THE FUNCTION OF THE WILL
THERE is, as we have seen, only one power in the Kingdom of Mansoul quite at its own disposal, a free agent, able to do what it likes, and that is the Will; and the one thing the Will has to do is to prefer. ‘Choose ye this day’ is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives; and the business of the Will is to choose.
The Labour of Choice.—We are usually ready enough to choose between things, though some of us shirk even that responsibility. We gaze upon two stuffs for gowns, and cannot choose between them. Indeed, the whole success of advertisements depends upon the fact that we wish someone, if it be only the salesman, to make up our mind for us. Some one has a rather clever story of a girl with two lovers, who was quite unable to decide between them, and one of the two made things easy by a pretended decease. The girl had no longer the labour of choice.
We do as Others do.—There are many people who minimize the labour of life by following the fashion in their clothes, rooms, reading, amusements, in the pictures they admire and in the friends they select.
We are all glad of a little of this kind of help, because it is well to do as others do in some of the small things of life; but fashion herself is a broken reed, and we must sometimes choose. The Joneses put off the labour of choice till the last minute. They inquired of their friends and consulted guide-books and weighed many considerations; but the more information they got, the more difficult was the choice of where to go for the summer holidays. So they went to the station, and trusted to the inspiration of the last minute; but, after all, Margate was a choice!
This inability to choose appears to be growing upon us as a nation, perhaps as a race; and the reason may be, that, though we are slow to elect for ourselves, we are zealous propagandists on behalf of others. We choose their furniture, their careers, their tastes, for other people, and push them zealously into that which we are assured is for their good. The gown may be becoming or the career may be suitable; but, in so far as we have chosen for another, we have done that person an injury. We have taken away a chance from him or her of fulfilling the chief function of life, that of choosing.
We do a worse hurt to ourselves when we dress our persons in ready-made garments and our minds in ready-made opinions; because, in so far as we do so, we lose the chance of using our Will; we act as an automaton and not as a person; and no more fulfil our function than do the sham plants used in tawdry decorations. Every man and woman who does not live in the continual thoughtful exercise of a temperate will, is more or less of a lay figure, pulled by the strings of other people’s opinions.
Choice and Obedience.—But you will say, ‘What about obedience, then—to the home authorities first; after that, to the State, to the Church, and always to the law of God? If a person be truly a person only as he acts upon the choice of his own will, surely,’ you say, ‘obedience must destroy personality.’ On the contrary, obedience is the exquisite test, the sustainer of personality; but it must be the obedience of choice. Because choice is laborious, the young child must be saved the labour, and trained in the obedience of habit; but every gallant boy and girl has learned to choose to obey father and mother, pastor and master, and all who are set in authority over them. Such obedience is the essence of chivalry, and chivalry is that temper of mind opposed to self-seeking; the chivalrous person is a person of constant Will; for, as we have seen, Will cannot be exercised steadily for ends of personal gain. But obedience must be given only because it is right.
Life, you will say, becomes too laborious if every choice matters, and is to be made at first hand. That reminds one of the fable of the pendulum that ‘struck,’ thus stopping the clock, because it counted how many ticks it must give in a day, in a year, in many years. The sum was overwhelming, and the pendulum stopped. The clock-face inquired into the matter, and the pendulum presented his big sum. ‘Oblige me,’ said the face, ‘by ticking once.’ He did so. ‘Did that fatigue you?’ ‘Not in the least,’ said the pendulum; ‘but it is not of one tick but the millions of ticks that I complain.’ ‘But,’ said the face, ‘you are only required to give one tick at once, and there is always a second of time to tick in.’ The Will is precisely in the case of the discontented pendulum.
No doubt there are many choices to make, but they come one by one, and there is always the time to choose.
We choose between Ideas.—It is well, however, to know what it is that we choose between. Things are only signs which represent ideas. Several times a day we shall find two ideas presented to our minds; and we must make our choice upon right and reasonable grounds. The things themselves which stand for the ideas may not seem to matter much; but the choice matters. Every such exercise makes personality the stronger; while it grows the weaker for every one we shirk.