One of the most remarkable characteristics of all forms of organic life is the power to adapt itself to the circumstances in which it is placed. It will endeavor under the most altered conditions to live, and, in order to live, it will resort to all kinds of contrivances, sometimes effecting such changes in its outward appearance that none but a trained eye could detect its identity. Yet with all these adaptations, it will preserve its identity.
Man possesses this power in perhaps a higher degree than any other form of life. He can find his home in any country, in any climate, under an almost infinite variety of conditions. He can live and adapt himself to circumstances involving the most violent contrasts and soon settle down and find the means of making himself at home.
But man has other needs and another life beside that of his physical nature. He is something more than an animal and needs more than food and shelter.
For the life of man is above all things a mental life. He can never rid himself of the companions of his mind. He is not the mere creature of his outward circumstances. There are other surroundings that are far more intimate and closer to him than any external things, however nearly they may touch upon him. These things can but touch the surface of his being; his thoughts enter into the sanctuary of his soul. Lazarus in his outward wretchedness and squalor was in better company than Dives in his purple and fine linen.
The beast is wholly dependent upon what it finds around it. Man can live a life practically independent of most of these things. In the utmost solitude, he can gather around him a company of his closest and most intimate friends, and in the crowded thoroughfares of life, he can be alone with them. You may tell a man by his friends, but there are no friends so intimate as his thoughts. If you know the companions of his mind, you will know what kind of man he is.
It is not the sufferings or the consolations of life that directly affect character, but the thoughts that men call around them at such times. No external thing can in itself affect the inner life of the soul. Men are material; the soul is spiritual.
Choose which thoughts to listen to
We often attribute to such things some moral characteristic, but in themselves they are neither good nor bad. The same things do harm to one person and good to another: suffering has been a curse to some and a blessing to others; poverty has closed the door of Heaven to some, and to others it has been the source of beatitude. The value of these things comes from the thoughts the soul calls around itself when it encounters such things. Some trouble comes into a person’s life, and instantly there gathers around him, through the door opened by that trouble, a crowd of thoughts, anger, rebellion, bitterness, and discontent and, at the same time, thoughts of penitence, acceptance, and the example of our Lord. The outward trouble has thrown open an unseen door into the spiritual world, and in flow this mixed crowd of thoughts, swarming around the soul and clamoring for a hearing. The soul must choose among them all which it will listen to and which it will reject, and by that choice, it rises or falls. One person chooses thoughts that heal, encourage, and strengthen him; another, those that stir him to bitterness and revolt. The morality lies not in the thing but in the person.
The contrast between the outward occasion and the inward choice is often startling: those things to which we are wont to attribute beneficent results produce not uncommonly the very reverse, and the things we consider evils are sometimes the source of great moral blessings. Or again, the same things produce evil in one man and good in another. Two people fall under the same calamity: it destroys the faith of one; it is the turning point in the life of the other and the occasion that first leads him to look to God.
We can never foretell the moral effect any combination of circumstances or events will produce on anyone, not even on those whom we think we know best. Men go down under circumstances in which we would have predicted they would rise, and rise when we expect them to fall. In fact, we cannot anticipate the effect of circumstances upon ourselves. We have occasionally been amazed to find that something to which we looked forward with confidence as a blessing has in the event proved very much the reverse. Such instances show that these external things are in themselves amoral — neither good nor bad — and if we look within ourselves at any such crisis, we shall see very clearly that the moral effect is to be traced to the thoughts they suggest and are the occasion of our choosing.
If we could look through the outward happenings in the world of sense to the results in the spiritual world in which the soul lives, our eyes would see strange sights: some event — it may be of little moment — a word, a look, a suggestion, the presence of some person, and the magic result. It seems to open an unseen door through which the strangest rabble crowd in and press around the soul, and a very babel of voices urge, entreat, and argue, quarreling and pushing forward for a hearing. And what a crowd! Some drawn from the lowest slums of the spiritual world, vulgar, lowborn, degraded, suggesting everything that is base and unworthy; others with clear, calm voices that pierce through the tumult, pressing some specious fallacy in well-clothed argument; others pressing forward, claiming a hearing as they have so often been heard before; and others again of noble form and gentle mien, waiting for a look, a word of recognition that they may drive this noisy crowd away and speak words of inspiration and courage.
