posted on March 19, 2017

March 19, 2017

Years ago Nick and I brought our daughter to college for her first year. We were joined on this happy occasion by Nick’s brother Richard and his partner Mikki – a brief family time before Charis got swept into the vortex of campus life.

Richard had attended that very same college in the early 1950s, and he confessed at dinner that he hadn’t done well, although he passed. He wondered aloud what it takes to do well in college. Nick weighed in, as did Mikki. Charis, Richard, Mikki and Nick talked for some time about their ideas of what makes a successful college student. At length, Richard asked me what I thought.

I looked down the table at my dear daughter and said, “To succeed in college you only need to do three things. Go to class. Read the books. Do the work. If you do all three of those things you’ll succeed.”

Everyone laughed. But it’s true. All you have to do is do it.

Would that it were easy to do it.

You won’t be surprised to know that I’ve struggled with my weight for years. In addition to my genetic makeup — which includes a fine appetite, good health, and a very efficient fat-storing metabolism — I have the added challenge of being married to a man who has no trouble with his weight. If he finds that he’s put on a few pounds — as he did when he quit smoking — he just makes a few changes in his diet and poof! Off falls the fat.


I asked him how he gets through from his lunch at about 12:30 to dinner at about 7:30. Seven hours – no food. “What do you eat for lunch that keeps you from being hungry?”

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“You go for seven hours without eating anything – how do you stay full?”
“Oh! I don’t stay full – I’m always a little bit hungry after about 4:00.”

Always a little bit hungry, but not always feeding his face. HMM.

“You mean you don’t have to pick up a box of cookies or crackers or something when you get that sort of hollow feeling?”

“You bet,” he looked at me squarely. “It just takes a little self-discipline.”

I do love my husband, really. But at that very moment…

I’m here to tell you that I’ve looked lng and hard at the issue of self-discipline. On many levels the concept has been my greatest challenge. I’m not by nature a systematic person – though when I find a system that works I use it. But not being naturally systematic, it becomes much too easy to eat too much, exercise too little, waste a lot of time dubbing around and eventually — I found — other areas of life tend to go to seed. When we’re not disciplined, when we’ve let the boundaries of our lives become blurred, when we’re a slave to spontaneity and hanging loose, we can find our relationships in a mess and our lives in a muddle. We can find that we never get to the things we want to do and that some of the things we do on a regular basis we really don’t want to be doing. And we can end up pretty unhappy.

+ + +

Plato divided the soul into three elements — reason, passion and appetite. When these elements are in proper order, he posited, life is good. There must be harmony, he said, among the three elements of the soul to attain the proper order of the soul.

Establishing and maintaining that proper order of the soul, however, is a mighty big job. Our baser instincts work against us — our desires for power, control, and superiority. Or the appetites that drive us to excess in drink or diet, or speed or sex or mind-altering substances or merely one-ups-man-ship, gossip, bigotry, criticism. That wonderful Episcopalian confessional statement is perennially true: “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…”

We also say things we ought not to say, and leave unsaid things which we ought to say. “We have,” as the confession says, “followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…”

But self-discipline is about being your own disciple. It means that we listen to the devices and desires of our deeper hearts, our higher selves. It means that we take the time to listen to and to heed the wisdom within. It means that we follow through with our best intentions — if we mean to do a thing, we make sure it is done. If we mean to stop doing a thing, we make sure we stop.

But how? How do we break bad habits and develop good ones? How, for example, do we stop smoking, or cut calories, or exercise regularly, or refrain from gossip or criticism. How do we become the self-disciplined people we want to be?

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon included that line (that I read was traced back to a 1957 Reader’s Digest article, which attributes it to Allen Saunders, an American writer, journalist and cartoonist who wrote the comic strips Steve Roper and Mike Nomad.) But I digress…

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. This is a clue – something we have to keep in mind if we want to be a little more disciplined in our lives. We have to be able to deal with distractions without losing sight of our plans. We have to decide what is important.

Here’s an example: for several years, while I served the congregation in Vermont, I went to aqua-aerobics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Class began at 9 and ended at 10. I could be showered, dressed and ready to leave there by 10:30 – it suited my schedule very well. But there was a long time when it seemed I couldn’t — Couldn’t! — get going to leave the house in time with my swimsuit, towels, soap, shampoo and a change of clothes. Something would always distract me and I’d see that I had let time slip away and it was too late to make it worth my while to go.

