Discipline Thyself

In recent conversations with people, I have discovered that there is an important quality missing from many of us.  This quality is lacking in our society as a whole, so it is not surprising that it is infrequently found among its individual members.  So what is this quality?  Self-discipline.

Self-discipline is the act of denying one’s desires for the sake of duty, responsibility, morality, and/or self-improvement.  Most people have some level of discipline, but many of us do not go through the deeper layers of discipline.  Believe it or not, duty, responsibility, morality, and self-improvement are all different layers where self-discipline must act itself out.  Allow me to give you an illustration.

If I am driving a car and see a stop sign, as a citizen, it is my duty to stop.  Why?  Because a law says I must.  Obeying that law is the shallowest level of self-discipline.  It does take at least a little self-discipline to stop at the sign because one does not have to stop, one could simply blow by the sign (for some us, like me, it takes a lot of self-discipline, especially when I see no need for the stop sign to be there).  So while there is an obligation to stop, the obligation can be ignored.  Most people are relatively good at this level because there are imminent consequences for not stopping at a stop sign (a ticket).

Responsibility is the next level of self-discipline, and that would work into our illustration by the presence of other people in the car.  If I am the driver of a car, then I have the responsibility to transport the passengers safely.  Since running a stop sign could endanger my passengers, I should stop out of responsibility to my passengers.  This goes another step deeper than just duty.

While I may stop at said sign merely because I am responsible for others, that does not mean that I love my passengers.  That is where morality comes in.  If I love my passengers, than I desire all the more to stop at the sign.  I realize that harm could befall my loved ones, and even the loved ones of others, if I did not stop at the sign.  This level of self-discipline gives a deeper purpose behind the action of stopping at the sign.  Stopping is not just fulfilling a duty, not just being responsible, but moral.

Finally, stopping at the sign even when I do not want to helps me to control my urges which leads to self-improvement.  In realizing that my urges are not necessarily the best thing for me, and that giving into them may bring difficulties in my life, I now become forward thinking and improve my self by being able to judge my urges and decide upon a better path.  Many people do not reach this level of self-discipline.  The ability to introspect is a foreign concept to the American culture.  Certainly we introspect to some degree, but in general, we very rarely undertake this task.

Why do I say that self-improvement is a deeper level than morality?  Because duty, responsibility, and morality are all at least in some way obligatory.  However, there is no obligation to improve one’s self.  At least, there is no obligation from a secular standpoint.  Christianity certainly makes self-improvement an obligation (which is one reason why Christianity is such a great worldview); but if my audience were secular, I would have to say that there is no natural obligation to improve one’s self.

Now, self-improvement without morality is incredibly suspect.  What one considers to be self-improvement can vary greatly from individual to individual.  That is where morality steps in to guide us.  So I am not saying that self-improvement is a greater form of discipline, but it is harder and more rare.  I spoke a little on the topic of morality in a previous post, and I think it is worth reading, but feel free to tell me I am wrong.

Real, physical, neurological, hormonal

Getting back to self-discipline in general, our society makes every excuse for people to not discipline themselves.  Instead of insisting that people learn to follow duty, feel responsibility, respond to morality, and desire to improve themselves, we create methods to side-step discipline and so hold them back.  Hyperactive kids are given ritalin and provided an excuse, and we allow adults to use marijuana or alcohol – the true “opiate[s] of the masses” – or pharmaceuticals instead of facing their difficulties.

Many people say that there are hormonal reasons for people acting the way they do, and they need the pharmaceutical help they get.  While I can at least partly agree with this thought, I do believe that most people’s need can be remedied through self-discipline alone.  Now, self-discipline is a learned behavior, so people may need a little help on their way to becoming self-disciplined and pharmaceutical free, but I believe it is possible for all to obtain an adequate level of self-discipline, even if this takes quite a bit of time.  As a culture though, we just do not prescribe self-discipline.

I do not care how depressed someone is, if you tell them that they have a free vacation to their destination of choice, they will suddenly become quite happy.  Why?  Because the positive thought creates a natural release of neurotransmitters and hormones that counteract other physical reasons for depression.

How can I say that real, physical, neurological, hormonal causes are not an excuse for people acting in an undisciplined manner?  Because every day I have real, physical, neurological, hormonal urges that I know I simply must control without any remedy other than self-discipline.  Neurotransmitters be damned.

What is this urge?  Lust.  While everything in my body is telling me that I should not only enjoy the sight of some attractive woman, but I should do more than just look, I still have to decide not to act on those hormonally charged feelings.  Believe it or not, I do not take any medication for this very real, physical, neurological, hormonal imbalance.  It is completely up to me to simply not act out on everything my body is telling me to do.