The soul must choose, and what it chooses it will probably choose again and again, until that chosen thought gains the right of entrance, and closes the door to all others, and becomes the constant companion of the soul. And in every event, great and small, it enters and takes its place, instructing its pupil as to its meaning, interpreting it, explaining it — its hidden purpose, its power for good or evil — or misrepresenting it and making the good seem evil and the evil good, and gradually becoming master of its whole life, the molder of its character.
Indeed, it is true. These secret and unseen companions of the soul, intangible and volatile as they are, affect our whole view of men and things around us. The hard, substantial facts of life are interpreted by them; they become plastic in their hands, and change their appearance and coloring at their bidding. These phantom forms that rise out of the darkness and return to it again, colorless, impalpable, ethereal, that speak in inarticulate whispers and touch us with ghostly hands, are more real to us than the solid earth and the strong mountains. They can veil the heavens for us and take the brightness out of the sunshine and deepen the shadows at noonday or make the darkest day seem bright.
For they come from the same land whence the soul comes; they are of closer kinship than any material thing can be. And it is the mind that sees, not the eye. It is in the light that burns within that all outward things are seen. Amid the pleasant laughter and genial companionship of friends, some thought silently enters, holds up its lantern and casts its pale light around, and, seen in that light, all is suddenly turned to ashes, the voices lose their ring, and the laughter becomes hollow and cheerless. One thought in an instant has changed the whole scene from life to death.
It is thus in the thoughts men choose as their companions on their way through the world that the key to their interpretation of life is to be found. Different men view the same things in different ways. And the same men, in the course of a few years, alter their whole view of life. They have simply changed their companions on the road. Indeed, the breaking with one set of people and the forming ties of friendship with others of a different type is often but the outward evidence and result of a hidden and inward change of the more intimate friendships of the mind. How can one who has learned to take delight in thoughts that are low and degrading care any longer to associate with the high-minded? Who that has fought and conquered the evil desires that once enslaved him will still care to associate with the boon companions of his past degradation?
Drive bad thoughts out with good ones
There is a better way: the positive rather than the negative way. Let not your mind be overcome with evil, “but overcome evil with good.” The emptying the mind of evil is not the first step toward filling it with good. It is not a step in that direction at all. If you succeeded in emptying your mind of every undesirable thought, what then? You cannot empty it and then begin to fill it with better thoughts. No, you must empty it of evil by filling it with good. Nature abhors a vacuum. You drive out darkness by filling the room with light. If you wish to fill a glass with water, you do not first expel the air; you expel the air by pouring in water. In the moral life, there is no intermediate state of vacuum possible in which, having driven out the evil, you begin to bring in good. As the good enters, it expels the evil.
Therefore, the effort of the soul must be to fill the mind so full of healthy thoughts that there is no room for others — trying not so much not to think of what is evil as to think of what is good.
The mind is ever working, never at rest. It will feed upon whatever food is given it. If it is given wholesome food, it will develop and grow strong.
He, therefore, who wishes to overcome any habit of evil thoughts must do so indirectly rather than directly, trying not so much not to indulge in anger as to fill the mind with loving and kindly thoughts, meeting discontent by rejoicing in the will of God, self-consciousness by wrapping himself around in the presence of God — turning as promptly as possible to think of something bracing when he is conscious of the presence or approach of evil.
This, and the constant effort to keep the mind interested and occupied about healthy subjects that it can enjoy without strain or weariness will do much to recover it from the ill effects of the lack of discipline. It is a great matter to know how to give it relaxation without laxity and, by its studies and recreations, to prepare it for prayer and the more strenuous work of life. A mind that has a wide reach of interests and is constantly kept busy will have no time and no care for morbid thoughts. And the mind that is constantly fed on healthy and nourishing food will turn away from poison, however daintily served.
All this, it will be perceived, can be done with little introspection or self-analysis. It is based on the wisest of all systems: that nature works best if she is not too closely watched. A person who is always anxious about his health will never be healthy. Nature knows her own laws, and it is not good to interfere too much, even for the sake of putting them right. It is not an unknown experience that torturing scruples may take the place of mental laxity and a ceaseless introspection, which is the enemy of all freshness and spontaneity. We must take heed so that, in the efforts to overcome one evil, we do not fall into a worse one. We have to change the habit of the mind without giving it any undue shock, to keep it well in hand without seeming to watch it, to bring it under control without enslaving it and while seeming to leave it in perfect liberty. And to do this we need to have some confidence in its power to rectify itself if it is healthily fed and duly exercised.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from a chapter in Fr. Maturin’s Christian Self-Mastery, available from Sophia Institute Press.