Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Presence Of Mind And Happy Guessing
by [?]

“Depend upon it a lucky guess is never merely luck–there is always some talent in it.”–MISS AUSTEN, in Emma.

Dr. Chalmers used to say that in the dynamics of human affairs, two qualities were essential to greatness–Power and Promptitude. One man might have both, another power without promptitude, another promptitude without power. We must all feel the common sense of this, and can readily see how it applies to a general in the field, to a pilot in a storm, to a sportsman, to a fencer, to a debater. It is the same with an operating surgeon at all times, and may be at any time with the practitioner of the art of healing. He must be ready for what are called emergencies–cases which rise up at your feet, and must be dealt with on the instant,–he must have power and promptitude.

It is a curious condition of mind that this requires: it is like sleeping with your pistol under your pillow, and it on full cock; a moment lost and all may be lost. There is the very nick of time. This is what we mean by presence of mind; by a man having such a subject at his finger ends; that part of the mind lying nearest the outer world, and having to act on it through the bodily organs, through the will–the outposts must be always awake. It is of course, so to speak, only a portion of the mind that is thus needed and thus available; if the whole mind were forever at the advanced posts, it would soon lose itself in this endeavor to keep it. Now, though the thing needed to be done may be simple enough, what goes to the doing of it, and to the being at once ready and able to do it, involves much: the wedge would not be a wedge, or do a wedge’s work, without the width behind as well as the edge in front. Your men of promptitude without genius or power, including knowledge and will, are those who present the wedge the wrong way. Thus your extremely prompt people are often doing the wrong thing, which is almost always worse than nothing. Our vague friend who bit “Yarrow’s” tail instead of “the Chicken’s,” was full of promptitude; as was also that other man, probably a relative, who barred the door with a boiled carrot; each knew what was needed–the biting the tail, the barring the door; both erred as to the means–the one by want of presence of mind, the other by lack of mind itself. We must have just enough of the right knowledge and no more; we must have the habit of using this; we must have self-reliance, and the consentaneousness of the entire mind; and what our hand finds to do, we must do with our might as well as with it. Therefore it is that this master act of the man, under some sudden and great unexpected crisis, is in a great measure performed unconsciously as to its mental means. The man is so totus in illo, that there is no bit of the mind left to watch and record the acts of the rest; therefore men, when they have done some signal feat of presence of mind, if asked how they did it, generally don’t very well know–they just did it; it was, in fact, done and then thought of, not thought of and then done, in which case it would likely never have been done. Not that the act was uncaused by mind; it is one of the highest powers of mind thus to act; but it is done, if I may use the phrase, by an acquired instinct. You will find all this in that wonderful old Greek who was Alexander the Great’s and the old world’s schoolmaster, and ours if we were wise,–whose truthfulness and clear insight one wonders at the longer he lives. He seems to have seen the human mind as a bird or an engineer does the earth–he knew the plan of it. We now-a-days see it as one sees a country, athwart and in perspective, and from the side; he saw it from above and from below. There are therefore no shadows, no foreshortenings, no clear-obscure, indeed no disturbing medium; it is as if he examined everything in vacuo. I refer my readers to what he says on {Anchinoia} and {Eustochia}.[1]