The Daughters of England/Chapter II
In all our pursuits, but especially in the acquisition of knowledge, it is highly important to habituate ourselves to minute calculations upon the value and progress of time. That writer who could teach us how to estimate this treasure, and how to realize its fleetness, would confer a lasting benefit upon his fellow-creatures. We all know how to talk of time flying fast. It is, in short, the subject of our most familiar proverbs, the burden of the minstrel's song, the theme of the preacher's discourse, the impress we affix to our lightest pleasures, the inscription that remains upon our tombs. Yet how little do we actually realize of the silent and ceaseless progress of time? It is true, that one of the first exclamations which infant lips are taught to utter is the word 'gone;' and the beautiful expression, 'gone for ever,' occurs with frequency in our poetical phraseology. Clean gone for ever, is the still more expressive language of Scripture; and if any combination of words could be made to convey to us clear and striking impressions of this idea, it would be found amongst those of the inspired writers. Yet still we go on from day to day, insensible, and unimpressed by this, the most sublime and appalling reality of our existence.
The fact that no single moment of our lives, whether happy or miserable, whether wasted or well employed, can ever be recalled, is of itself one of the most momentous truths with which we are acquainted—that each hour of our past existence, whether marked by wisdom or by folly, is gone for ever; and that neither ingenuity, nor effort, nor purchase, nor prayer, can call it back. Nay, so far is it removed from the range of possibility, that we should live again for any portion of our past lives, that it was not even amongst the miracles wrought by the Saviour while on earth. Other apparent impossibilities he did accomplish before the eyes of wondering multitudes, breaking the bonds of nature, and even raising the dead to life; yet, we find not amongst these mighty works, that he said to any single day in man's experience, 'Thou shalt dawn again.' No. Even the familiar face of yesterday is turned away from us for ever; and though so closely followed by the remembrance of the past night, as well might we attempt to grasp the stars, as to turn back and enjoy its sweet repose again.
What then is the consequence? Since time, this great ocean of wealth, is ebbing away from us day by day, and hour by hour; since it must inevitably diminish, and since we know the lowest rate at which it must go, though none can tell how soon it may to them be gone for ever, is it not our first duty to make the best possible use of what remains, and to begin in earnest, before another day shall escape from our hold?
We will suppose the case of a man who finds himself the possessor of a vast estate, with the power to cultivate it as he will, and to derive any amount of revenue from it which his ingenuity or labour may obtain for him; yet, with this condition—that an enemy shall be entitled to take away a certain portion of it every day, until the whole is gone. The enemy might, under certain circumstances, with which the owner could not be acquainted, enjoy the liberty of taking the whole at once; but a certain part he must take every day. Now, would not the man who held this property on such a tenure, look sharply to his own interest, and endeavour to discover by what means he could turn his estate to the best account, before its extent should be so far diminished as to cripple his means? Reflecting, too, that each day it was becoming less, and that the smaller its extent, the smaller would be the returns he might expect, would he not begin without the loss of a single day, so to improve his land, to till, to sow, and to prepare for getting in his produce, as that he might derive a lasting revenue of profit from the largest portion, before it should have passed out of his own hands?
A very common understanding, and a very trifling amount of knowledge, would prompt the possessor of such an estate to do this; yet, with regard to time, that most valuable of earthly possessions, how few of us act upon this principle! With some, the extent of this estate is narrowing to a very small circle; but with the class of human beings whom I am addressing, there is, in all human probability, a wider field for them to speculate upon. Illness, it is true, may come and snatch away a large portion, and death may be waiting to grasp the whole: how much more important is it then, to begin to cultivate and reap in time!
Perhaps it is the apparent extent of our prospect in early life, which deludes us into the belief that the enemy is actually not taking anything away. Still there are daily and hourly evidences of the lapse of time, which would serve to remind us of the impossibility of calling it back, if we would but regard them in this light. If, for instance, we have committed an egregious folly, if we have acted unjustly, thrown blame upon the innocent, or spoken unkindly to a dear friend—though it was but yesterday, last night, or this morning—not all our tears, though we might weep oceans, could wash away that single act or word; because the moment which bore that stain upon it, would be gone—and gone for ever.
Again, we scarcely become acquainted with life in any of its serious aspects, before death is presented to our notice. And where are they—"the loved, the lost?" Their days have been numbered—all those long days of companionship in which their friends might have loved, and served them better, are gone for ever. 'And why,' we ask, when the blow falls nearest to ourselves—when the delight of our eyes is taken away as with a stroke— 'why do not the sun, and the moon, and the stars, delay their course?—why do the flowers not cease to bloom?—the light and cheerful morning not fail to return? above all, why do those around us continue their accustomed avocations? and why do we join them at last, as if nothing had occurred?' It is because time passes on, and on, and neither life nor death, nor joy, nor sorrow, nor any of the changes in our weal or wo, present the minutest hinderance to his certain progress, or retard for a single moment his triumphant and irresistible career.
