By William James
EVERYONE knows what it is start a piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale. And everybody knows what it is to “warm up” to this job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.”
Usually we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first layer of fatigue. We have then walked, played or worked “enough,” so we desist. But if an unusual necessity forces us onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain point, when, gradually or suddenly, it passes away and we are fresher than before!
We have evidently tapped a new level of energy. There may be layer after layer of this experience, a third and a fourth “wind.” We find amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own-sources of strength habitually not taxed, because habitually we never push through the obstruction of fatigue.
Most of us can learn to live in perfect comfort on higher levels of power. Everyone knows that on any given day there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources. Only the very exceptional individuals push to their extremes. To what do these better men owe their escape from the habit to which the rest of us fall prey-the habit of inferiority to our full self? The answer is plain: either some unusual stimulus fills them with emotional excitement, or some unusual idea of necessity induces them to make an extra effort of will.
A new position of responsibility, for example, will usually reveal a man to be far stronger than was supposed. Cromwell’s and Gran’s careers are stock examples of how war will wake a man up. Humbler examples show perhaps still better what effects duty’s appeal may produce in chosen individuals. Every case of illness nursed by wife or mother is a proof of this, and where can one find greater examples of sustained endurance than in those thousands of homes where the woman keeps the family going by taking all the thought and doing all the work, sewing, scrubbing, saving, helping neighbors? If she does a bit of scolding now and then, who can blame her?
Despair, which lames most people, wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart. Following a terrible colliery explosion in France, 200 corpses were exhumed. After 20 days of excavation, the rescuers heard a voice. “Me voici,” said the first man unearthed. He was a coal miner who had taken command of 13 others in the darkness, disciplined and cheered them, and brought them out alive.
Such experiences show how, under excitement, our organism will sometimes perform its physiological work. But the normal opener of deeper and deeper levels of energy is the will. The difficulty is to use it, to make the effort that the word saying no to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act, will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power.
“In the act of uncorking a bottle of whiskey which I had brought home to get drunk upon,” said a man to me , “ I suddenly found myself running out into the garden, where I smashed it on the ground. I felt so happy and uplifted after this act, that for two months I wasn’t tempted to touch a drop.”
The best practical knowers of the human soul have invented disciplines to keep the deeper levels constantly in reach. Prince Pueckler-Musaku wrote to his wife from England that he had invented “a sort of artificial resolution respecting things that are difficult of performance. My device,” he continues, “is this: I give my word of honor most solemnly to myself to do or to leave undone this or that. I am of course extremely cautions in the use of this expedient, but when once the word is given I hold it to be irrevocable. I find something very satisfactory in the thought that man has the power of framing such props and weapons out of trivial materials, indeed out of nothing, merely by the force of his will.”
Our energy budget is like our nutritive budget. Physiologists say that a man is in “nutritive equilibrium” when day after day he neither gains nor loses weight. Just so, one can be in what I might call “efficiency equilibrium” on astonishingly different quantities of work, no matter in what direction the work may be measured. It may be physical work, intellectual work, moral work or spiritual work.
Of course there are limits: trees don’t grow into the sky. But the fact remains that men, pushing their energies to the extreme, may in a vast number of cases keep the pace up day after day, and find no reaction of a bad sort, so long as decent hygienic conditions are preserved. A man’s more active rate of energizing does not wreck him, for the organism adapts itself. As the rate of waste augments, so does the rate of repair.
I say the rate and not the time of repair. The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler. Some years ago, Prof. George Patrick of the University of Iowa kept three young men awake for four days and nights. When his observations were finished, the subjects slept themselves out. All awoke completely refreshed, but the one who took the longest to restore himself from his vigil slept only one third more time than was regular for him.
It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon-deeper and deeper strata of exploitable material, ready for use by anyone who proves so deep. The human individual usually lives far within his limits. In rough terms, we may say that a man who energizes below his normal maximum fails by just so much to profit by his chance at life.
By William James