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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.

The Habit of Diligence


My dear brother,
Not long ago I wrote to you about the importance of forming right habits, and I then said a little upon the subject of diligence. I now wish to write to you more particularly concerning this matter, for youth is the time in which you must form the habit of diligence, if you ever do.

Think how valuable a thing knowledge is. If you take two boys of the same age, one from an Indian tribe, and the other from an intelligent family of Christians, you will observe an amazing difference. I do not mean the difference in their looks, and clothing, and manners—but in their minds. One will be ignorant of almost everything that is useful. The other will know a thousand things upon a great many subjects. Such is the effect of education. When one of the ancient philosophers was asked what was the use of knowledge, he answered, "Take two men, one educated and the other uneducated, and let them be cast alone upon a foreign coast, and you will see the difference which knowledge makes."

There are many things which we learn without much trouble, by hearing our parents and friends talk about them. But in order to be truly learned, so as to be most useful, we must apply ourselves to study. Many boys are too apt to look upon their lessons as mere tasks. They take no pleasure in learning them, and are glad when they are free from them, in order that they may go and play. This is because they do not consider what a precious thing knowledge is. If they considered this, they would be delighted whenever they have an opportunity to learn anything.

Let me mention two cases. Joseph is a boy of my acquaintance, who has very good talents, and has been sent to school from his infancy. His father has given him the best teachers, and furnished him with all the books that he needs. But still he makes scarcely any improvement. He takes his book, and opens it, and looks at the pages—but seems always ready to fall asleep over it. It is a tiresome business to him. Then he becomes so weary that he frets and grows peevish, looks about the room, plays with his pencil, talks with those who sit next to him, and when he rises to recite his work, is shamefully unprepared. He hates his books, and is sorry when the hour comes for him to go to school. He learns nothing, and is a mere idler.

What is the reason for this? He never thinks of the use of knowledge. He does not consider that youth is the very best time for him to get knowledge. Perhaps no one has ever told him how sorry and ashamed he will be when he grows up, and finds that he knows scarcely anything. Joseph has been so negligent that he has formed a habit of idleness. This habit has grown very strong. His teacher promised him a nice reward, if he would get one lesson perfectly. Joseph thought he was sure of the prize, and that he could do the lesson in an hour. So he could, easily, if it had not been for this habit of idleness. For two or three minutes he would fix his eye on his book, and seemed to study very hard. But then the old habit would begin to work; he would look off to see what his next neighbor was doing, and before long, he would catch himself playing with the string of his sachet, or cutting notches on his slate-frame. Then he would get back to his book—but in a minute or two he would have forgotten all about it. Joseph got no reward, and I am afraid he will be an ignorant person as long as he lives.

Benjamin is of the same age, and in the same class—but he is a very different boy. He knows that it gives his dear parents very great pleasure when he is attentive to his tasks. He has often heard of the value of time, and that when it is lost it can never be recovered. And he is sure that the more he studies now, the wiser he will be when he grows up to be a man, if his life should be spared. For these reasons he is very careful to learn as much as he can. He loves his books, and feels pleasure at every new thing which he is taught. He is never idle—but spends the whole of his school-hours in learning his lessons. It is no burden to him to learn—but rather a pleasure. He is more cheerful and happy when he is at hard study, than the boys around him who are whispering, or playing, or nodding over their books. Benjamin has formed a habit of diligence. It is as natural to him to study when he is at school, as to eat when he is at the table. He knows every lesson perfectly, and gratifies his parents when he goes home, by telling them how many pleasant things he has learned. If Benjamin lives to be a man, he will have a great deal of useful knowledge. For anyone who loves to learn will certainly become learned. This habit of diligence will be likely to stick to him all his life, and he will be learning something good as long as he lives. Now, I wish you to choose between these two boys, and find out which of them you would like to resemble. And whatever habits you form now in your youth—you will most likely always keep.

If you have been so unhappy as to neglect this, and have already fallen into any bad habits, I beg that you will try, with all your might, to get rid of them. This is often very hard; for it is more difficult to unlearn what is bad—than to learn what is good. But it must be done—and the sooner the better! Even small things are important, when they become habitual. Plato, the Grecian philosopher, once rebuked a young man very severely for playing with dice. "Why do you rebuke me so severely," said the youth, "for so small a matter?" Plato replied, "It is no small matter to form a habit!"

While you have your books before you—try to think of nothing else. If you find yourself beginning to be weary, rouse your mind by thinking of the value of time, the use of learning, and especially your duty to your God.

Habit will make those things easy—which at first seem very hard. By constant practice, men become able to do astonishing works. There is a story in ancient books of a man whose strength was so great, that he could carry an ox upon his shoulders. When he was asked how he acquired such power, he said it was by this means—he took the animal when it was a young calf, and lifted it every day, until it grew to mature size. And by constant practice, his strength grew as the calf grew. You may believe the tale or not, just as you choose; but it is a good illustration of the power of constant practice.

It is much the same in learning. In arithmetic, for instance, it is astonishing how some young people will improve by practice. If you were to take a long page in a merchant's ledger, it would take you up to fifteen minutes to add it up; but the merchant could run his finger up the row of figures, and tell you the sum in less than two minutes. This is because he is practicing it every day. I know many people who never think of using a slate for any of the common questions in arithmetic; they have the habit of working them all in their head. So also in composition. When you sit down to write a letter, it takes you a long time to think what to put down. You bite your pen, and muse and ponder, and take a great while to fill half a page. But your sister writes on, as fast as her pen will move, and never stops until she has covered the whole sheet. All these things should encourage you to be very much in earnest, and to study diligently, and acquire the habit of using every hour to the best advantage.

There are many young people who would give all they have in the world, for the advantages you possess. They have no books, no friends to teach them, and no money to pay for schooling. If they were in your place, they would go forward with rapid steps. Some poor boys who have labored under all these difficulties, have, nevertheless, become very learned men. In order to excite your mind, I intend, before long, to give you the history of some of these. In the meantime, my dear brother, be diligent. Do every part of your duty with all your might. When you play, do it heartily, and take as much pleasure in it as you choose. But when you study, do it in good earnest, and do nothing else.

Your affectionate brother,

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