on them now, like a device for reinforcing nature’s test for the fittest. If we survived, it was because our mothers, representing the moral law, met and resisted nature’s plan. But it is not so much the results Grandmother achieved as the methods by which she worked, that are pointing my latterday moral. She did most of her own work, and there never was another such woman for skillful planning. If she went to the cellar for potatoes she carried down as much as two empty fruit-cans and the coal-scuttle, and in coming up, her pan of potatoes rode on top of a few sticks of wood or whatever else Grandmother was going to want for her morning’s enterprise. In making cake she never allowed herself to walk from the kitchen table to the pantry more than twice. Her washing of dishes was a marvel of studied simplicity. When my chubby little uncle was helping her one day, she protested against his needless journeys between the dining-room and the kitchen, and told him to think out his work so that his head could save his heels. Little Uncle Tom stopped his busy trotting long enough to gaze meditatively at his feet and to say with conviction, ‘ But I don’t want my head to save my heels. I’d rather use my heels. I need to have my head for something else.’ Yes, it is true, Uncle Tom is now a professor of philosophy.

All this consideration of house-keeping tactics was suggested to me to-day not by our incompetent maid, who does indeed never waste her brain-power, but by our physician, who brought over his latest article for us to see. He keeps up with the times; his article shows how the mind should serve the body, and goes rather specifically into the method of application. By treating us thus subtly through literature he expects, no doubt, to keep us healthy during his impending vacation. But I feel Uncle Tom’s prejudice against using my head to save my heels. The doctor has outlined for me, before this, a scheme for going to sleep, so wearing that I am sure I should prefer to sit up all night rather than to use it, for more than one night’s sleep would be needed to restore my jaded mind after the operation of this device.

My sister Matilda had to take a year off from her teaching after a summer vacation spent in applying self-control. Perhaps I should say that she and I do not agree on the subject; but my theory is that if she had complained, in an outspoken and human fashion, when she first felt tired, the doctor would have given her some medicine and made her take a little vacation, and she would have been ready for her normal career of overwork. But she told herself there was nothing the matter except her attitude, and she silently worked on her attitude so hard that at last, when she grew no better and was persuaded to go to the doctor, she spoke of her troubles with an intensity gained during weeks of repression; and of course he thought her morbid and set her off on a new branch of the optimistic treatment. If she had not worn her mind out, she could have been cured in six weeks by ordinary measures. But Matilda does n’t agree with me, and the self-control evident in her face now is enough to make one sigh.

This cheerfulness that we are told to assume before untoward circumstances paralyzes real humor; its fatuity deadens us when ill-temper might wake us up. Most of us can be far funnier when we are setting forth our annoyances than when we adopt the tone of Mrs. Wiggs. And Mrs. Wiggs was at least spontaneous and uncalculating in her application of soul to situation. These ordered minds, never letting an impulse get beyond them — they are the kind that put an undue strain upon companionship. They are the kind that lay brain-power at the service of legs and stomachs, when the legs and stomachs would be all the better for being kept in their places and made to attend to their own affairs and to the service of their superiors as well.

There are several injudicious ways of making the best of things. One of them is illustrated by the humble young curate, pictured long ago in Punch, who protested when the bishop, his host, expressed doubts of an egg the curate was eating, ‘Oh, no, my lord; I assure you some parts of it are excellent.’ Fancy looking on the bright side of a bad egg! The effort was surely less ingratiating than the curate supposed. Indeed this habit of seeing good in everything may become the most unendurable of virtues, — as distressing as grim patience, which is a common and effective method of wearing out the mind. I like to remember the old lady who said, when a friend reminded her that she had had little trouble in her life, ‘Yes, but I’ve made the most of what I have had.’ She chose more wisely than the people who come exhausted out of their victories over circumstance. Wounds of the spirit are glorious only when the battle has been mighty. The philosophy that tells us to use our minds in smoothing life’s daily friction, offers us a future as wan as Matilda’s smile of cheer.