Nor is it simply as a whole, that we have to take into account the momentous subject of time. Every year, and month, and day, have their separate amount of responsibility; but especially the season of youth, because the habits we acquire during that period, have an influence upon the whole of our after lives.
The habit of making correct calculations upon how much can be done in any stated portion of time, is the first thing to begin with, for without this, we are very apt to go on with anything that may happen to interest us, to the culpable neglect of more important duties. Thus, though it may be well for a man to pluck the weeds up in his garden for half an hour after breakfast; yet, if his actual business lies in the counting-house, or the exchange, it would be worse than folly for him to remain plucking weeds up for half the day.
In order to make the best use of time, we must lay out beforehand the exact amount proportioned to every occupation in which we expect to engage. Casualties will perpetually occur demanding an additional allowance, and something must consequently be given up in exchange; but still our calculations may generally be made with a degree of certainty, which leaves no excuse for our being habitually at a loss what to do.
There is a class of young persons, and I fear not a very small one, who rise every morning trusting to the day to provide its own occupations and amusements. They descend from their chambers with a listless, dreamy hope that something will occur to interest, or enliven them, never imagining that they themselves are called upon to enliven and interest others. Such individuals being liable to disappointment every day, almost always learn to look upon themselves as unfortunate beings, less privileged than others, and, in short, ill-treated by faith, or rather by Providence, in being placed where they are.
It is this waiting to be interested, or amused, by anything that may chance to happen, which constitutes the great bane of a young woman's life, and while dreaming on in this most unprofitable state, without any definite object of pursuit, their minds become the prey of a host of enemies, whose attacks might have been warded off by a little wholesome and determined occupation. Their feelings, always too busy for their peace, become morbid, restless, and ungovernable, for want of proper exercise; while imagination, allowed to run riot over a boundless field of vague and half-formed observations, leads their affections in her train, to fix upon whatever object caprice or fancy may select.
It is not attributing too much importance to the right economy of time, to say that it might prevent all this. I presume not to lay down rules for the occupation of every hour. Particular duties must always appertain to particular situations; and since the necessary claims upon our attention are as varied as our individual circumstances, that which in one would be a right employment of time, would be a culpable breach of duty in another.
There are, however, a few general rules which cannot be too clearly or too deeply impressed upon the mind—rules which the rich and the poor would be equally benefitted by adopting; which the meanest and the most exalted individual would alike find it safe to act upon; and by which the wisest and best of mankind might increase their means and extend their sphere of usefulness to their fellow-creatures.
The first of these rules is to accustom yourselves every morning to say what you are intending to do; and every night, with equal faithfulness, to say what you have actually done during the day. If you find any material difference between what you have intended, and what you have achieved, try to proportion them better, and the next day, either lay out for yourself, or, what is far better, endeavour to accomplish more. This is the more to be recommended, because we learn, both by experience and observation, that whenever we bring down our good intentions to a lower scale, it is a certain symptom of some failure either in our moral, intellectual, or physical power. Still there is much allowance to be made for the inexperience of youth, in not being able to limit good intentions by the bounds of what is practicable; it is therefore preferable that a little should be taken off, even from what is good in itself, rather than that you should go on miscalculating time, and means, to the end of life.
There are persons, and some considerably advanced in years, who habitually retire to rest every night, surprised and disappointed that the whole of their day's work has not been done. Now, it is evident that such persons must be essentially wrong in one of these two things—either in their calculations upon the value and extent of time, or in their estimate of their own capabilities; and in consequence of these miscalculations, they have probably been making the most serious mistakes all their lives. They have been promising what they could not perform; deceiving and disappointing their friends, and those who were dependent upon them; besides harassing their own spirits, and destroying their own peace, by frightful miscalculations of imperative claims, when there was no residue of time at all proportioned to such requirements.
The next rule I would lay down is, if possible, of more importance than the first. It is, that you should always be able to say what you are doing, and not merely what you are going to do. "I am going to be so busy—I am going to get to my work—I am going to prepare for my journey—I am going to learn Latin—I am going to visit a poor neighbour." These, and ten thousand other 'goings,' with the frequent addition of the word 'just' before them, are words which form a network of delusion, by which hundreds of really well-intentioned young persons are completely entangled. 'I am just going to do this or that good work,' sounds so much like 'I am really doing it,' that the conscience is satisfied for the moment; yet how vast is the difference between these two expressions when habit has fixed them upon the character!
