Some time ago while going through a box of books, I came across the volume under present consideration and began to browse through the pages. I was struck by numerous passages that make reference to what in today’s language would be referred to as mental health issues. Given that it is unlikely that you will be able to lay your hands on a copy, I would like to share a few of these passages with you.
Under the title ‘A Healthy Attitude’:
Altogether you will find that living the Scout Law is a great help in your efforts to make and keep yourself physically strong. By doing your best to be cheerful, friendly, brave and kind, worries, irritation, and “blueness” disappear, and with them fatigue, loss of appetite and inability to sleep. A feeling of success, ambition, confidence in yourself and excitement over the things that life has to offer take their place. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he! THINK yourself strong, DO something about it —- and you are on your way to BE strong!
…in the modern world, the most important thing that you can learn is to Think! —-something that is not taught in books.
The ability to think —-especially to think fast —- usually goes with good muscular coordination and an alert mind. Thinking fast in an emergency often depends on the habit of thinking things through in advance. That’s what happens when your best friend gets hurt playing baseball in the corner lot. You get him to the nearest doctor or hospital while others are still standing around stunned. You do it because you’ve thought it all out in advance, just what you’d do if such an accident should happen.
Under the title ‘The Art of Concentration’:
Does your mind jump from one thing to another like a flea? Or does it stick to the job on hand? You have to keep your mind constantly alert not to let it go off wool gathering. (Just for fun, keep a check on yourself and see how many times your mind wanders as you read this page.) Some fellows seem to accomplish as much in one hour as others do in two. They can finish their studies more quickly; they have ample time for all sorts of other interests, hobbies, athletics, reading. Often this is not so much because of superior ability, but because they have learned how to hold their minds on what they are doing, and think of nothing else; how to concentrate. Concentration is made up of will-power and self-control. You can train your mind the same as you can train your body. Exercise it. Force yourself to keep your attention on the lesson or the job you are doing. During an exciting football game, you often become so absorbed in the play that you are unaware of everything around you except the ball and the players. No difficulty about concentration then. Bring that same intense quality to your work and see how much you can accomplish. Give yourself a certain length of time to accomplish a definite amount of work, say tomorrow’s algebra or next day’s English composition. Then finish on time. Don’t put off that job until you feel like doing it. Do it and get it over with! Do things often enough this way for it to become a habit. After that, you are sitting pretty while the fellow who hasn’t learned to concentrate struggle along, never quite making the grade.
Think With Your Eyes, Too
Then there’s a way of thinking with your eyes in addition to your brain. How? By observing instead of just looking.
Kim’s game and various other observation games and tracking and stalking will help you to develop this power of thinking with your eyes. Things you see will then impress themselves on your mind. And from what you see you will often be able to make valuable deductions, just as Kim did.
James Watt noticed that the lid of a kettle of boiling water popped up and down. Thousands of others had seen the same thing, but Watt observed. And from what he observed, he deduced that it was the steam that had the power to lift the lid. The steam engine was the result.
An apple fell off a tree in front of Isaac Newton. It wasn’t anything new for an apple to fall off a tree, but Newton observed it as a special phenomenon, and it set him on the track of the law of gravity.
But thinking alone is not enough. Thinking won’t help you much unless it is coupled with accurate knowledge.
Much of your knowledge you get by associating with people. Your early knowledge you absorb from your father and mother and from older brother or sisters. Your teachers also have much to give you. So have your Scout leaders.
Mix with all kinds of people, talk with all types and make a special effort to meet people who know more than you do. Discuss your interests, your hobbies, your problems with them, and learn from their experience.
As to reading, everything we read we are told, …influences you to a some degree. Reading worthwhile things will sharpen your mind and make your actions clean cut and sure. If a boy reads trash all the time, it is impossible for him to be anything but a second or third rate man.
Thinking is fine, knowledge is fine, but no man ever gets very far with either if he does not have initiative.
Initiative is the ability to act without being told what to do. The boy with initiative often advances more rapidly than a more brilliant boy. The boy who sits around and waits for somebody to give him directions, who does only what he is told to do and nothing more, is not going to advance very rapidly.
There is a constant battle going on inside us —- a battle between the desire to do or not to do certain things, to get away with things the easy way, the “want-what-we-want-when-we-want-it “impatience, the “aw-what’s the use” feeling, and other notions.
Sometimes a fellow feels like kicking off the shackles, with an outburst of temper; the next moment a streak of laziness may be over him. He may be irritated and show it in a sour spirit or crabbing remarks. He may hurt someone for a good reason or for none at all. He may hurt someone he loves with thoughtless words, or with a stubborn action. Everyone does such things at one time or another.
The main thing is to be strong enough to conquer those quirks. If you stay “mentally awake” they’ll never run away with you. Sometimes it helps to place yourself, figuratively, outside of yourself and watch what you are doing. Then your behaviour may strike you as being pretty silly, and you can quickly do something about it. This is one way of knowing yourself, one way of keeping mentally awake about yourself and what you are doing.
At times you may have to disagree with other people. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable. There’s an art. If you present your point of view in a pleasant manner, people will listen; but if you get up on your high horse, they’ll feel like knocking you down and you will have lost your point.
Learn to take anything that comes with a good spirit. Do your best to shut out the things that annoy you. Forget yourself. Get into the habit of thinking about other people. And keep busy doing interesting things.
Then you will have no trouble keeping “mentally awake.” Your life will be so full of things to be explored and lived that there won’t be enough hours in the day to crowd them in.
So there you have it. A 1940’s/50’s self-help manual for boys written in language that does not require a dictionary. More importantly, perhaps, it expresses the ongoing assumption that your behaviours are your behaviours. They are not imposed from without but can be controlled and directed from within. You can change, direct and monitor yourself and become responsible for your behaviours —the captain of your own ship and not a mere passenger.
