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Advice to Youth

by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.


You all know the meaning of the word habit. When we say of a young man, that he is habitually studious, amiable, and respectful, or that he is habitually indolent, negligent and morose, everybody understands us. No language could be more explicit.

Nor need I say that you will probably be for time and eternity what your habits make you. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil." Form correct and virtuous habits, and a light sweet as the morning dawn may be expected to gild all your future pathway! But let your habits be vicious and depraved, and a cloud darker than midnight will settle on your prospects forever!

To you this is a topic of vast importance. Your principles and practices are now just beginning to take root, and should they grow into habits, you will be likely to carry them to the grave with you. A volume might be written on the power of habit, but I must content myself with suggesting a few thoughts.

1. Let us inquire into the FORMATION of habits.

This is a gradual work, an advancing process, in which the preceding steps always influence those which follow. A habit is formed by the recurrence again and again of the same internal, or the same external acts. Such is human nature, that no one settles down suddenly into fixed opinions, or an established way of life. Men may do wrong, and they may do right; they may exhibit a holy temper or a sinful one, in a moment; but the habit is induced by repetition. It takes time for a person to become so accustomed to a given course, as to be easy and happy in such a course. Neither occasional good deeds, nor occasional bad deeds constitute character—or form what in common language we denominate habit.

You will do well to treasure these thoughts in your minds. Never forget that any one act performed, or any one feeling indulged, necessarily prepares the way for other acts and feelings of the same kind. This remark is equally true, whether applied to mental or manual pursuits; to the movements of the body, or the operations of the mind. A single glass of wine may be the beginning of a habit which shall lead to intoxication—and a single vindictive feeling may be the precursor of a train of feelings which shall lead to murder. What we do once, we more readily and naturally do a second time, and to continue in a certain path, be it reputable or disreputable, is more easy than to start.

Such is the connection of things, as constituted by God himself, and no one can disregard it with impunity. If life is to be spent in the practice of piety, special care and effort will be required at the outset; and if it is to be clouded with vice, the farther a person goes the more rapid will be his descent into evil. The hindrances in the first case, and the restraints in the second, invariably lose their power as progress is made.

Let it be noted here, that right feelings are more to be considered, often, than correct doings. For example, humility is less an overt act of self-denial, or any number of such acts, than a habit of watching against the indulgence of pride. Of meekness also we may say it is not so much an ostensible deed standing prominently forth, as it is a state of mind contrary to anger and resentment. The same observation may be made of a habit of sobriety, a habit of self-control, a habit of industry, a habit of patience, or a habit of kindness. These virtues are all best reached, by simply keeping aloof from the opposing vices; not to do evil is often to do well.

But remember that bad habits are more easily formed than good ones, and are given up with more difficulty. The native depravity of the heart accounts for this well-known fact—a depravity which inheres in man and operates with a force which none can fully estimate. It is for this reason that far less time and pains are requisite to corrupt an unwary youth, than to engraft upon his character the enduring habits of righteousness and truth.

Men are self-indulgent and covetous, revengeful and proud—naturally and spontaneously—without example or teaching. In the present fallen state, wrong and misery are the result of giving up things to their own native tendencies. In the natural world, you have only to leave a field to itself, and you will see it covered with briers and thorns. But if you would have it filled with beautiful and waving wheat, you must apply care and toil. It is easy to float down the stream—but to resist the current and reach the fountain requires effort.

Such statements are full of instruction, and you will do well to think them over again and again. There are but few things which it more concerns you to understand than the way in which habits are formed, so as to become a part of one's abiding character. The value of sound principles—firm, unwavering, truth-evincing principles—can never be over-estimated, and no efforts to make them yours can be too great. They are as necessary to the development of a good and useful character, as the circulation of the blood in the body, or the rising of the sap in a tree.

2. We shall do well to consider the AMAZING STRENGTH of habit.

Habit is said to be a second nature. What a man gets accustomed to, let its influence be good or bad, he finds it very difficult to abandon. We can bend or twist a 'twig' to whatever shape we please, but let that twig become a 'tree', and it requires the force of a whirlwind to uproot it. It is one thing for a child to form the habit of prayer and reading the Scriptures, and quite another thing for the man of gray hairs to do so. The son may keep from the inebriating cup; but no one can tell what dreadful struggles it will cost his father to dash it to the ground.

Few are thoroughly aware of the controlling power of habit. It is possible to train the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air, in habits entirely foreign to their nature; and yet these habits when thus superinduced can scarcely be broken. The process is tedious, before a dog and a cat can be made to live together in the same cage. But it can be done, and done so completely that what was previously strange and unnatural, becomes by habit a part as it were of their very being.

