Why is it that ‘discipline’ so often seems like little more than 2½ four-letter words? Or the rebuke of stern punishment? Or behavior as tightly controlled as a bank teller’s drawer? Why is it that typing this singular word into a Google search yields an overwhelming number of articles about disciplining children? Why is it that self-discipline more often than not evokes giving up statin-inducing cheesecake and excessive beer and lazy workdays?
Because that’s where human instinct would have us go. Yet the absence of discipline yields little more than galling gluttony. The hard-to-digest fact—counterintuitive as it may initially seem—is that the joy of discipline is far more sustaining than pleasures as easy to obtain as pints of ice cream or Scotch. Take any kind of work (another four-letter word, but that’s for another time…) that you love and are highly motivated to achieve, then measure how it feels after four or five solid hours of intense work. Exhausted? Sure. Exhilarated? Equally sure.
This realization—coupled with its acceptance and implementation—has far-reaching practical significance covering a wide swath of society’s perpetual problems, from crime, violence and prejudice to addiction, obesity and debt. Disease is also an avenue that forces self-discipline, when the survival instinct has the dominant say. US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor reveals it both plainly and profoundly:
My diabetes is such a central part of my life. It did teach me discipline. It also taught me about moderation. I’ve trained myself to be super-vigilant… because I feel better when I am in control.
Is there any downside to a thinner waistline, a healthier heart and lungs, increased knowledge, relentless curiosity? Are those not in fact highly palatable goals? All living beings, it seems, are prone to indulge if given the chance, no doubt a remnant of literally having to kill for that day’s food centuries ago, when a walk into a supermarket or grocery store was as inconceivable as airplane travel. There is great freedom in self-control, in discipline, whereas canceling the checks and balances that keep us healthy and persevering and learning and growing and maturing results in little more than an overdrawn body and a poverty of new brain cells.
Yet start to accrue interest beyond the body’s insatiable pleasure centers and taste what really lasts. Take account of what a productive life means—on our children, our society, our resources, our law and 24 other ours—to learn that language, make that discovery, help those people, donate to that charity, mentor that student, build those bridges, love that neighbor.
And in return? The abundance of discipline yields a level of gratitude and humility, concurrent with a denial of excess, that offers hope to the body and brain while palpably counteracting our otherwise cutthroat world.