“He that would be superior to external influences must first become superior to his own passions” (Samuel Johnson).
LIFE PRESENTS US WITH NO GREATER CHALLENGE THAN WHEN IT ASKS US TO DISCIPLINE OURSELVES. There aren’t many good things that can be accomplished without self-mastery, but this kind of discipline is as difficult as it is important. To learn to discipline ourselves effectively, we must usually pass through a painful apprenticeship. Most of us will fail frequently before we master the ability to channel our abilities in consistently good directions.
Too often, we spend our training energies learning nothing more than how to do what we want to do. Having learned that, we then insist on the right to do what we want. But as Aristotle pointed out, “What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” The highest form of discipline is the ability to refrain from doing what we might do in order to achieve goals consistent with what we ought to do. Just because a thing can be done, that doesn’t mean it should be done. Discipline knows the difference. It’s able to subordinate impulse to principle. It knows what to put in — and also what to leave out.
Things like self-esteem and self-respect are high priorities with most people. In view of that, it’s ironic that self-discipline is not valued any more than it is. Folks who’ve been down the road far enough to know what works in life and what doesn’t all report that it’s impossible to like ourselves if we don’t discipline ourselves. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, said, “Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”
So the ability to govern ourselves is critical. But as we said at the beginning, it’s very difficult. It’s not a skill learned overnight, but one that comes from growth and training. We need to get in the game and start learning discipline, but we also need to be patient with ourselves.
The main thing is to choose what we want from life. This sounds simple, but there aren’t many people in the world who have done it. We can have nearly anything we want, but not everything we want. Some choices have to be made. Some things have to be given up. Don’t let your life be marred by things you’re too weak to let go of.
“Discipline is remembering what you want” (David Campbell).