The novice in the use of opium, must lay his account with nausea, headache, and languor; but let indulgence grow into a habit, and he finds it almost like parting with life itself, to break it off. As often as the hour returns, be it morning or noon, or night, the appetite is aroused and demands gratification. There is something within, which like the horseleech cries, give, give. The demand becomes imperative beyond that for daily food.

Could you see this matter in its true light, you would tremble at the thought of being addicted to a bad habit. Why the doing of a particular act, especially when it is so unpleasant at first, should beget a disposition to repeat it and even render it agreeable, we need not inquire. It is sufficient for all practical and useful purposes, to know that such is unquestionably the fact. It is in recognition of this general and uniform law of the human constitution, that the Bible utters its most energetic warnings and gives forth its loudest notes of alarm. "Sudden destruction," "destruction without remedy" is to come upon such as have acquired the habit of hardening their necks in the midst of reproof. An old man's bones are represented as being "full of the sins of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust."

If examples of the iron force of habit are called for, we have them in abundance. All are aware what adamantine chains encircle the man, who has unhappily become accustomed to the stimulating influence of intoxicating drinks. It was not always with him, as it is now. At first he took a glass not to appear singular, or to nerve his arm for his daily task, or to help him bear some physical pain, or drive away a cloud of trouble. There was then no love of intoxicating drink for its own sake. But soon drinking became a habit; and how strong the habit, let broken-hearted parents, a weeping wife and children, and an undone eternity reveal! Resistance seems out of the question. "If," said such a one, "a glass of wine stood before me, and I knew that endless misery must be the consequence of drinking it, I could not refrain."

Equally overpowering perhaps is the habit of gambling. Tales sufficient, one would think, to melt any heart not made of rock, are told of the effects of this vice, on character, fortune and domestic peace; and yet its thraldom is unbroken! To give a single case—A man in one of our large cities had become opulent, and made his fortune by the unrighteous avails of the gaming table. For a time, all appeared well. But at length he met with a villain more adroit than himself, played deeply, and was unsuccessful. With a heavy heart he went home, and was found the next morning, hanging on one of the timbers of his own bed-chamber—a blackened and frightful corpse!

These, beloved youth, are alarming illustrations, but they are not of unusual occurrence. Mark how the habit of falsehood grows upon a man, until from simple exaggeration in little things, he comes to be so notorious a liar that his word is not worth a straw. One may be long in reaching this sad eminence; but when it is reached, all is lost. The plainest truths passing through such a man's lips, are almost as surely falsified, as rays of light passing through water are refracted. Much the same thing may be said of theft and profaneness, Sabbath-breaking and infidelity. When the habit of these vices is formed, it is a miracle of mercy if they are ever abandoned!

Yet, blessed be God, there is a bright side to this picture. If bad habits acquire at length a giant hold upon the mind and heart, it is encouraging that there is some degree at least of the same force in good ones. Men do not easily turn aside, after walking for years in the right path. "Oh," said a profligate descendant of pious ancestors, upon retiring after an evening of jest and merriment, "I wish I could forget the prayers which my mother taught me." You may all recollect the confession of the late John Randolph of Roanoke. "I would have been a French atheist, had it not been that my mother used to call me to her, when a little boy, to repeat the Lord's prayer." This saved him from the evil vortex.

Such facts are instructive to parents, but they make a special demand upon the attention of youth. You, who are now in the bloom of life, are every day weaving for yourselves a web of habits, and when formed, it will have strength beyond all your power to break it! Could you see this subject in its true light, how carefully would you avoid the very first fatal step! Be careless, be indolent, be skeptical, be irreligious, be intemperate now—and you will find where you are, and what you are—when recovery is hopeless! Or be early thoughtful, sober-minded and pious—and you will lay up for time to come, blessings untold. "All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to such as walk in them."

3. Mark for a moment the EFFECTS which habit produces.

These are apparent every day, and not to take them into account is unwise indeed. Break up a man's habits, even by improving what you call his comforts, and you often make him miserable. It is usually no kindness to the aged, to take them from their cottage, their frugal fare and their early meals, and place them in the mansions and surround them with the ceremonies of fashionable life. Changes of this sort, make them with whatever kind intentions you please, are irksome, and seldom fail to produce discontent. Men who have become opulent by habits of strict attention to business, always perhaps run some risk when they retire from the throng and bustle of life. The quiet and the shade of the country cannot keep the thoughts away from the counting-room and the exchange.

