Chapter 8 – On Saving Breath
EARLIER in these pages the advice not to talk has been given. In fact it may seem that I believe one of the prerequisites for success is to sink oneself into a surly silence.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. To talk enough, to talk persuasively, to establish and maintain friendly relations with those around us, is of supreme importance to effective living. Nevertheless, it is easy to talk too much, at the wrong times, or with the wrong objective. Innumerable proverbs exist to show that folk-wisdom has always recognized a danger in excessive wordiness. “Speech is silver, silence is golden”; “Much talk, little work”; “A barking dog never bites,” we say; we call the tongue “the unruly member,” say that a gossip’s tongue is “hung in the middle,” speak of a demagogue as “a windbag,” praise “a man of few words,” and are sometimes uncomfortably impressed by the strength of laconic speech.
Without making too much of a point of the matter, a few of the reasons for counseling silence may be worth examining. Every great religious discipline insists on the wisdom of learning the control of speech. Several Christian sects observe silences; some are vowed to perpetual silence. One of the greatest and most famous philosophical religious systems, that of the Indians, devotes an entire phase of its training not only to controlling speech, but to controlling breath: the Pranayama of the Hindus. In Latin the word for breath and the word for soul are masculine and feminine forms of the same root, in Greek they are identical.
There is more in this than meets the eye of the reader who is always on the run.
Breathing is one of the few involuntary actions of the body over which we can exercise voluntary control. That is to say, it is on the borderline between the regions of the conscious and the unconscious. The man or woman who can speak or be silent as he chooses is the individual who has self control.
When the Unconscious has us fully at its mercy we talk not as we should voluntarily choose to talk if we could see all the consequences of our speech, but from a need to relieve some half-perceived pressure. So we grumble humorously about our difficulties, and make ourselves self-conscious by doing so. Or we excuse ourselves defiantly. Or we complain of a trifling injustice, and are sometimes startled to see how much more pity we invoke than the occasion warrants. Once we have found a wellspring of pity and indulgence in another, we are seldom mature enough not to take advantage of it, thus reinforcing our infantilism and defeating our growth.
One of the worst wiles of the Will to Fail is that it forces its victim to ask for unnecessary advice. Here again the universal deep motive for asking advice (unnecessarily, it should be emphasized once more) is that by so doing we can go on feeling protected and cherished even though we are no longer children. But that again means that we are being provided with advance excuses for failure. If we act on the advice of another and are unsuccessful, obviously the failure is not ours but our counselor’s; isn’t that plain? So we can continue to daydream of successful action, to believe that if only we had followed our first impulse we could not have failed.
Since such motives can be present, it is wise to scrutinize every impulse to ask for advice. If the origin of the desire is above suspicion, then there is only one further question to ask before seeking help with a clear conscience: “If I worked this out for myself, would I consume only my own time?” If the answer to that is “Yes,” then it is generally better to work out the problem independently, unless the amount of time so expended would be grossly disproportionate to the importance of the result.
If you are a creative worker, remember that time spent in finding an independent technique is seldom wasted. We are accustomed to think of the success of a man like Joseph Conrad, a Pole, in writing the English language, or of the work of an electrical genius like Steinmetz, as savoring of the miraculous. To have had to work out their problems alone – what a tremendous obstacle to overcome! On the contrary; the necessity for independent action was one of the conditions of their success, and to see and admit this is in no way to detract from the worth of their accomplishment.
Most of us support each other and are in turn supported to such an extent that we can make almost no individual contribution; the final result of our labors is a sort of olla podrida, a medley of tastes, talents and techniques, with little to differentiate it from similar results. Look, for a moment, at any of the run-of-the-mill novels of the day; at the layout, wording and illustration of the advertisements in any given magazine; at the comic strips in a number of papers. Would it seem too far-fetched to say that although one man, one woman, or one firm is actually behind each of these bids for our attention, they all seem to have been issued from a sort of central bureau? Yet however uncomplainingly we absorb these issuances from the Ministry for Novel-Writing, the Central Bureau for the Production of Comic Strips, the Committee in Charge of National Advertising, we save our real rewards for those who bring us freshness or genius.
So the working out, however laborious, of an original technique is worth the time expended, the loneliness entailed. With that well in mind, let us consider those times when advice should be taken.
