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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie


Title:     Relaxation
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

The ability to relax the tension of work is as important as the power of concentration; for the two processes combine in the doing of the highest kind of work. There are, it is true, great differences between men in capacity for sustained toil. Some men are able to put forth their energy at the highest point of efficiency for a short time only, while the endurance of others seems to be almost without limit. In manual or mechanical work it is mainly a question of physical or nervous resources; in creative work, however relaxation is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of necessity, because it affects the quality of the product. In the alertness of attention, the full activity of every faculty, the glow of the imagination, which accompany the putting forth of the creative power, the whole force of the worker is concentrated and his whole nature is under the highest tension. Everything he holds of knowledge, skill, experience, emotion flows to one point; as waters which have gathered from the surface of a great stretch of country sometimes run together and sweep, in deep, swift current, through a narrow pass. In such moments there is a concentration of thought, imagination, and spiritual energy which fuses all the forces of the worker into one force and directs that force to a single point.

In such a moment there is obviously a closing in of a man's nature from outward influences. The very momentum with which the absorbed worker is urged on in the accomplishment of his design shuts him from those approaches of truth and knowledge which are made only when the mind is at ease. One sees a hundred things in the woods as he saunters through their depths which are invisible as he rushes through on a flying train; and one is conscious of a vast world of sights, sounds, and odours when he sits out of doors at ease, of which he is oblivious when he is absorbed in any kind of task. Now, in order to give work the individuality and freshness of the creative spirit, one must be, at certain times, as open to these manifold influences from without as one must be, at other times, closed against them; the tension of the whole being which is necessary for the highest achievement must be intermitted. The flow of energy must be stopped at intervals in order that the reservoir may have time to fill. In the lower forms of work relaxation is necessary for health; in the higher forms of work it is essential for creativeness.

It is a very superficial view of the nature of man which limits growth to periods of self-conscious activity; a view so superficial that it not only betrays ignorance of the real nature of man's relation to his world, but also of the real nature of work. Activity is not necessarily work; it is often motion without direction, progress, or productiveness; mere waste of energy. In every field of life--religious, intellectual, material--there is an immense amount of activity which is sheer waste of power. Work is energy intelligently put forth; and intelligence in work depends largely upon keeping the whole nature in close and constant relation with all the sources of power. To be always doing something is to be as useless for the higher purposes of growth and influence as to be always idle; one can do nothing with a great show of energy, and one can do much with very little apparent effort. In no field of work is the difference between barren and fruitful activity more evident than in teaching. Every one who has acquaintance with teachers knows the two types: the man who is never at rest, but who pushes through the school day, watch in hand, with gongs sounding, monitors marking, classes marching, recitations beginning and ending with military precision, sharply defined sections in each text-book arbitrarily covered in each period; a mechanic of tireless activity, who never by any chance touches the heart of the subject, opens the mind of the pupil, enriches his imagination, or liberates his personality: and the other type, the real teacher, who is concerned not to sustain a mechanical industry, but to create a dynamic energy; who cares more for truth than for facts, for ability than for dexterity, for skill of the soul than for cunning of the brain; who aims to put his pupil in heart with nature as well as in touch with her phenomena; to disclose the formative spirit in history as well as to convey accurate information; to uncover the depths of human life in literature as well as to set periods of literary development in external order. Such a man may use few methods, and attach small importance to them; the railroad atmosphere of the schedule may be hateful to him in the school-room; but he is the real worker, for he achieves that which his noisier and more bustling colleague misses,--the education of his pupils. He is not content to impart knowledge; he must also impart culture; for without culture knowledge is the barren possession of the intellectual artisan.

Now, culture involves repose, openness of mind, that spiritual hospitality which is possible only when the nature is relaxed and lies fallow like the fields which are set aside in order that they may regain fertility. The higher the worker the deeper the need of relaxation in the large sense. A man must be nourished before he can feed others; must be enriched in his own nature before he can make others rich; must be inspired before he reveal, prophesy, or create in any field. If he makes himself wholly a working power, he isolates himself from the refreshment and re-creative power of the living universe in which he toils; in that isolation he may do many things with feverish haste, but he can do nothing with commanding ability. He narrows his energy to a rivulet by cutting himself off from the hills on which the feeding springs rise and the clouds pour down their richness. The rivulet may be swift, but it can never have depth, volume, or force. The great streams in which the stars shine and on which the sails of commerce whiten and fade are fed by half a continent.

To the man who is bent upon the highest personal efficiency through the most complete self-development a large part of life must be set aside for that relaxation which, by relief from tension and from concentration, puts the worker into relation with the influences and forces that nourish and inspire the spirit. The more one can gain in his passive moods, the more will he have to give in his active moods; for the greater the range of one's thought, the truer one's insight, and the deeper one's force of imagination, the more will one's skill express and convey. A man's life ought to be immensely in excess of his expression, and a man's life has its springs far below the plane of his work. Emerson's work reveals the man, because it contains the man, but the man was fashioned before the work began. The work played no small part in the unfolding of the man's nature, but that which gave the work individuality and authority antedated both poems and essays. These primal qualities had their source in the personality of the thinker and poet, and were developed and refined by long intimacy with nature, by that fruitful quietness and solitude which open the soul to the approach of the deepest truths and most liberating experiences. Emerson knew how to relax, to surrender to the hour and the place, to invite the higher powers by throwing all the doors open; and these receptive hours, when he gave himself into the keeping of the spirit, were the most fertile periods of his life; they enriched and inspired him for the hours of work.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: Relaxation