Of course, this all belongs to what have been called simpler times. A time when television had only a few channels. When news was every night at the same time. When adult programs started at 7:00 such as Dragnet, Perry Mason and Peter Gunn. When those adult programs always depicted clearly defined good and bad and right and wrong. Bad guys always got caught. People who committed crimes never got away with them and even happily married couples had to have one foot on the ground on a bed even though fully clothed.
As a child of the 1950’s, I can take myself back there as if I was in a time machine. To the blonde stained light wood furniture to the red sofas and chairs, the black and white televisions and the rabbit ear antennas surmounted on top that you would wriggle to get better reception. To an age of The Mickey Mouse Club, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Superman —-in boxer shorts. To an age of Popsicles, Wonder Bread, Cheez Whiz, Miracle Whip, Instant Pudding, Jello, Kool Aide, Campbells canned soup, penny candies, Pez dispensers and cars with fins.
Much has been said to malign the 50’s with its little cookie cutter houses, paternalistic values, women as housewives, two kids and the family dog. Much of this resulted from the prism of 60’s rebellion in favour of a growing ‘me’ generation. However, the 50’s contained a generation who had lived through a world war where people had been separated for months and boyfriends, husbands and sons went off to war some never to return. Having lived through all of that, the little house in the suburbs with comfort security and loved ones was close to heaven. Having had so much threatened and taken away, a world of stability was a place that could be appreciated, valued, and held onto. The generation that subsequently took that for granted became the generation that denigrated it with following generations adding further weight to that dismissiveness.
However much the world around us changes, human beings remain much the same which is why we can still Read Plato from the 5th century BCE with relevance today. What has changed in modern times is the increasing tendency to medicalize human behaviour in and around adaptability within specific environments under the rubric of dysfunctions. There is a growing trend to get away from the stiff upper lip, suck it back, get over it attitude to a reveling in our own sensitivities. “Since I am more sensitive to triggers in life, I, therefore, deserve special treatment. Step carefully around me.” Equal treatment means treating some people more equally than others. Increasingly throughout Western developed nations there is a growing level of vulnerability and fragility as it seems that a more comfortable material existence and a focus upon the individual rather than the family as the central unit of society results in growing problems with mental health. If happiness can be measured in terms of mental health, it would seem therefore that social progress has had its cost. If fewer people are happy, perhaps the very nature of that progress should be questioned.
A few years ago, there emerged in the USA a growing ‘Grit’ movement that focused attention on the values of determination and confronting difficult situations with resolve within the context of education. Alongside this has been a growing focus on character and the importance of its development. Such movements seem to have emerged from the growing awareness of their apparent absence. However, there are reasons for this as we shift from a “despite of this” view of personality to a “because of this”. Any imperfections in our upbringing, circumstances, or people around us are now legitimate reasons for dysfunctions over which the individual concerned is assumed to have no power or control.
While listening to the radio on the way to work on one pre-covid morning, there was an interesting programme around the issue of the growing number of food and other allergies among children and the possible reasons to explain this. The theory presented as newsworthy was one coming out of a university research team in the UK that had concluded that this phenomenon coincided with the introduction of dishwashers and traced a path that rising cases of allergies grew correspondingly with their growth in use. The reason behind this they explained was that dishwashers sterilized dishes and removed most bacterial through the superheating process. As such, the bacteria remaining because of hand washing was absent and as such the children were less able to build up resistances.
There is much talk at present about the circumstances and people who have contributed to the misery and suffering of those among us.
It is of value to note in reading the biographies of accomplished people in any field, as to how the less than desirable things in their lives resulted in their subsequent growth and development. Indeed, these events seem to be a requirement for exceptionality. I have yet to find the biography of an exceptional individual emerging from an unexceptional childhood. Perhaps ‘perfect’ environments like overly sanitized dishes lead to problems in later life precisely because an imperfect world cannot be prepared for with a perfect childhood and upbringing.
The growth of personality depends upon constructive responses to both our physical and social environment. Character consists in the level and quality of those responses relative to the problems and challenges that they present. Inherent in this is the taking of responsibility for our actions and responsibilities for we can surely change ourselves with more success than we can change the outside world. If we are always being acting upon, as victims we may not be culpable provided that the victimization is not voluntary. However, becoming powerless is a poor trade for giving up responsibility. The belief that we can change our circumstances by changing ourselves through responding positively and constructively to hardships bestows both power and responsibility simultaneously.
Perhaps we are doomed to speak more about character as we see less evidence of it, more about individualism as we see normalcy defined as sameness, more about diversity as we embrace new rigid orthodoxies, more about freedom when it is equated only with selfishness and more about our successful adjustment to a world that is not adjusted to the natural environment that sustains it.
The current age is full of paradoxes many of which have created crippling dialectics. Human survival has been rooted in resiliency just as evolution has been rooted in diversity. Character is the defining characteristic of individuals as each uniquely meet the challenges of existence. Our ability to respond positively to negative situations could also be restated as our ability to respond creatively to threatening situations. To deny, repress or attempt to eliminate difficult or all challenging situations in life is doomed to failure. The ability to take lemons and make lemonade is a defining aspect of what we refer to as character as it is the essence of what is admirable in human beings.
Life may be full of excuses, however the belief that we are responsible for our own actions and choices is one that is gradually giving way to a sense of powerlessness, apathy, and unhappiness.
The advice given in the Scout Field Guide places responsibility upon the individual to make the best of his or her circumstances and rise above self-imposed limitations. Instilling and maintaining the belief that positive change is within our grasp is a prior condition of achieving it. The fear of failure must not eclipse the hope of success.
There is dignity in failure when it come on the heels of supreme effort. The is little dignity in failure through the resignation to a situation that provides the possibility of success.