My body fires just as many neurotransmitters and hormones as the next guy.  Believe me, I feel them.  There are many times I sit there resisting some urge saying to myself, “Why is this so hard?!”  Even writing the last paragraph about “some attractive woman” creates urges that I am at this very moment suppressing.  Talk about being depraved.  Here I am writing a blog about self-discipline and I am struggling with being self-disciplined.

Self-discipline is extremely difficult.  It takes work, and it never is placed on total cruise control.  Certainly after one has worked on one’s self-discipline one becomes more capable of fighting off certain urges, but one never reaches a point where no conscious effort of self-discipline is necessary.

Huge Side Note

Here is where Christianity helps me.  It shows me that Christ resisted physical urges for the sake of the human race.  It shows me that God sees my hard work and rewards me.  It shows me that life is greater than just my urges because I am greater than my hormones; I am not just a physical entity, I am a spiritual entity and I can overcome the physical part of myself through the help of the Holy Spirit.

Here is also where atheism and Naturalism would destroy me.  If I were atheist or a Naturalist, I would have to be honest with myself and say that the only part of me that exists is the physical.  Why would I deny my physical urges and create a great deal of unnecessary tension in me?  Everything about my worldview would teach me that the only thing I have to live for is my own pleasure.  Why stop something that could bring me great pleasure and not decrease more pleasure down the road?  These are questions that the two mentioned worldviews have no internally coherent answer for other than, “There is no reason to deny one’s pleasure if it does not decrease overall pleasure.”

(Even “spiritual atheists” do not believe in anything supernatural, so it is perfectly accurate to lump atheism together with Naturalism in the above paragraph.)

Prescription

The fact that self-discipline is not prescribed in our culture shows just how weak we are as a people.  If we were to realize that self-discipline could adequately solve most of our problems, we would be a much stronger society.

Imagine if someone who was depressed went to a doctor and the doctor said, “I am going to prescribe that you think about all the reasons you have to not be depressed, in other words, I want to dwell on all the blessings you have in life.  I prescribe that you do not isolate yourself in your house.  I prescribe that you listen to only uplifting songs.  I prescribe that you grab a loved one and go on vacation.  I prescribe that you fight the feelings of depression with positive thoughts.”  Talk about self-improvement.  I know that doctors do tell patients of depression that positive thoughts help relieve depression.  But positive thoughts are not emphasized and the patient does not leave looking forward to filling up on positive thoughts, they leave looking forward to filling up a pill bottle.  (Again, just to be clear, self-discipline is a difficult habit to develop especially if one has rarely tried it, so I understand the need to prescribe some pharmaceutical help at the beginning of one’s foray into self-discipline.)

I also want to say here that positive thoughts can be hard to come by for some of us.  I have read that it is good to dwell on positive thoughts even if they are contrived.  I do not think that is good advice because it is building a house of cards.  Again, this is where I think the Christianity is wonderful.  Not only does it prescribe positive thinking, it gives dependable reasons to have positive thoughts.  The greatest of these reasons is Christ’s resurrection.  With Christ’s resurrection, hope springs eternal.  This life is not all for which we have to live.  The Christian will one day be glorified, and everyday on earth is preparation for that glorification.  Every day means something eternal for the Christian.  Every day is a reward for the Christian.

Self-discipline, when really thought upon, can be overwhelming.  We Americans are usually so poorly self-disciplined because we can so easily find means to satisfy our urges.  This is a sad truth.  However, do not let the overwhelming feeling stop you.  There is a freedom on the other side of that overwhelming feeling that is way better.

Unfortunately I cannot address every area of life where self-discipline is needed.  I am sure we can think of a number of areas.  What are some areas where you need to be more self-disciplined?  What can you do to become more self-disciplined?

Advertisements

6 comments

  1. “I am a spiritual entity and I can overcome the physical part of myself through the help of the Holy Spirit”

    I can also and I don’t need a holy spirit.

    “Here is also where atheism and Naturalism would destroy me. If I were atheist or a Naturalist, I would have to be honest with myself and say that the only part of me that exists is the physical.”

    If we’re talking about honesty, that’s pretty much all you could do now. There’s no good evidence to believe it’s otherwise. There’s also nothing wrong with that. You’re still a conscious being experiencing life.

    “Why would I deny my physical urges and create a great deal of unnecessary tension in me?”

    Compassion, empathy, ethics, self-discipline, well being of the human race etc.

    “Everything about my worldview would teach me that the only thing I have to live for is my own pleasure. ”

    If that’s your take away, I’m glad you’re not an atheist.

    “What is this urge? Lust. While everything in my body is telling me that I should not only enjoy the sight of some attractive woman, but I should do more than just look, I still have to decide not to act on those hormonally charged feelings.”