Be careful then to start aright—and afterwards be satisfied to keep quietly on in the path of rectitude. Once learn to master the difficulties of your allotment, to resist the temptations that lie in your path, and to rise superior to the ridicule of the world, and you will, almost as a matter of course, find your bosom filled with happy emotions. The chief struggle is at the outset. The individual who rises early to his study or his trade, soon acquires a habit of looking out upon 'the beauties of the morning', which renders him cheerful and contented. Life to such a one has a brightness and buoyancy which the indolent and listless never enjoy. Even duties that are at first trying and difficult, become such sources of real pleasure, that we often hear the laborer singing merrily at his anvil and the loom.

Only be sure that the course is right and just, and as soon as it becomes habitual it will produce positive enjoyment. God thus intermingles comforts with the trials, crosses and burdens of life—and so arranges things, as one happily says, that the purest water is filtered through charcoal.

I can scarcely be too earnest in impressing these thoughts on your attention. If considerate and observing at all, you cannot help seeing how habits of order and temperance and industry—promote health, peace of mind, and prosperity. Not only is the noonday of such a morning warm and genial, but its evening-tide is calm and serene. It is pleasant to mark the fresh countenance, the firm step, and the green old age of one, whose habits of sleep, labor, food and recreation have all been good. A bright and cheerful light is almost sure to shine upon such a path to its very close. What a contrast this to the haggard looks and trembling limbs of the man, whose bad habits have fixed a brand upon him which he must carry to the grave! Do what he may afterwards, traces of the old evil will remain and stick to him until the end.

Good habits are everything to a young man. Point me to a boy in the community, who is growing up thoughtful, industrious, and discreet, no matter how humble his circumstances—and I venture to predict that his future course in the world will be useful and honorable. Rare indeed are the instances in which such a one is beguiled in later life from the paths of uprightness. The good habits he has formed, in addition to their own intrinsic power, will be sure to draw around him a thousand kindly influences, all strengthening the bonds of virtue. But what can be anticipated for an idle, intemperate, disorderly young man? In some lucid moment of after-life, he may resolve upon reformation—but his habits, like so many strong ropes, fasten him to the ways in which he has long been walking. It seems impossible for him now to be anything different from what he has been.

The mind, also, suffers from bad habits as well as the body. Let a person once lose his delicacy of feeling, and a wound is inflicted which many a day of sorrow cannot heal. The bad book that he allows himself to read, the obscene talk in which he indulges, and the impure objects on which he fastens his thoughts, will be sure to make blots hard to be effaced. Even true repentance has no power to wash away the stain. Regret it as he may, the unhallowed imaginations once loved and cherished, will not now depart at his bidding.

Hear what strong and emphatic language the celebrated Lord Brougham uses on this point—"I trust everything under God to habit, upon which in all ages the Lawgiver as well as the Schoolmaster has mainly to place his reliance. It is habit which makes every duty easy, and casts the difficulties upon a deviation from the customary course. Make sobriety a habit—and intemperance will be hateful. Make prudence a habit—and prodigality will seem like a crime. Make honesty a habit—and fraud will be abhorred. Give a child the habit of sacredly regarding truth, and he will as soon think of rushing into a hurricane, as of telling a falsehood." These are broad declarations, and yet they are evidently founded on a deep acquaintance with human nature.

May I not hope then, that you will lay all this seriously to heart. There are instances, blessed be God, in which the idle become industrious; the drunkard abandons his cups; the swearer learns to fear an oath; and the dissolute embrace a life of purity. Nothing is too hard for the Lord. But these cases are so rare as not to be expected in the ordinary course of Providence. What you desire to be, five, ten, twenty, or forty years hence—that strive to be and pray to be at once. Pluck up the sapling before it grows into a tree! Check the disease before it seizes upon the vitals. Meet the enemy on the borders, and allow him not to penetrate the country.

If you would ever love the Bible, begin to read it carefully and prayerfully now. If you would ever put your trust in Christ, begin to study the beauties of the cross now. If you would ever live a holy life, begin to fear and obey God now. Now you have a tablet of wax on which to inscribe characters of loveliness, and peace and salvation. A few years hence this wax will be granite. Be chaste like Joseph, be humble like Moses, be temperate like Daniel—and the habit will remain until your heads are laid on their last pillow. Trials will come, when we shall see what you are, and what you will do. It is a storm that gives a sight of the depths of the sea; and it is a season of temptation, that gives us a glimpse of one's real character.

Go out into the world with bad habits, and I tremble for the result. With good habits, and God's blessing, you will be safe everywhere, in city or country, counting-house or mechanic's shop, student's room or clerk's office.

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