To the same class of persons who habitually say, 'I am going,' rather than 'I am doing,' belong those who seldom know what they really are about; who, coming into a room for a particular purpose, and finding a book there by chance, open it, and sit down to read for half an hour, or an hour, believing all the while that they are going to do the thing they first intended; or who, setting out to walk for the benefit of their health, drop in upon a pleasant acquaintance by the way, still thinking they are going to walk, until the time for doing so has expired, when they return home, with cold feet and aching heads, half fancying that they have really walked, and disappointed that exercise has produced no better effect.
Now, in these two cases, there may be as little harm in reading the book as in calling upon the acquaintance, and nothing wrong in either: but the habit of doing habitually what we had not intended to do, and leaving undone what we had intended, has so injurious an effect in weakening our resolutions, and impairing our capacity for making exact calculations upon time and means, that one might pronounce, without much hesitation, upon a person accustomed to this mode of action, the sentence of utter inability to fill any situation of usefulness or importance amongst mankind.
I am inclined to think we should all be sufficiently astonished, if we would try the experiment through a single day, of passing quickly and promptly from one occupation to another. It is, in fact, these 'goings to do,' which constitute so large an amount of wasted time, for which we are all accountable. Few persons deliberately intend to be idle; few will allow that they have been so from choice; yet how vast a proportion of the human race are living in a state of self-deception, by persuading themselves they are not idle, when they are merely going to act. Promptness in doing whatever it is right to do now, is one of the great secrets of living. By this means, we find our capabilities increased to an amazing amount; nor can we ever know what they really are, until this plan of conduct has been folly tried.
Wisely has it been said, by the greatest of moral philosophers, that there is a time for everything. Let it be observed, however, that he has not, amongst his royal maxims, spoken of a time for doing nothing; and it is fearful to think how large a portion of the season of youth is spent in this manner.
Nor is it absolute idleness alone which claims our attention. The idleness of self-delusion has already been described. But there is. besides this, a busy idleness, which operates with equal force against the right economy of time. Busy idleness arises chiefly from a restlessness of feeling, which, without any calculation as to the fitness of time or place, or the ultimate utility of what is done, hurries its possessor into a succession of trifling or ill-timed occupations, frequently as annoying to others, as they are unproductive of any beneficial result. Busy idleness is also a disease most difficult to cure, because it satisfies for thee moment that thirst for occupation, with which every human being is more or less affected, and which has been implanted in our nature for the wisest of purposes. It is under the influence of this propensity to busy idleness, that, with multitudes who have no extraordinary capability for receiving pleasure, amusement is made to supply the place of occupation, and childish trifling that of intellectual pursuit.
It may be asked, how does the law of love operate here? I answer; precisely in this way—We are never so capable of being useful to others, as when we have learned to economize our own time; to make exact calculations as to what we are able, or not able, to do in any given period; and so to employ ourselves as to make the trifles of the moment give place to more important avocations. Without having cultivated such habits, our intentions, nay, our promises, must often fall short of what we actually perform; so that in time, and after many painful disappointments, our friends will cease to depend upon our aid, believing, what may all the while be unjust to our feelings, that we have never entertained any earnest desire to promote their interest.
Above all other subjects, however, connected with the consideration of time, the law of love bears most directly upon that of punctuality. No one can fail in this point, without committing an act of injury to another. If the portion of time allotted to us in this life be aptly compared to a valuable estate, of which an enemy robs us by taking away a certain portion every day; surely it is a hard case that a friend must usurp the same power, and take away another portion, contrary to our expectations, and without any previous stipulation that it should be so. Yet, of how much of this precious property do we deprive our friends during the course of a lifetime, by our want of punctuality? and not our friends only, but all those who are in any way connected with, or dependent upon us. Our friends, indeed, might possibly forgive us the injury for the love they bear us; but there are the poor—the hard-working poor, whose time is often their wealth; and strangers, who owe us no kindness, and who consequently are not able to endure this injury without feelings of irritation or resentment.
