13 January 2008

Discipline Vs. Desire – Is Discipline Really Such an Omnipotent Virtue?

Most things in our life require balance. It’s a strange fact that is seemingly always the case. Even something often viewed as a virtue such as self-discipline can be overdosed on. You may well know some people who suffer this, they are typically crazily controlled, or if not they wish and strive to be, they live life in an extreme manner and grant themselves little emotional outlet. Typically these controlled people are also very rational in how they act and think, they almost always tend to deny their emotions. Thus it comes as no surprise that these people also have bad-habits which they probably wish they could curb, as a result of their emotions trying to vent themselves.

My now deceased Polish grandfather comes first to mind for me. He was a scientist, an engineer and a rather accomplished one at that. There’s even a nice photo of him and the queen which I have somewhere. The point is that the man was no idiot in terms of rational intelligence. He was the chief engineer of the snowy mountains hydro scheme and did a whole array of other projects. He managed to live through the great depression and then through WWII despite being captured by the Nazi’s on two separate occasions. He led…an interesting life. However he did like his alcohol, and he always seemed to be rather uptight and angry. Maybe it was just that he was old, but I don’t think this really explains it. He was a man of rigid habits and never really changed his attitudes. He was also notoriously stubborn and would always argue with my mother whenever she tried to help him. In a nutshell he tried mostly to think rationally and as such led a controlled life, one in which his emotions were all pent up in a corner. Needless to say I don’t think he ever really enjoyed life quite as much as he could have.

My grandfather was however a man of great self-discipline in that he would do things even though he didn’t want to, he forced himself to do certain things. His stubborn nature is undoubtedly connected to this fact. However the act of self-discipline is actually very repressive and tends to only bring short-term results. Over disciplining oneself leads to an unhappy controlled life, which typically leads peoples shunned emotions to try and express themselves, hence my grandfather's fondness of alcohol. Theodor Adorno said of self-discipline: “Work while you work, play while you play - this is a basic rule of repressive self-discipline.” But why can’t we enjoy work and be productive when we play?

What I’m getting at is despite what some think we are not purely rational beings, we are not machines, nor were we meant to be. Despite the fact that working for 12 hours everyday 356 days a year would make a lot more money than only working 8 five times a week, its just simply not easy to sustain that sort of activity, we sort of emotionally overheat. Let's say you wanted to get good at tennis and you were a machines, you could easily see the benefit in playing tennis literally almost all your waking hours, short of basic things such as resting, refuelling and maybe watching some tennis games to learn from opponents. However as humans we are not machines. Even notice that the process of eating was referred to as “refuelling” rather than having an enjoyable meal. Even something as nice as food loses its enjoyment and becomes instead a way of furthering the mechanical tennis player’s ability to play good tennis.

Unfortunately we as a species seem to think largely in rational terms. Emotions have been seen as unwanted, undesirable and simply an obstacle to being able to rationally accomplish things. However while rationality may allow us to find out that X does Y and generally speaking make sense of many of life’s mysterious phenomena it is emotion that gives us the curiosity and drive to discover that in the first place! A purely rational being would, in my opinion, have absolutely no desire to do anything, and therefore would not. Phew, I’m certainly glad I’ve got emotions now. Emotions need not be bad, as they are so often viewed. They can be extremely helpful as well, as if you simply enjoy playing tennis all day then its hardly a chore for you at all is it?

This is where the article starts to attack the question, is self-discipline ultimate? Let me firstly define discipline as the ability to make yourself do things. The fact that you need to make yourself do something typically means you don’t really have a drive to do it, but your make yourself anyway. An example would be that discipline is partly what makes us get up and go to work to pay the rent, even if we don’t want to (although you could say necessity is involved, but that in turn is then operated upon by discipline). Admittedly some discipline is needed as there is no way we can enjoy every thing we do in life, but surely we can make some activities more enjoyable, in turn making them easier to commit to and thus making them require less discipline!

I think you see were I’m going with this right? Take the example of Bob, John and Tim:

Bob goes through life forcing himself to do things (i.e.being disciplined) and even if he does end up being successful leads a rather unhappy life. Most likely Bob won’t even be successful because he’ll become depressed and run out of steam, as even the most disciplined person in the world is still only human. This doesn’t seem like the way to be now does it?

In contrast Tim has absolutely no discipline and never gets things done. He is unable to do things other than those things he really enjoys, and while he may do these well as discipline never factors in when doing them, the simple fact is that he hasn’t showered for three years because he can’t bring himself to. Hmm, Tim really doesn’t seem much better off that Bob, although he may be a little happier, but even that is dubious given that he is so out of tune with reality.

John is our middleman, so to speak. John has found a balance between discipline and desire. John gets up and goes to work, which he enjoys and seldom feels he needs to force himself to do it. Occasionally there are bad days however, but he has enough sense to employ discipline in some cases such as those bad days and manages to convince himself to go to work. He also manages to unstack the dishwasher despite it not being the most exciting thing to do in the world, as he realises that it is simply something that needs doing, and he disciplines himself to do it. However as much as possible John tries not to view things in terms of “must”, but rather in terms of “would like to”. He replaces the imperative of doing a task, with a desire to do the task regardless of whether it needs be done or not. Take John’s job for example. He doesn’t like to think of needing to go to work to earn money to survive, rather he thinks of wanting to go to work to get money to survive. This tiny change in the choice of how life is formulated makes a world full of difference and as such John enjoys most of life, and as such has little need for strict discipline. Instead he does largely what he desires, and gets by fine like that.

So, have you gotten the general gist of things yet? Essentially I will admit that discipline is necessary, indeed useful, particularly for certain things that just have to be done, whether we want to or not. However the secret to not needing discipline to any great deal, while also simply enjoying life more is simply to do what you love, and love what you do. Of course there is always some difficulty here. If you work in a really bad job maybe it will be impossible to learn to enjoy it, maybe therefore you should change jobs. However often a simple change of perspective can change your mood for you! Looking at things as things you choose to do and wish to do, over things you are forced to do is a great start.

The ideal life is of course to live as the hypothetical John does. Some discipline for the days and occasions you require it and for when the going gets tough, but otherwise doing things not out of necessity and self-discipline but rather a desire to do whatever it is that needs doing. As our example showed the theory of balance triumphs again! Those Buddhists and their theory of ““The Middle Way:”” are certainly onto something, I will no doubt have to investigate it further myself. But take it from me, I will enjoy researching into it, indeed I will go so far as to say I desire to do just that, in turn it won’t really require much in the way of self-discipline to do!

1 comment:

CG Walters said...

John Butler Yeats (father of W. B.): "By logic and reason, we die hourly. By imagination, we live."

Thank you, Samuel.
Peace and wonder,

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