It sometimes seems almost as if Nature had a sense of fun. Knowing how ignorant of ourselves we really are, does she not appear to enjoy, now and then, putting across a little joke on her self-complacent children? Consider some of the absurd or infuriating things that happen to all of us, of which the following is an example:
I was awakened at five o'clock one bitterly cold winter morning by the realization that I had something to do that must be attended to at once. I had only just succeeded in opening the far corner of my left eye, nevertheless I bounced out of bed and put through the polar expedition of dressing in a record ten minutes. And then, well, what was that duty anyway? Pity me, Compassionate Reader, for I hadn't the vaguest idea! There I stood, all dressed up and nowhere to go!
It reminds me of Mark Twain's story about his cat. Mr. Clemens had been intensively investigating one of the popular forms of "mental science" and was interested in the teaching as to the non-existence of pain. One day someone accidentally stepped on the cat's tail and poor pussy released a blood-curdling protest. Mark Twain saw the incident and said to himself, "Now I wonder what was the matter with that cat?"
The mention of Mark Twain suggests another of the mysteries of consciousness, an incident which he describes somewhere, in his autobiography I believe. One summer morning he was sitting on the porch of his home in the country when a shabby man walked up to the front door and rang the bell. It was then that the amazing thing happened. Right before his eyes the man vanished! Mark Twain sprang to his feet. "Ye gods!" he thought, "I've seen a ghost! I'm going right in and send a report of it to the Society for Psychical Research." He went into the house by a side door, crossed the front hall to his study — and there sat the man, a messenger waiting for the answer to the note he had delivered.
Mark Twain explained the incident as what he called, if my recollection is accurate, a "lapse of consciousness" during just the moment in which the front door opened to admit the man with the note. When he "came to" of course the man was not there. It is an interesting explanation and decidedly more to the good than the ghost-business. For doubtless we all have these lapses, long or short as the case may be, from the extended "brown study" to the moment of absent-mindedness when we start gaily down-town with the modish hat wrong side to. And at the moment of discovery, generally through the sly or horrified gaze of the passer-by, we are sure to be rewarded by a glimpse into emotional depths in ourselves which are both new and exhilarating.
We can also learn much from our friends in this sort of candid investigation. Someone I know had a curiously satisfactory experience. One night the temperature made a record drop at about 2 a. m. and he woke up to find himself lapped among the icebergs. He lay there for quite a while, too drowsy to force himself to forsake the tiny island of warmth at the small of his back for the arctic zone outside the bedclothes. Finally he managed to pull up the heavy quilt which always hung at the foot of his bed; and he says the sense of flooding warmth which wafted him back to rosy dreamland he will never forget — and why? Because when he woke up in the morning the quilt was still hanging over the foot of the bed!
Then there is an excellent cure for wakefulness, which will work if you are clever about it and don't let your right hand know what your left is doing. Just — casually — leave the back door unlocked when you go to bed. Then, as soon as you are comfortable try to make yourself get up, especially if the night is chilly, and paddle down through the cold house to lock it. Nine times out of ten you will fall asleep as quickly as a baby.
There are other ways of applying these discoveries of the quirks of consciousness. Years ago, when I was young enough to know better, I decided that I would "be an author." So every morning at exactly 8:30 I sat down at the desk and fiercely applied my squirming mentality to the selected theme. Presto! I saw a pile of ironing or a heap of stockings to be darned that were crying for help, and the temptation to rise and "get it done" was irresistible. It was the same every time I sat down to write. Before a week had passed I had my wardrobe and other personal gadgets in the pink of condition, and all owing to the intensive effort to make my mind work, in my way instead of its own. If this isn't a clear case of the mystery of the "behaviorism" of consciousness, what is it?
This last experience suggests two different psychological reactions, and you can take your choice. Pick out the duty which irks you most, concentrate your mind upon it, and while you are trying to get it done you can have all the little hangover tasks that have been worrying you cleaned right off the slate. Or — to return to sanity — brush aside everything but the matter in hand and get it done in top-hole fashion, and so accomplish your daily stint in self-directed evolution.
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