You have a genuine problem. The first step, then, should be to write it out, or to formulate it verbally with exactness, so that you can see just what it is that is troubling you. If you simply let the problem wash around in your mind, it will seem greater, and much vaguer, than it will appear on close examination. Then find your expert, whether friend or stranger, but make every effort to find one whose views seem to be congenial to you, since that usually implies similar or congenial mental processes. To do so earlier will mean that you are wasting both your time and his by making him the audience of part of your self-examination. If you are successful in getting an interview, make that as short and concise as possible while still covering all your points. Then follow the advice you are given until you see definite results. If you are tempted to say “Oh, that won’t work for me,” then you should suspect your own motives. Such a rejection implies that you already had a course of action in mind, and were more than half-hoping that you would be advised to follow it. Watching an example of the wrong attitude towards advice and instruction here may be more illuminating than any positive example.
Have you ever seen the teacher of an art class at work? Frequently he will find in the drawing of one pupil a flaw which is so typical of most students’ work at the same stage that he will call the other pupils of the class around the easel. Using the imperfect canvas as his text, he will branch into criticism, advice, exhortation, and will occasionally go on to rub out the mistake and draw the line or put in the color as it should have been done. If you will observe the group at this moment you will discover that, tragically enough, everyone seems to be benefiting by the lecture except the very pupil to whom it should be most valuable. In almost every case the one whose work is providing the example will be quivering, nervous, sometimes tearful, often angry – in short, giving every sign that he is feeling so personally humiliated and insulted that he is reacting at an infantile level. If you ask for help, or put yourself into the relation of a pupil to a teacher, learn to advance by your mistakes instead of suffering through them. Keep your attitude impersonal while you are being shown the road back to the right procedure.
If you are in school, or taking class or private instruction, it is wise to take every opportunity to ask well considered questions, then to act on the information, and finally – and very important – to report to your instructor as to your success or failure through following his advice. This is of advantage not only to you, but to him and his subsequent pupils, since he cannot know what practices are effective and what are only useful to himself and a few like him unless his pupils report in this fashion. If you must consistently report no progress, then one of two things must be true: that you are not fully understanding him, or that you are not working under the right master.
After your period of apprenticeship is over, try not to weaken yourself or bring about self-doubt to such an extent that you must have help on minor points of procedure.
Every physician and psychiatrist knows that there is a great class of “sufferers” who return again and again, asking so many and such trivial questions that it seems unlikely they could ever have grown to maturity if they were as helpless in all relations as they show themselves to their physicians. No one except a charlatan truly welcomes the appearance of such patients as these. The person who is looking for an excuse to blame his failure on another or who will not, if he can help it, grow up and settle his own difficulties, will go on asking advice until he draws his last breath, and even the astutest consultant may be forgiven if he sometimes mistakes an infrequent questioner for one of the weaker type.
A good touchstone to show whether you may be only following a nervous habit of dependence is to ask yourself in every case: “Would I ask this if I had to pay a specialist’s fee for the answer?” All busy persons whose work brings them into the lime-light have frequent requests for personal interviews. Usually they answer as well as they are able, taking much trouble rather than run the risk of rebuffing any talented or sensitive beginner; but they are ruthlessly exploited. When, as sometimes happens, an eminent man comes to the place where he answers no questions of this sort, it is not that he is swollen with conceit, not that he would not gladly help anyone in genuine perplexity, but that he has no certain way of winnowing the sincere inquirers from the neurotics, and, since he still has his own valuable work to do, he reluctantly decides for silence. To console himself he knows that many who are ready to do their own work only frustrate themselves by acting with too much humility, and that if their questions go unanswered they will find their own satisfactory solutions.
So talking, complaining, asking advice, inviting suggestions – all are better abandoned during the period of re-education. Ultimately and ideally, of course, you want to be able to work under any and all circumstances. You cannot ever be certain that your favorite confidante or your most stimulating friend will always be in a position to lend a sympathetic ear at the moment that you feel you need it. If you establish the habit of going to someone at a certain point in your work, and lead yourself to feel, even unconsciously, that this is necessary to a satisfactory performance, you are laying the foundation of future failure.
Moreover, whatever your field may be, if you spend every possible moment at creative activity, you will come to the place where you have a body of your own work, a total of experience, to consider; you will get the “feeling of your material.” Then you will see how many of your problems arose because you had previously been in the position of an amateur or novice, because you had so little experience in your own line that for a while every problem seemed unique.
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