    What do you mean ‘do more’? You mean rape or do you mean show interest.

    If the answer is rape, I hope you seek therapy.

    Like

    • Thank you so much for your reply. I rarely get any replies, so I truly do appreciate it. Sincere conversation is lacking in our society, so thank you for taking the time to engage.

      I agree with you that you can overcome physical urges without the Holy Spirit. God created everyone with a spiritual entity and the understanding of right and wrong (morality), so it is not surprising to see someone who does not believe in a god to still show great self-discipline.

      You answered my question about why deny physical urges with, “Compassion, empathy … .” Why would I care about compassion, empathy, etc.? There is no moral code given to us by the cosmos. The fact that you would suggest that I live with compassion is you creating a religion, an imagined code by which to live.

      On top of that, I can easily secretly cheat on my wife and still be compassionate, empathetic, etc. So those moral values do not stop me from cheating on my wife. I could even justify that it would be better for my wife if I allowed myself to release sexual tension elsewhere.

      You replied that you are glad that I am not an atheist because as one I would conclude that my pleasure is the primary thing for which I should live. How could you possibly tell me I am wrong on that conclusion? What else is there to live for if not for pleasure? I am sure you know that my conclusion is the same conclusion as many atheistic philosophers. We could go back even further, but let us just start with Epicurus.

      By “do more” I mean anything more. It could be conversation which leads to touching, which leads to intercourse. Why should I deny these feelings? Also, why would rape need therapy? Again, does the cosmos tell us that rape is wrong? No. It does not tell us anything. You want me to go to therapy because I do not think like you. That is rather religious of you. We see rape in the animal kingdom. Why should we not act that way? Can you really tell me that we are called to some invisible “higher calling” or responsibility?

      Like

      • “Thank you so much for your reply. I rarely get any replies, so I truly do appreciate it. Sincere conversation is lacking in our society, so thank you for taking the time to engage.”

        You’re welcome and thanks for the reply.

        “Why would I care about compassion, empathy, etc.?”

        Because you’re human and most of us do. It’s hardwired into us. We have the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel compassion for other conscious entities.

        “There is no moral code given to us by the cosmos. The fact that you would suggest that I live with compassion is you creating a religion, an imagined code by which to live.”

        No it isn’t a religion. You can try not doing it but society will give you a consequence. Do it enough and you will be thrown in prison, something America is very good at doing with it’s super high incarceration rate.

        “On top of that, I can easily secretly cheat on my wife and still be compassionate, empathetic, etc. So those moral values do not stop me from cheating on my wife. I could even justify that it would be better for my wife if I allowed myself to release sexual tension elsewhere.”

        You could cheat on your wife but then empathy would likely kick in and you’d realize you wouldn’t like it if she cheated on you.

        If she found out, you would hurt her and I’m guessing that isn’t something that appeals to you.

        You also might lose a lot when or if your wife decides to sue for divorce.

        Lots of reasons not to cheat right there and there’s many more but none of them have to do with an invisible man in the sky.

        “I could even justify that it would be better for my wife if I allowed myself to release sexual tension elsewhere.”

        Some people do make this case and they’re in open relationships. That’s up to you and your wife to decide, not god.

        “How could you possibly tell me I am wrong on that conclusion? What else is there to live for if not for pleasure?”

        Because you could possibly cause a lot of pain and suffering to happen to other conscious beings. See above.

        If the only thing stopping you from raping and murdering for pleasure is the idea that an invisible man is watching you, then by all means keep believing that.

        “I am sure you know that my conclusion is the same conclusion as many atheistic philosophers.”

        Philosophy is looking at things in different ways and even unpopular ways. It doesn’t necessarily draw conclusions but is more about posing the questions.

        Atheist philosophers don’t speak for me.

        “Also, why would rape need therapy? Again, does the cosmos tell us that rape is wrong? No. It does not tell us anything”

        The cosmos isn’t. People are. Hopefully you feel the same way or you’re a rape bomb waiting to go off.

        It disgusts me to think you don’t understand why rape would need therapy. I hope you’re asking that rhetorically.

        “No. It does not tell us anything. You want me to go to therapy because I do not think like you. That is rather religious of you.”

        It is not religious in the least to think that someone contemplating rape might want to talk to a therapist.

        I’m not sure why you keep trying to brand me religious when I’m nothing of the sort

        “We see rape in the animal kingdom. Why should we not act that way? Can you really tell me that we are called to some invisible “higher calling” or responsibility?”

        We see all sorts of things in the animal kingdom which does not mean we have to practice it. In some cases, humans do practice it. We have rapists, but the majority do not think it’s right to rape someone and the law reflects that.

        Like

      • Thank you again for responding. Fun times. Good conversation.

