Book Thoughts: As a Man Thinketh

As a Man Thinketh was a 1903 literary essay by James Allen, a Christian. One day a passage he read from the Book of Proverbs inspired him to write about it. Part of that Bible passage formed the title of the essay. The passage basically stated that a man’s actions followed from his thoughts. James Allen then concluded that if a man improved his thoughts, his actions would automatically be improved as well. That formed the basis of the essay. The book I read had it at 45 pages, so it was a short read.

I really enjoyed the idea behind the book because I have been trying to think more positively in my life lately. I have been cynical for much of my life. I usually saw the worst in things. Now I am trying to see the best in things. I haven’t really started this in earnest yet, but I do someday want to make a conscious effort to turn around negative thoughts into positive thoughts. I think this will make me happier, and I know that the happier I am the easier I can get myself to do good things. When I am in a bad mood, it’s a real struggle to get myself to do good.

I didn’t think this book was perfect because some of the ideas seemed a little too far-fetched. James Allen posited that humans had complete control over their thoughts. It was as simple as deciding to think differently and good actions would follow. The truth is we won’t ever be completely in control of our thoughts because the devil is able to implant tempting thoughts into our minds. We can control how we respond to tempting thoughts, but we can never just stop having them. As long as we live, we will have these temptations.

It felt like the author made the assumption that perfection could be attained on Earth. We as Catholics know that is not possible. We will always sin. We can become closer to perfection, but we will never become perfect here. After seeing this, I took the rest of the book with a grain of salt. I liked James Allen’s ideas of focusing on good thoughts and having a clear aim for what we want to do, but it was a little too unrealistic. I guess the text gave me a disingenuous feeling, like the author was setting people up for failure. A common exit point for new converts is when they go through their first real struggle since conversion. Many believe that now that they are Catholic (or Christian), it is possible for them to be perfect on Earth or at least that God will take care of all their problems. When those don’t happen, it is easy for a new convert to get discouraged and abandon the faith.

It is realistic that people can improve their state in life, but it’s not realistic for everything we think to happen. Someone might want to get rich, but there are plenty of examples of people that strived all their life to make lots of money and yet failed. A better essay would acknowledge the complexities of life and note that there really are limitations to what we can do. This essay reminded me of many of the saints stories that were written during this period, which portrayed the saints as absolutely perfect on Earth. A wise Catholic knows now that these saints still committed sins on a regular basis. They were much holier than the average Catholic but still not perfect. Perfection couldn’t happen until they died, were purified in purgatory, and went to heaven. As a Man Thinketh was written during that same time.

Overall, As a Man Thinketh was a good essay despite these minor criticisms. It really got me thinking when I read about aimlessness. James Allen said that aimless people just floated through life, never having any accomplishments. That described most of my life. Only recently have I settled on the aim of getting to heaven and serving others along the way. That aim is pretty broad though. It gives me no help in making the big decisions in life, such as how I should develop my career or what service work to do.

On a daily basis I wonder what specific activities I should be doing. I have looked at my skills and decided on service work that fits, but I don’t feel any calling towards that work. Likewise, when it comes to the career, I have never found any work to be all that compelling. At the same time I have never felt any calling to religious life. And so I go through life doing what I believe God would want, not what I feel is right.

I pray for discernment every day, hoping that someday I will have a clearer idea what I should be doing, but God has not blessed me with an answer to my aimlessness. I do believe my good deeds have positive effects and God enjoys seeing them, but it seems I am meant to go through life in the dark. I am still young — there is time yet to discover my overall purpose — but I hope it happens while I still have the energy to do good work. If I don’t find out until I am on my death bed, I will feel like I never got the chance to do what God wanted.

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