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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.

Formation of Habits

My dear brother,
Some of the subjects upon which I intend to address you, will perhaps seem small. Nothing is small, however, or unimportant, which concerns the forming of your habits. You are now forming a character for life, and ten years hence it will be too late to amend what is done amiss now.

Near the place where I write, a number of men are busied in building a large house. They are building up thick walls of solid stone. Now I observe that they are very careful in laying these stones. They are constantly measuring with the rule and the plummet, to make every part exactly as it should be. And they have reason for this, because, if, six months hence, they should find out that their wall was not perpendicular, or their foundation not strong, they could do nothing to remedy it—but to tear down their work and do it over again.

So it is with you. Every habit you form is one stone laid in your character. At this early age you may correct bad habits—but it will be all but impossible when you shall have become a man. Besides, the character of a youth is fixed, as to great matters, much sooner than many suppose. Not long ago, I came to a place in which I had spent many of my youthful days, and saw several of my playmates. They are now men and women, and some of them have children as old as I was when we all went to school together. Other changes have taken place—but in almost everyone I see the same general character. Let me give you an instance.

There is John Smith, who was the most diligent boy in the school. He is still diligent, and has gained so much knowledge that he is thought to be the wisest lawyer in the State. There is Samuel Johnson, who was idle, sleepy, careless, fond of his bed, and fond of eating. He is still the same sluggish creature; he still rises several hours after the sun; he eats, and drinks, and slumbers. His little property is gone; his coat has holes at the elbows; he has lately been released from imprisonment, and will be 'Lazy Sam' (I fear) as long as he lives.

True religion, I know, works great and happy changes in some, even late in life. But what I desire for you is, that religion may work this change early in life or rather that the grace of God may so mold your character now, that in these particulars there may be no need of a change so radical. For it is better to lay the foundation right at the beginning, than to tear down the whole walls to put right what is found to be wrong. That is, it is better for a boy to form right habits, from the fear of God, in his boyhood, than to live in wrong habits twenty years, and then try to change them when it is too late.

I know some pious people who are mourning every day over the bad habits of their childhood. Thus they know it is a sin to be slothful, yet they find it too hard to acquire diligence, and they lounge all day over newspapers, or trifling conversation—when they might be doing something to benefit their own souls or those of their neighbors.

The proverb of the ancients is good—"Do what is right, however unpleasant, and custom will make it delightful." You know a little boy, who lives near you, who makes it a rule to walk four miles before breakfast every morning. When he began this it was very irksome, and he was often tempted to give it up; but his father told him that "custom would make it delightful," and he persevered. This became true; he would not now miss his morning walk for any reason. I have no doubt he will retain the habit through life, and it will probably keep him a robust, healthy man for many years.

Those little things which seem hard to you, in your studies, are of the same kind. Do not give way, like a coward, to every difficulty. It is like diving into the river, which you used to do with me—only the first dash is disagreeable. Make it a rule to conquer difficulties. In this respect be a man at once. In your Latin, your arithmetic, or your exercises, be brave. Form a habit of not leaving anything half-done. In the long run it is the easiest way to master everything before you leave it. Some boys, for instance, never learn the Greek verb perfectly. This they might do in a few days. But they prefer skimming over the lesson, and leave the master to help them out. Now, just look at what follows; every day, as long as they learn Greek, they feel their need of this knowledge. Every day they are mortified, if not disgraced or punished. Yet the habit of negligence sticks by them. It creeps into other things. For the very same reasons, they are negligent in composition, in mathematics, and in oratory. They fix the habit for life—and for life are negligent fellows.

Remember, my dear brother, that it is not what you actually learn that is solely important. By learning this or that, you not only treasure up such and such things in your memory—but you discipline your mind. That is, you form habits of mind. When a person's mind is tutored into good habits, he is said to have a disciplined mind. One may learn a great many things, and yet have an undisciplined mind, because he learned them carelessly, hastily, or in the wrong order. Just as the poor beggar, who used to come to our door, knew more poetry than all of us put together, while he was so far from being wise that he could not put two ideas together in the way of reasoning.

You are young, and cannot choose for yourself what is best. But your teachers select those studies which will tend to give your mind proper habits. Pay all possible attention to these studies. Be perfect in them. Every hour now is worth more to you than a day is to me. Every day is confirming you in some habit, either good or bad. And if you are not careful to aim at those which are good, you will most assuredly fall into such as are bad. You cannot be too much in earnest then; attend to everything which your teacher advises.

Several things are apt to be neglected by boys which they find very important when they come to be men. Your time of rising, your attention to personal neatness, your punctuality at school, your bodily exercise, your pronunciation and manners, your temperance and self-denial, your accuracy in study, all these things are contributing to make you (if your life should be spared) a useful, agreeable, wise and happy man—or a disgusting, ignorant, and discontented fool.

Your affectionate brother,

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