The evil, too, is one which extends in its consequences, and widens in its influence, beyond all calculation. Yet, for the sake of conveying to the youthful and inexperienced reader, some idea of its mode of operation, we will suppose the case of a man carrying letters or despatches along one of our public roads, and so calculating his time as to appoint to be met at some post on the road every hour, by this means to transmit his despatches by other couriers along branch-roads to distant parts of the country. The person whose business it is to place these despatches in his hand at a certain time and place, is half an hour too late; consequently, all the couriers along the road are delayed in the same proportion, and there is the loss of half an hour occasioned, not only to each of them, but to all who have depended upon their arrival at a certain time. It is true, that few of us are placed in the same relative position as this man, with regard to our fellow-creatures; yet, none of us act alone; and the mistress of a house, who detains a poor workman half an hour by her want of punctuality, may be the means of his receiving reproof, nay, even abuse, from others who have lost their time in consequence of his delay; while others still, and others yet beyond, through the wider range of a more extensive circle, may have been calculating their time and means in dependence upon the punctuality of this poor man.
If on particular occasions which recur every day, we find we are generally half an hour too late, the evil to others is sometimes easily remedied by making our appointment half an hour later, and abiding by it. But such is not the plan of those who are habitually negligent of punctuality. They go on, varying from their time, one day perhaps an hour, another a quarter of an hour, and occasionally perhaps being before it, until the whole machinery of intercourse with their fellow-creatures is deranged—those of their dependents who are inclined to indolence taking advantage of their delay; those who are impatient, fretting themselves into angry passions at this wanton waste of their precious time; and many whose connexion might perhaps have been highly valuable, leaving them altogether, in consequence of being wearied or disgusted with the uncertainty which attended all their proceedings.
It is not, therefore, our own time only that is wasted by our want of punctuality, but hours, and days, and months' and years of the precious property of others, over which we had no right, and which was not intentionally submitted to our thoughtless expenditure.
It is often alleged by young persons as being of no use for them to be punctual, when others are not so, and that they only waste their own time by being ready at the appointed moment. All this may be too true; for parents and seniors in a family often have themselves to blame for the want of punctuality in the junior members. Yet is it of no importance, whether we are the causes or the subjects of injury—whether we practise injustice towards others, or only endure it ourselves? Surely, no generous mind can hesitate a moment which alternative to choose, especially when such choice refers not to any single act, but to a course of conduct pursued through a whole life-time. Of what material consequence will it appear to us on the bed of death, that certain individuals, at different times of our lives, have kept us waiting for a few hours, which might certainly have been better employed? But it will be of immense importance at the close of life, if, by our habitual want of punctuality, we have been the cause of an enormous waste of time, the property of countless individuals, to whom we can make no repayment for any single act of such unlicensed robbery. It is the principle of integrity, then, upon which our punctuality must be founded, and the law of love will render it habitual.
As there are few persons who deliberately intend to be idle; so there are perhaps still fewer who deliberately intend to waste their own time, or that of their friends. It is the lapse of years, the growth of experience, and the establishment of character on some particular basis, which tell the humiliating truth, that time has been culpably and lamentably wasted. There are other delusions, however, besides those already specified, under which this fruitless expenditure is unconsciously carried on; and none is perhaps, as a whole, more destructive to usefulness, or more fatal to domestic peace, than the habit of being always a little too late—too late to come—too late to go—too late to meet at the place of appointment—too late to be useful—too late to do good—too late to repent and seek forgiveness while the gates of mercy are unclosed. All these may be the consequences of setting out in life, without a firm determination never to yield to the dangerous habit of being a little too late.
In this case it is not so much the absolute waste of time, as the waste of feeling, which is to be regretted; for no one can be habitually ever so little too late, without experiencing at times a degree of hurry and distraction of mind, most destructive of domestic comfort, and individual peace.
To be a few minutes too early, may appear to many as inconsistent with the order of the present day, when everything is pushed to extremity, and it may consequently be considered as a useless waste of time; yet I am inclined to think that the moments in which we can say, "I am ready," are amongst some of the most precious of our lives, as affording us opportunity for that calm survey of human affairs, without which we should pass in a state of comparative blindness along the thickly-peopled walks of life. To be ready a little before the time, is like pausing for a moment to see the great machine of human events at work, to mark the action and the play of every part, and to observe the vast amount of feeling which depends upon every turn of the mighty wheel of time.
Who that has stood still, and watched the expression of the human countenance during the last struggles of a too-late preparation for pleasure, for business, or for trial, has not, in a single moment, read more plain truths on that unguarded page than years of its ordinary expression would have unfolded? Besides this, however, the great advantage we derive from being habitually too early, is the power it gives us to husband our forces, to make our calculations upon coming events, to see how to improve upon yesterday, and to resolve to do so; but, above all other means of strengthening our better resolutions, it affords us time for those mental appeals for Divine blessing and support, without which we have no right to expect either safety, assistance, or success. Fortified in this manner, it is less likely that any unexpected event should unsettle the balance of our minds, because we go forth with calmness, prepared either to enjoy with moderation and thankfulness, or to suffer with patience and resignation.
