Advance as Effected by Habit
Over and over again,
No matter which way I may turn,
I always find in the book of life
Some lesson I have to learn.
One doing will not suffice,
Though doing is not in vain,
And a blessing failing me once or twice
May come if I try again.
The path that has once been trod
Is never so rough to the feet,
And the lesson we once have learned
Is never so hard to repeat.
Though sorrowful tears may fall,
And the heart to its depths be riven
By storms and tempest, we need them all,
To render us fit for heaven.2
I have had to learn many things by severe tests in the school of experience. More and more life seems to be a school, whose curriculum of studies has no end, either in theme or variety. Sometimes “one doing will not suffice,” so, as it used to be in our old school days, we have to “learn that lesson over again.” It was hard then, and it is hard still. How true also that “the lesson we once learned is never so hard to repeat.” Mistakes, failures, lapses, are also under rule of this same law. In talking with an inquirer once respecting a failure, the remark was made that “it was easier to give way the second time than the first.” The gain of practice works, with use, for either bad or good, according to whichever way we go. It seems to me I have seen quite aged persons get to church much easier and with better grace than many who are younger in years. Age had perfected practice. Practice had gathered a kind of momentum with it, that helped along without will effort and self-denial. These aged ones seemed to have learned to go that way and knew not to go in any other. Like the captured Highland soldier, when asked to play certain pieces, as he belonged to the drum corps, he played his battle drum with much satisfaction. Finally he was asked to play a “retreat.” He declined. He was asked for a reason, and replied: “I canna, for I never learned ane.”3 So I have seen age so fortified by habits confirmed by a generation of experience go on amid crippling, physical weakness, when youth and the strength of manhood failed to go. Practice makes easy. Blessed are those who have borne the yoke early in youth,4 and have kept on in wisdom’s ways,5 for in the years of life’s conflict, when asked by the enemy of souls, or any other adversaries, to play a “retreat,” they are able to refuse, and assign as a reason, “I never learned one.”
Have you not wished you had never learned something? I have. Satan seems to know that if he can get us to do a thing once, it will be easier to win us the next time. There are so many things to learn in this school of life! I not only think, but I actually know, that I am a hundredfold better able to print and preach than I was years ago, although the world may not think so. Experience has taught me much. But for all that, I have thought I learned too much about many other things. Really, there is a field in which each person can say, “I wish I did not know so much.” How often have you heard this remark: “Yes, I wish I did not know as much about So-and-So as I do.” Well, that is a part of this school of life, and not an insignificant one, either. Part of our work in all school life is
- to unlearn some things we have learned;
- to refrain from learning some things at all; and,
- to find right methods of right things and ways.
Up to conversion we had learned bad things and walked in bad ways, till bad habits and desires and dispositions had been formed. At that point we began the new way of thinking and acting and planning, but at once met the habits of the old. We did not want to go that way, but up to this point that was all the way we knew to do. We had practice of doing the bad way, and now we “had to learn to do well.” We had to learn and to unlearn. We stopped stealing or lying, as the case may have been, but we found ourselves confronted with the old habits. We could stop the action, but not the “want to.” The oldest habits were hardest to break. We could will to stop the thing, yet the swing of the habit, like the stored power in the balance wheel,6 acted as a force to carry us beyond ourselves and beyond where we intended to go.
It is a fearful thing to form bad habits. It is a blessing beyond the usual estimation to have had good habits from youth up.
- The text itself is public domain. The original book, How They Grow, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2008, 2011 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's How They Grow. ↩
- According to The Boston Evening Transcript (January 24, 1881), this poem, Over and Over Again, comes from a book entitled Poems for the Home Life published by the American Tract Society—“no author given.” For the full original, see Over and Over Again ↩
- Coming as he did from a strong Scots Covenanter background, many a night of Reid’s childhood was spent listening to tales of Scottish heroes. He may be drawing from a repertoire of many such fireside stories in relating the tale of the Highland drummer. ↩
- The allusion is to Lamentations 3:27. ↩
- Reid may have Proverbs 4:11 in view; but “in wisdom’s ways” is also a phrase from Tullius Clinton O’Kane’s song, Sweeping Through the Gates:
These, these are they who, in their youthful days
Found Jesus early, and in wisdom’s ways
Proved the fulness of His grace,
“Washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
- Balance wheel: that is, a flywheel. ↩