We’re traveling back to the spring of 1913 to continue listening to Sir William Osler’s message pointing, “out a path in which the wayfaring man, though a fool, cannot err ; not a system to be worked out painfully only to be discarded, not a formal scheme, simply a habit as easy – or as hard! – to adopt as any other habit, good or bad.” Ready? Let’s jump back in.
A few years ago a Xmas card went the rounds, with the legend “ Life is just one ‘derned’ thing after another,” which, in more refined language, is the same as saying “ Life is a habit ,” a succession of actions that become more or less automatic. This great truth , which lies at the basis of all actions, muscular or psychic, is the keystone of the teaching of Aristotle, to whom the formation of habits was the basis of moral excellence. “In a word, habits of any kind are the result of actions of the same kind; and so what we have to do, is to give a certain character to these particular actions ” (Ethics). Lift a seven months old baby to his feet – see him tumble on his nose . Do the same at twelve months he walks. At two years he runs. The muscles and the nervous system have acquired the habit. One trial after another, one failure after another, has given him power. Put your finger in a baby’s mouth, and he sucks away in blissful anticipation of a response to a mammalian habit millions of years old. And we can deliberately train parts of our body to perform complicated actions with unerring accuracy. Watch that musician playing a difficult piece. Batteries, commutators, multipliers, switches, wires in numerable control those nimble fingers, the machinery of which may be set in motion as automatically as in a pianola, the player all the time chatting as if he had nothing to do in controlling the apparatus — habit again, the gradual acquisition of power by long practice and at the expense of many mistakes . The same great law reaches through mental and moral states. “Character,” which partakes of both, in Plutarch’s words, is “long -standing habit.”
Now the way of life that I preach is a habit to be acquired gradually by long and steady repetition. It is the practice of living for the day only, and for the day’s work , Life in day-tight compartments. ” Ah,” I hear you say, “that is an easy matter, simple as Elisha’s advice!” Not as I shall urge it, in words which fail to express the depth of my feelings as to its value. I started life in the best of all environments-in a parsonage, one of nine children . A man who has filled Chairs in four universities, has written a successful book, and has been asked to lecture at Yale, is supposed popularly to have brains of a special quality. A few of my intimate friends really know the truth about me, as I know it! Mine, in good faith I say it, are of the most mediocre character. But what about those professorships, etc.? Just habit, a way of life, an outcome of the day’s work , the vital importance of which I wish to impress upon you with all the force at my command. Dr. Johnson remarked upon the trifling circumstances by which men’s lives are influenced, “not by an ascendant planet, a predominating humour, but by the first book which they read, some early conversation which they have heard, or some accident which excited ardour and enthusiasm .” This was my case in two particulars. I was diverted to the Trinity College School, then at Weston, Ontario, by a paragraph in the circular stating that the senior boys would go into the drawing room in the evenings, and learn to sing and dance– vocal and pedal accomplishments for which I was never designed; but like Saul seeking his asses, I found something more valuable, a man of the White of Selborne type, who knew nature, and who knew how to get boys interested in it. The other happened in the summer of 1871, when I was attending the Montreal General Hospital Much worried as to the future, partly about the final examination, partly as to what I should do afterwards, I picked up a volume of Carlyle, and on the page I opened there was the familiar sentence- “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” A commonplace sentiment enough, but it hit and stuck and helped, and was the starting-point of a habit that has enabled me to utilize to the full the single talent entrusted to me.
Isn’t this crazy! Approximately 100 years before books like “The Power of Habit” or “Atomic Habits” were published, William Osler invites us into a way of life – Life lived in day-tight compartments, tending to the day’s work, and attention to the inner life’s long-standing habit of character. Join me next time to find out what William Osler means by “day-tight compartments.” Go to thewholeheartedmd.com to sign up today, and otherwise I’ll see y’all next time!
Do you need some clarification after the first read through? Who are all these people: Elisha? Dr. Johnson? And a man of the White of Selborne Type? If any of these things sound foreign to you then just sign up to become a Wayfarer (click on the image below) & get access to a bonus segment where I recap & clarify everything that may have gotten lost in translation over the 108 years since Osler gave this address.
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