I really liked the class and I needed it. Exercise is just as important as sleeping and eating! Why was I being so neglectful of my own well-being? Why was I not listening to my own wise self, who just kept saying, make it happen!

What I needed was a plan. A system. A rule that prevented me from getting distracted so that I didn’t get to my class. I thought about what was most often the roadblock. EMAIL! And I realized that I could not boot up the computer before my class. If I looked at messages I would be compelled to respond. And you know once you start reading emails you are down the rabbit hole. Time disappears. Same with the Dread Facebook.

So I make a rule. NO COMPUTER UNTIL AFTER CLASS! I had to put a big note on the computer. It said NOT UNTIL YOU’VE EXERCISED! And I had to practice every day for a while before I really built that discipline into my life.

Now I have several times during the week when I don’t look at email – Sunday mornings being one of them. Because long ago on a Sunday morning when I found I had a little extra time,  I opened an email that was full of vitriol and I carried my upset-ness into the pulpit with me. Not good. So no email before church …

Doesn’t it seem simple? Don’t do that which will draw you into an activity that will delay what you really want to do or what you know you have to do!

Simple – yes. Easy, not so much.
When I was in college I practiced Transcendental Meditation with others in my dorm. We met in my room one week and in their room, another. When I was hosting, I just stopped whatever I was doing when they showed up, easy-peasy. They were always at my door at 5:00, before supper.

You know what I’m going to say – when it was their turn to host I was often late. This really annoyed them! They started coming to my room to tell me to come to their room.

That seemed so unfair. Then, genius struck! I set an alarm to go off at 4:55! When it buzzed, I put down whatever I was doing and went over to their room. Magic! I knew if I was working or reading I wouldn’t even look at the clock, but I could respond to the signal, and gladly did. It would have been unkind to continue to be late for meditation – to keep my friends waiting, to be so sloppy about time and relationship.

When we struggle with time like that, it’s probably because we don’t want to pull away from the one thing and move on – maybe we’re not in the mood for the change. This leads me to another clue about becoming more self-disciplined. It has to do with what we feel like doing.

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a sermon. But I really don’t feel like stepping into the pulpit some Sunday morning with nothing prepared! So I know I have to discipline myself to get the sermon written as the week goes by, and I also know that I’m happiest when the sermon is close to ready on Thursday evening. So I carve out times in my other days to jot down notes or start the sermon and I work on Thursday afternoons & evenings to be sure I have done enough respectable work that I can revise on Fridays and be with my family on Saturdays.

I know a few people who really wanted to be writers. One in particular is a cautionary tale for Nick and me – a dear friend who has had extraordinary experiences, who, when she writes, writes with clarity and a fine sensibility. We visited her and she complained that she hasn’t really written what she wants to. She showed us her adorable writing nook, where the right paper and the right pens and pencils are neatly arranged in sweet order. But she has managed in her whole life only to write very good letters to her friends.

“I don’t’ know why I’m not writing,” she said. Nick and I looked at each other and I nodded a very, very subtle nod, and he began. “Do you sit down to write at the same time every day? Do you just write, write, write and not worry about it being crummy? Do you turn off the phone and close the door and let nothing distract you?”

No. No. No.
What I know about writing applies to lots of other things – you can’t wait until you feel like doing them. You can’t wait until you know the product of your efforts is going to be perfect. As Anne Lamott wrote, you have to get that crummy first draft written before you have anything to revise. You have to begin. Goethe is now famous for saying, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.!”

So there are two clues to becoming more disciplined. First – be intentional about removing distractions. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked. Second – begin!

And finally – don’t take on the whole world at once. Don’t promise yourself to walk a mile every day until you have walked around the block once. Start small. Break one little bad habit at a time, add one little good habit.

Oh – and this. Don’t’ allow some vision of perfection get in the way of good-enough! If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly, until you can do it well.


One response to “Self-Discipline”

  1. Maureen Pryor says:

    Thanks, Buffy. All so true and not so easy.