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Thoughts on “You lack discipline”

Twits on Twitter bang on a lot about ‘discipline’. Such inanities as ‘if you don’t finish lockdown with a new skill, you didn’t lack time, you lacked discipline’. That is possibly true for some people, but such an appallingly crass statement that I wonder at the capacity some people have for smugly standing in judgement over people about whom they know precisely nothing. They are also crassly ignorant of the nature of discipline. Specifically self-discipline, which I think of as the capacity for doing what you don’t want to for the sake of a larger goal. Getting up early to exercise, for instance. You don’t like the getting up early, but you do want to be fitter. Here’s the thing: self-discipline, like courage, and like physical strength, is a finite resource that must be regularly replenished. You absolutely can train your self-discipline to get stronger, in the same way that you train for muscular strength. When training for strength, you stress the muscle to the point where it is forced to adapt, then you give it TIME TO ADAPT BEFORE STRESSING IT AGAIN. 

Sorry about the shouty caps, but this seems to be something that nobody online is getting. If your day consists of constant demands on your self-discipline, putting your kids’ needs ahead of your own, placating your equally-stressed boss, figuring out how the hell you’re going to find time to get the groceries and worse the money to pay for them, then in essence, you’re curling dumbbells all day. If this goes on too long, you don’t get stronger, you break.

This phenomenon is well studied, well understood, and has been for a century: soldiers in the First World War might have been incredibly brave (and many were) but leave them at the front too long, and they broke. This is no reflection on their bravery. It’s only a reflection on bad management, and bad leadership.

The current situation of massive physical uncertainty (who will die? My family? My friends? Me?), and massive economic uncertainty, places people under an extraordinary level of stress. Extraordinary for us, but actually very common in human history. We have the spiritual muscles to handle this kind of thing, but for most of us, that muscle has been very under-trained for most of our pampered lives. It’s like taking someone who has never run further than the end of the road and making them run a marathon, every day.

The key de-stressors, historically, have been (as Tom Hodgkinson conceptualised in Brave Old World) philosophy, husbandry, and merriment. Probably the most useful philosophical stance at the moment is Stoicism. This way of thinking has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last decade or so, and there are a plethora of books about it. The trouble is, the time to train for this situation was last year. So it’s worth looking into if you have the spoons for it, but don’t spend your spoons until you’ve built up a goodly supply.

Husbandry is simpler- you have no choice but to feed and clothe yourself and your dependents. But here’s a very useful bit of advice a good friend gave me in times of trouble: look after yourself. Because if you break, you can’t look after anyone else. Meaningful work and helping others both fall into this category. 

With the right philosophical framework and sufficient husbandry, you’ll be ok. But to thrive, you absolutely must include merriment. That’s the hardest thing to arrange in times like these, but if you want to be resilient, to replenish your reserves of self-discipline, you need doses of merriment above all. Merriment usually involves other people, laughing, singing, going to a gig, going to a party, getting happy-drunk in company, not sullen-drunk alone.  Something that makes you laugh until you can’t stand it. Silly banter with friends. Fun and connection. Distraction is a very pale substitute. Watching a tv show you enjoy is better than nothing, but it’s the spiritual recovery equivalent of a brief sit-down between laps, when what you need is a good night’s sleep. We’re very lucky (on many counts, but especially) because both my kids can get on a comic roll and make us all laugh till we practically puke. So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create a communal experience (over videochat if you live alone), in which you and at least one other person you care about have fun, whatever fun is for you.

It’s certainly true that self-discipline can make the difference between getting to the end of the lockdown healthier than when you started it, or much worse off. But it’s not an innate trait, it’s a skill to be learned and a strength to be acquired. And as with any skill, and any strength, rest is part of training.

And speaking of discipline, and fun:

Who knew this was a thing?

I hope this helps! If you have any thoughts or questions, let me know in the comments below. And if you think your friends may find this useful, feel free to share.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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