Young persons are often beguiled into the dangerous habit of being a little too late, by the apparent unimportance of each particular transgression of the kind during the season of youth. If, for instance, they are a little too late for breakfast, the matron of the family commences operations without them, and they can easily gain time upon some of the senior members. At the dinner-hour it is the same. They have only to calculate upon a few impatient words, and a few angry looks; and it is not the least unfavourable feature of their case, that to such looks and words they become so accustomed as scarcely to heed them, nor is it often that they bring any more serious consequences upon themselves by their delay, because the young are generally so kindly assisted and cared for by their friends, that by a long, and patient, and often-repeated process of helping, urging, and entreating, they are, for the most part, got ready for every important occasion, or, in other words, are seldom left behind.
It is in more advanced life that the evil begins to tell upon the happiness of all around them; and let it never be forgotten, that the more exalted their situation, the wider their sphere of influence, the more extensive are the evils resulting from any wrong line of conduct they may choose to pursue. The season of early youth is, therefore, the best time for correcting this tendency, before it has begun to bear with any serious effects upon the good, or the happiness of others.
We will suppose the case of a mistress of a family preparing for a journey. Having been a little too late with everything which had to be done, there is a frightful accumulation of demands upon her attention during the last day, but especially the last half-hour before her departure. In this state of hurry and confusion, wrong orders are given, which have to be counteracted; messengers are sent hither and thither, they scarcely know for what, and still less where to find the thing they seek. Servants grow disorderly, children teasing or frightened, the husband is angry, and sharp words pass between him and his wife. Accidents, of course, occur, for which the innocent are blamed. Time—pitiless time rolls on, apparently with accelerating speed. The distant sound of carriage-wheels is heard. At this crisis a string breaks. Why did it never break before? A flash of absolute passion distorts the face of the matron. All dignity is lost. The carriage is at the door—little children stretch forth their arms—there is no time for tenderness. Scarcely a farewell is heard, as the mother rushes past them, leaving behind her, perhaps for months of absence, the remembrance of her angry countenance, her unjust reproaches, and the apparent want of affection with which she could hurry away from the very beings she loved best in the world. The servants in such a family as this, can scarcely be blamed if they rejoice when their mistress is gone; the husband, if he finds abundant consolation in the peace his absent partner has bequeathed him; or the children, if they fail to look with any very eager expectation to the time of their mother's return.
How, then, does the law of love operate here? It operates upon the woman who is seldom too late, so that when a journey is in expectation, all things are arranged in due time, leaving the last day more especially for attention to the claims of affection, and the regulation of household affairs, upon which will depend the comfort of her family during her absence. Rising a little earlier than usual on that morning, she commends them individually and collectively to the care of the Father of all the families of earth; and this very act gives a depth, a tenderness, and a serenity to the feelings of affection with which she meets them, it may be for the last time. Kind words are then spoken, which dwell upon the memory in after years; provision is made for the feeble or the helpless; every little peculiarity of character or constitution is taken into account; last charges—those precious memorials of earthly love—are given, and treasured up. There is time even for private and confidential intercourse between the husband and the wife; there is time for a respectful farewell to every domestic; there is time, too, for an expression of thankfulness for each one of the many kind offices rendered on that sacred day. At last the moment of separation arrives. Silent tears are seen in every eye, but they are not absolutely tears of sorrow; for who can feel sorrow, when the cup of human love is so full of sweetness?
If, during the absence of such a mother, sickness or death should assail any member of her family, how will the remembrance of that day of separation soothe the absent; while the kind words then uttered, the kind thoughts then felt, the kind services then rendered, will recur to remembrance, invested with a power and a beauty, which never would have been fully known, had no such separation taken place.
It is possible the natural affection of the wife and the mother, in both these cases, may have been the same; yet, how different must be the state of their own feelings, and of those of their separate families, one hour after their departure! and not during that hour only, but during weeks, and months, nay, through the whole of their lives! for the specimen we have given, is but one amongst the many painful scenes which must perpetually occur in the experience of those who are habitually too late.
It is true, I have extended the picture a little beyond the season of early youth, but this was absolutely necessary in order to point out the bearing and ultimate tendency of this dangerous habit—a habit, like many of our wrong propensities, so insidious in its nature, as scarcely to tell upon the youthful character; while, like many other plants of evil growth, its seed is sown at that period of life, though we scarcely perceive the real nature of the poisonous tree, until its bitter root has struck too deep to be eradicated. It is, therefore, the more important, in all we purpose, and in all we do, that we should look to the end, and not awake when it is too late to find that we have miscalculated either our time, or our means.