Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pondering the value and dangers of self-discipline

I often think that anything worthwhile I’ve achieved in my life, I’ve achieved mainly through self-discipline.

For example, while preparing to write law school exams, I did little besides study for months at a time and, as a result, graduated with first class honours. Similarly, in the face of ever increasing social pressure to buy stuff I don’t need, I’ve instead chosen to live more modestly than I need to, so that I walk more lightly on the planet and provide greater financial support to the people and organizations I care about.

Currently, the goals on which I’m most focussed are to run the Chicago marathon in a “personal best” time and to raise money for cancer research. If I achieve them, it will be because I’ve spent 5 months of my life closely adhering to the toughest training and fundraising program I’ve ever followed, sometimes to the detriment of other important aspects of my life.

In personal and professional relationships, too, I’ve come to believe that self-discipline is key. I genuinely believe that, ultimately, it is only I who determines how I will respond to any situation. No one else can make me feel or think or behave in a particular way. It’s up to me to decide how I want to respond, and then to exert the self-discipline needed to respond in that way – even when I am most tempted to do otherwise.

But then there are the dangers of self-discipline. Applied too rigidly, it can result in lost opportunities to savour life. Focussed on a goal, or on the effort to conform to expectations, I have sometimes concluded, quite wrongly, that there isn’t time to give my cats the attention they want, be with friends, gaze at the stars, go for a run, or admire a piece of artwork.

The truth is that life has very little meaning and joy for me if I am so self-disciplined – so distracted by thoughts of the goals I want to achieve, and the ways I should behave – that I no longer see, touch, smell, taste and feel this moment, and all the other individual moments that make up my life.

Given that, it seems to me the trick is to temper self-discipline with a loving and open-hearted approach to experiencing the world and interacting with others. Self-discipline makes it possible to achieve worthwhile things, and to behave in thoughtful and responsible ways. But I don’t want it to interfere (at least, too often) with my ability to taste delicious food, appreciate the beauty of nature, revel in a piece of music, feel the strength of my body as I run, or love other people – however incautiously. Beauty, joy and love are all far too precious to waste.