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.)
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?