There are some people to whom good intentions are a snare and a delusion. They confuse the desire for expression with action whereby the desire is expressed, and often feel a glow of satisfaction because of the desire to do good. This state of mind is peculiar to many who are afflicted with bad habits. Each time the particular habit has obtained the mastery, there is regret, and a determination not to fall into the same error again. But when circumstances arise which tend to make the habit active, the previous intention is not strong enough to restrain it, but is repeated again as soon as the impulse has been yielded to, and so the intention tends to condone the offence in the mind of the victim, producing a very mischievous condition, far more dangerous than that attitude of mind which urges a person to do wrong because of the supposed pleasure it affords.
A good intention unfulfilled does more harm than he who makes it realizes. It is part of that process which ends in what has been described as the "seared conscience," a condition of mind which cannot distinguish good from evil. Such intentions—really miscalled good, are due to weakness—loss of will power.
Some might contend that the intention not to do wrong again, is an assertion of will; it is rather a reaction against the habit yielded to—the action done, and is stimulated by the regret which follows. It acts as a palliative for the regret, and herein it is mischievous. The untrained will is susceptible to many forms of self deception and closely akin to that form of deception we have considered. There is another which is mischievous, in that it hinders the production of useful effort. This particularly affects those who are endowed with brilliant mental qualities. Men conscious of their own ability to perform, who are content to be conscious only, and who, therefore, are not stimulated to action.
But often this peculiarity is seen in school or college. A brilliant student in a class of mediocre men, has no competition to stimulate him to strong effort. That which requires hard, earnest plodding on the part of the other members of the class, to him is easily accomplished. Hence he slacks off, conscious of being able to do, he doesn’t trouble about examinations, and many have been such cases where tutors have lamented that one of such promise should make such a poor show in the time of testing. Amiel is a very striking illustration of this. His friends and colleagues expected great things of him for he was a man possessing splendid talents, and yet one of his greatest admirers had to write of him,—"He awakened in us but one regret; we could not understand how it was a man so richly gifted produced nothing, or only trivialities." The explanation has been found in his wonderful journal, published after his death, a book which has taken a place amongst the great books of the world, where he tells in wonderful language, the story of what seemed to be his failure. There are many sentences scattered throughout the book referring to it, but the most striking seem to be these:—"I cannot bring myself to move freely, to show myself without a veil, to act on my own account and act seriously, to believe in and assert myself...It is timidity which is at the bottom of it. There is another reason too, I am afraid of greatness. I am not afraid of ingenuity, and distrustful as I am both of my gift and my instrument, I like to reassure myself by an elaborate practice of execution. All my published literary essays, therefore, are little else than studies, games, exercises, for the purpose of testing myself. I play scales as it were; I run up and down my instrument, I train my hand and make sure of its capacity and skill. But the work itself remains unachieved. My effort expires, and, satisfied with the power to act, I never arrive at the will to act...Nor must procrastination be forgotten. I am always reserving for the future what is great, serious, and important, and meanwhile I am eager to exhaust what is petty and trifling."
If only each generation could really benefit by the lessons gathered from the experiences of that which preceded it—what a happier world it would be! But men are so reluctant to learn, that the old evils are repeated-—the same mistakes made, and there will be wars and rumors of war, the poor, and all other regrettable aspects of life, until men’s hearts and minds are universally changed.
That change depends ultimately upon man's response to a call from without. The voices within are but echoes of the higher call. So preoccupied with material interests is the majority, that the voices which call are not heard, or if heard are unheeded. The human instrument is sadly out of tune, and life seems to have lost its melody. The music from without finds no response within, and sorrows multiply. The saddest aspect of the evil, is, that brilliant minds like Amiel's, are conscious of the ills and yet seem powerless to remedy them. At the close of the paragraph from which we have quoted, he says, "I understand myself, but I do not approve myself." What an enigma! Man capable of diagnosing his mental condition and yet powerless to remedy it! Can there be sorrow greater than this, to be conscious of shortcoming and still more conscious of inability to overcome—the result of excess in introspection, unbalanced by the objective view. To rectify many of our mental humors we must learn to drink deeply of the fountain of life outside ourselves. Habits which master a man to his undoing cannot be destroyed by an intention whose activity has been brought into being by the loathing of the action when it is done. That is an attempt to overcome positive by negative. To counteract an evil habit there must be a cultivation of a good habit. An impure thought must be displaced by a noble one. The destruction of a habit involves a steadily cultivated mental process, a determination not to be weakened by defeat, a will to victory—the harder and more difficult the tight the stronger must be the will to win. The roots of a habit is in thought, and in the realm of thought it must be attached. There is no defeat for those who have the will to win, but a steady, slow triumphant progress onward and upward to final victory.