Extracts from ”The Energies of Man” by William James (in 1906).
”….If an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience.
For many years I have mused on the phenomenon of second wind, trying to find a physiological theory. It is evident that our organism has stored up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface.
One can be in what I might call “efficiency-equilibrium” (neither gaining nor losing power when once the equilibrium is reached) on astonishingly different quantities of work, no matter in what direction the work may be measured. It may be physical work, intellectual work, moral work, or spiritual work. ”
”Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.
But the very same individual, pushing his energies to their extreme, may in a vast number of cases keep the pace up day after day, and find no
“reaction” of a bad sort, so long as decent hygienic conditions are preserved. His more active rate of energizing does not wreck him; for the
organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair. I say the rate and not the time of repair.
The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler.”
”We need a particular spur or effort to start us upon inner work ;it tires us to sustain it ;and when long sustained, we know how easily we lapse.
When I speak of “energizing,” and its rates and levels and sources, I mean therefore our inner as well as our outer work.
Let no one think..that our problem of individual and national economy is solely that of the maximum of pounds raisable against gravity,the maximum of locomotion, or of agitation of any sort, that human beings can accomplish. That might signify little more than hurrying and jumping about in inco-ordinated ways; whereas inner work, though it so often reinforces outer work, quite as often means its arrest. To relax, to say to ourselves “Peace! be still!” is sometimes a great achievement of inner work. When I speak of human energizing in general, the reader must therefore understand that sum- total of activities, some outer and some inner, some muscular, some emotional, some moral, some spiritual, of whose waxing and waning in himself he is at all times so well aware.
How to keep it at an appreciable maximum? How not to let the level lapse? ”
”What are the limits of human faculty in various directions ?
By what diversity of means, in the differing types of human beings, may the faculties be stimulated to their best results ?
The first point to agree upon in this enterprise is that as a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions. Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.
Stating the thing broadly, the human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. ”
”In elementary faculty, in co-ordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject — but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit — the habit of inferiority to our full self — that is bad.
Admit so much, then, and admit also that the charge of being inferior to their full self is far truer of some men than of others ; then the practical question ensues: to what do the better men owe their escape? and, in the fluctuations which all men feel in their own degree of energizing, to what are the improvements due, when they occur?
In general terms the answer is plain :Either some unusual stimulus fills them with emotional excitement, or some unusual idea of necessity induces them to make an extra effort of will.
”There seems no doubt that we are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit-neurosis. We have to admit the wider potential range and the habitually narrow actual use. We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.
Turning from more chronic to acuter proofs of human nature’s reserves of power, we find that the stimuli that carry us over the usually effective
dam are most often the classic emotional ones, love, anger, crowd-contagion or despair. Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up.
We are all to some degree oppressed, unfree. We don’t come to our own. It is there, but we don’t get at it. The threshold must be made to shift.
Then many of us find that an eccentric activity — a “spree,” say — relieves. There is no doubt that to some men sprees and excesses of almost any kind are medicinal, temporarily at any rate, in spite of what the moralists and doctors say. But when the normal tasks and stimulations of life don’t put a man’s deeper levels of energy on tap, and he requires distinctly deleterious excitements, his constitution verges on the abnormal.”
”The normal opener of deeper and deeper levels of energy is the will. The difficulty is to use it, to make the effort which the word volition implies. But if we do make it (or if a god, though he were only the god Chance, makes it through us), it will act dynamogenically on us for month. It is notorious that a single successful effort of moral volition, such as saying “no” to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act, will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power.
In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself. Which is
the suggestive idea for this person, and which for that one?
There are in every one potential forms of activity that actually are shunted out from use. Part of the imperfect vitality under which we labor can thus be easily explained. One part of our mind dams up — even damns up ! — the other parts.
We need a topography of the limits of human power, similar to the chart which oculists use of the field of human vision. We need also a study of
the various types of human being with reference to the different ways in which their energy- reserves may be appealed to and set loose.”