Regulation of the Temper
There is considerable ground for thinking that the opinion very generally prevails that the temper is something beyond the power of regulation, control, or government. A good temper, too, if we may judge from the usual excuses for the lack of it, is hardly regarded in the light of an attainable quality. To be slow in taking offence, and moderate in the expression of resentment, in which things good temper consists, seems to be generally reckoned rather among the gifts of nature, the privileges of a happy constitution — than among the possible results of careful self-discipline.
When we have been fretted by some petty grievance, or, hurried by some reasonable cause of offence into a degree of anger far beyond what the occasion required, our subsequent regret is seldom of a kind for which we are likely to be much better. We bewail ourselves for a misfortune — rather than condemn ourselves for a fault. We speak of our unhappy temper as if it were something that entirely removed the blame from us, and threw it all upon the peculiar and unavoidable sensitiveness of our nature.
A peevish and irritable temper is, indeed, an unhappy one; a source of misery to ourselves and to others; but it is not, in all cases, so valid an excuse for being easily provoked, as it is usually supposed to be.
A good temper is too important a source of happiness, and an ill temper too important a source of misery, to be treated with indifference or hopelessness. The false excuses or modes of regarding this matter, to which we have referred, should be exposed; for until their invalidity and incorrectness are exposed — no efforts, or but feeble ones, will be put forth to regulate an ill temper, or to cultivate a good one.
We allow that there are great differences of natural constitution. One who is endowed with a poetical temperament, or a keen sense of beauty, or a great love of order, or very large idealism — will be pained by the lack of the opposites of these qualities, where one less amply endowed would suffer no provocation whatever. What would grate most harshly on the ear of an eminent musician, might not be noticed at all by one whose musical faculties were unusually small. The same holds true in regard to some other, besides musical deficiencies or discords. A delicate and sickly frame will feel annoyed by what would not at all disturb the same frame in a state of vigorous health. Particular circumstances, also, may expose some to greater trials and vexations than others.
But, after all this is granted, the only reasonable conclusion seems to be, that the attempt to govern the temper is more difficult in some cases than in others; not that it is, in any case, impossible. It is, at least, certain that an opinion of its impossibility is an effectual bar against entering upon it. On the other hand, "believe that you will succeed — and you will succeed," is a maxim which has nowhere been more frequently verified than in the moral world. It should be among the first maxims admitted, and the last abandoned, by every earnest seeker of his own moral improvement.
Then, too, facts demonstrate that much has been done and can be done in regulating the worst of tempers. The most irritable or peevish temper has been restrained by company; has been subdued by self-interest; has been awed by fear; has been softened by grief; has been soothed by kindness. A bad temper has shown itself, in the same individuals, capable of increase, liable to change, accessible to motives. Such facts are enough to encourage, in every case, an attempt to govern the temper. All the miseries of a bad temper, and all the blessings of a good one — may be attained by a habitual tolerance, concern, and kindness for others — by an habitual restraint of considerations and feelings entirely selfish.
To those of our readers who feel moved or resolved by the considerations we have named to attempt to regulate their temper, or to cultivate one of a higher order of excellence, we would submit a few suggestions which may assist them in their somewhat difficult undertaking.
See, first of all, that you set as high a value on the comfort of those with whom you have to do — as you do on your own. If you regard your own comfort exclusively, you will not make the allowances which a proper regard to the happiness of others would lead you to do.
Avoid, particularly in your fellowship with those to whom it is of most consequence that your temper should be gentle and forbearing — avoid raising into undue importance the little failings which you may perceive in them, or the trifling disappointments which they may occasion you. If we make it a subject of vexation, that the beings among whom we are destined to live, are not perfect — we must give up all hope of attaining a temper not easily provoked. A habit of trying everything by the standard of perfection vitiates the temper more than it improves the understanding, and disposes the mind to discern faults with an unhappy penetration. I would not have you shut your eyes to the errors or follies, or thoughtlessnesses of your friends — but only not to magnify them, or view them microscopically. Regard them in others as you would have them regard the same things in you, in an exchange of circumstances.
You must make due allowances for the original constitution and the manner of education or upbringing, which has been the lot of those with whom you have to do. Make such excuses for others as the circumstances of their constitution, rearing, and youthful associations, do fairly demand.
Always put the best construction on the motives of others, when their conduct admits of more than one way of understanding it. In many cases, where neglect or ill intention seems evident at first sight, it may prove true that "second thoughts are best." Indeed, this common saying is never more likely to prove true, than in cases in which the first thoughts were the dictates of anger. And even when the first thoughts are confirmed by further evidence, yet the habit of always waiting for complete evidence before we condemn, must have a calming and moderating effect upon the temper, while it will take nothing from the authority of our just censures.
It will further, be a great help to our efforts, as well as our desires, for the government of the temper, if we consider frequently and seriously the natural consequences of hasty resentments, angry replies, rebukes impatiently given or impatiently received, muttered discontents, sullen looks, and harsh words. It may safely be asserted that the consequences of these and other ways in which ill-temper may show itself, are entirely evil. The feelings which accompany them in ourselves, and those which they excite in others, are unprofitable as well as painful. They lessen our own comfort, and tend often rather to prevent than to promote the improvement of those with whom we find fault. If we give even friendly and judicious counsels in a harsh and pettish tone — we excite against them the repugnance naturally felt to our manner. The consequence is, that the advice is slighted, and the peevish adviser is despised or hated.
When we cannot succeed in putting a restraint on our feelings of anger or dissatisfaction, we can at least check the expression of those feelings. If our thoughts are not always in our power — our words and actions and looks may be brought under our command; and a command over these expressions of our thoughts and feelings will be found no small help towards obtaining an increase of power over our thoughts and feelings themselves. At least, one great good will be effected — time will be gained; time for reflection; time for charitable allowances and excuses.
Lastly, seek the help of true religion. Consider how you may most certainly secure the approbation of God. For a good temper, or a well-regulated temper, may be the constant homage of a truly religious man to that God, whose love and long-suffering forbearance surpass all human love and forbearance.