        You replied to my question about why I should care about compassion etc., with, ” Because you’re human and most of us do. It’s hardwired into us. …” The problem with that statement is that there are many other things that are hardwired into us. Things like greed, lust, envy, hatred, fear. Certainly everybody experiences these feelings as well. Why not give into them? Why is compassion, empathy, etc., better than our other feelings?

        I would imagine your reply to that would be similar to what you already said, “You can try not doing it but society will give you a consequence.” The problem with this answer is that morality is based on what is acceptable in a culture. If greed, lust, etc., were acceptable in another culture, who are you to tell them they are wrong? What if rape was acceptable in our culture? Could you possibly say it is wrong? Again, it seems as if you are creating a religion and telling other people they ought to abide by your rules of how humans should live.

        I do not believe your definition of philosophy is accurate. Philosophy certainly leads to conclusions. Whether you know it or not, everything you are concluding right now comes from a philosophy. Another word for philosophy would be “worldview”. I also would be willing to bet that there are atheist philosophers that speak for you. You sound a lot like the “new atheists” out there (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins … ). Have you read/listened to them? I am willing to bet you get a lot of your ideas from them.

        You said I should not cheat on my wife because it could cause pain. “What if” is a poor argumentation. “What if” does not make something in itself right or wrong. If I got away with it and never caused pain, then seemingly according to you, I did not actually do anything wrong.

        Your statement, “The cosmos isn’t. People are.” is rather telling. What I meant by “cosmos” is the natural world. Certainly the natural world is. The natural world does not instruct us on morality. From an atheistic perspective, morality is an imagined creation of humans. Morality does not exist in the natural world. By creating morality, we have created something that does not physically exist. Creating morality and insisting that others abide by our standards of morality is creating religion.

        People do exist. But why should we care about people? Just because they exist does not mean they deserve respect. Trees are made of the same stuff we are and yet we cut them down to suit our own purposes. Are people your gods?

        I could go further with this reasoning. When we eventually create Artificial Intelligence and if it decides to use us for its own purposes like it did in “The Matrix”? Would it be wrong to? Or would it simply be doing what is best for itself and its species, so it is not doing anything wrong?

        Parts of your reasoning is somewhat circular or begging the question. For instance, you could not tell me why rape is wrong, you just insist that it is. That is like me not telling you how God exists, I just insist that He does. Or it is like me telling you that you need to see a therapist since you cannot see how God exists.

        I agree with your statement, “We see all sorts of things in the animal kingdom which does not mean we have to practice it.” However, you have to justify from an atheistic perspective why I should not practice it. You may believe it is wrong to practice it, but why should I listen to you?

        Like

  2. Thank you Curtis for another thought provoking post. It has lead me to think about several important ideas that I had not thought about recently. I’d like to share a few of my thoughts this article inspired.

    Self Discipline
    – I see several types of self discipline — those needed for work and family life habits — and those needed to live in a civil society — for me, both of these are secular.

    – I’m reminded of how profound the ancient Greeks were in discussing the Virtues — for example: prudence (discipline oneself through reason), and temperance (voluntary self restraint).

    – You wrote of the need ‘to obtain an adequate level of self-discipline’ — for me, this triggered a hesitation in following your train of thought — I’m skeptical about other’s deciding for me what this level is.

    American Culture
    – Our medical institutions (and doctors) were once viewed as an important pillar supporting a person’s holistic well being (physical, mental, communal). Clearly today that is no longer the case. Hopefully a move to universal healthcare will help.

    – Our overt cultural focus seems mainly to promote consumption and physical beauty — ideas like self-discipline and thoughtfulness are often portrayed as less attractive or even dismissed as solely for those of us unfortunate intellectuals.

    – You write that introspection is not American. To some extent, lack of introspection exists in all countries/cultures.

    – A great example of our society’s lack of self discipline is our inability to control guns.

    Depression – I do not believe depression is primarily caused (resolved) by lack of self discipline. It is a much more complicated condition.

    Thanks again for your writing,
    John

    Like

    • Great to see your comment, John.

      I agree that lack of introspection exists in all other countries. After all, all other countries are made up of humans. But the reason I limited it to America is because America is really the only society of which I have relatively good knowledge.

      I agree that depression MAY not be primarily caused by lack of self-discipline. However, I do believe that it could be the primary reason, and I definitely believe that it is a tributary when it is not the primary reason.

      Yes, the Greek philosophers were quite the fascinating group. What I hoped I showed a little bit is that virtue cannot be justified in an atheistic perspective. What I mean by justified is that virtue cannot be seen as an essential to all humans. Plenty of humans have lived quite flourishing lives without virtue. So why bother with virtue if one can live well without it?

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s