Don’t be an army of one
Military tradition has long understood that long before you can hope to control others, you have to have the ability to control yourself. One source of ancient Jewish wisdom, called Ethics of The Fathers, teaches that true strength isn’t forcing our will onto others as much as it is conquering our own weaknesses. Its fourth chapter opens by asking this question: “Who is mighty?” The Biblically correct answer turns out to be, “He who has mastered the ability to control himself.”
The great English poet, John Milton, expressed this idea beautifully when he wrote about Oliver Cromwell.
“He first acquired the government of himself, and over himself acquired the most signal victories, so that on the first day he took the field against the external enemy, he was a veteran in arms…”
John Milton was actually very well versed in ancient Jewish wisdom and was certainly influenced by Ethics of The Fathers.
As we approach Veterans Day, we come face-to-face with an unintended consequence of ending the draft in the United States. Each year, the gap grows between Americans who know and honor members of the military and those who don’t. As such, most boys who would benefit from military discipline and training don’t even consider the option of enlisting—it simply isn’t part of their consciousness. A traditional avenue of growth that has done so much for so many is not even considered. (Of course, it doesn’t help that too many in the higher echelons of the military and in Congress seem intent on feminizing and weakening the institution.)
Nonetheless, unlike animals, we humans are healthiest when we strive for discipline and growth. Healthy individuals are tormented by deep subconscious anguish at the gap between what we are and what we could be. This deep self-awareness resides in the soul and is one of the best indicators of the soul’s existence.
Unless that desire for improvement has been drummed out of us, we all know we could become better people. Better spouses, better parents, better siblings, better employees or employers, or better friends. We know we could be thinner and healthier. We know we could be more prosperous as well as more generous.
What is more, it isn’t difficult to know exactly how to achieve these longed-for goals. To be better spouses we need to be more thoughtful, giving, predictable, and cheerful. In order to become better parents, we need to be more patient and consistent. Becoming a better friend, a better employee or better sibling isn’t hard. In order to be thinner and healthier we need to eat and exercise wisely.
A little thought will reveal exactly what we need to do. None of these areas of self-improvement for which we yearn involves inscrutable mystery. We know what to do in order to achieve the ends we desire, so why don’t we just do it?
It is clear that with a bit more self-discipline, we could do what we know we ought to do. That leaves the question of how to acquire more self-discipline (other than enlisting). The answer is that we must treat this mission as a war, and, as in all wars, we must know our enemy. Who is your enemy? Who thwarts your ambitions and obstructs the path to your dreams more than anyone else? The person whose name appears on your driving licence. Yes, that’s right—you!
You are your own worst enemy. But at the same time you are also your own strongest ally. As strange as this may seem, in order to truly change, you need to start seeing yourself as two people. One of you is all wise, all rational and always dedicated to the long term good. That’s your soul. The other one of you tries to talk you into short term delights. That is your body. Think of yourself as Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket wrapped up in one human body. The only question is who is going to lead?
Learning to see yourself in this split fashion is the giant key to self-discipline, the avenue to knowing how to lead yourself.
One part of you is encouraging you to do what you know you ought to be doing. At exactly the same moment, the second part of your makeup is feverishly trying to come up with excuses and persuade you to rather do what you feel like doing. What a simple and true explanation for the turmoil that we all feel when confronted with certain choices. By understanding this crucial insight and, more importantly, putting it to use, not only can you expect to dramatically increase your self-control, you can also confidently anticipate saving yourself thousands of dollars in therapy fees.
When we follow our hearts instead of our heads, our bodies instead of our souls, our inner Pinocchio beats up our Jiminy Cricket. Is there anything we can do to give an advantage to Jiminy Cricket? As usual, Abraham, the father of monotheism, offers some advice. The fourteenth chapter of Genesis describes a war in which Abraham defeats the enemies of the king of Sodom and liberates many captives. The monarch offers Abraham all the spoils of the war provided he can reclaim his subjects (Genesis 14:21). Not wanting to give the Sodomite sovereign the opportunity of boasting how he had enriched him, Abraham demurs and spurns the gifts.
However, he didn’t just say, “No thanks.” Instead, Abraham goes through an elaborate ritual of lifting his hand toward heaven and vowing that he will take nothing. In other words, he knew how difficult it would be to resist the temptation of instant wealth so he invoked the assistance of an ally—God. Abraham knew that he couldn’t be sure that he would never let himself down, but he felt reasonably confident that he would not let God down. That is why he brought God in on his resolution, converting his resolution into a vow.
The soul’s constant struggle for dominance over the body is nearly always doomed without an ally. Another human being can be an enormous help, as comrades in arms know. For we civilians, letting a friend know of our struggles and attempts to overcome them can help us keep our commitments to ourselves. Each of us prefers to retain the regard of our friends and knowing that our friend is watching our resolve can help greatly.
Following Abraham’s lead and involving God in our attempts to grow makes for even a higher probability of durability. If it is just me, I can always rationalize interrupting my diet regimen with a quick midnight trip to the refrigerator. If doing so will disappoint my friend in whom I confided my determination to lose weight, I am strengthened in my ability to ignore the summons of my stomach enzymes as they try to tug me to that refrigerator. If, in addition to confiding in my friend who may be oblivious of my late-night culinary excursion, I have promised God who knows all, during my prayers that I would honor my body by losing weight, that midnight food foraging expedition becomes unthinkable.
When a country’s citizens lack self-control and when their souls are deeply buried in them, that country is in grave danger. We owe thanks to our veterans not only for their service, but also for a reminder of how it is possible for ordinary men and women to submit to strict regulation and commit to a higher cause than themselves. In a time of great self-indulgence, their example should guide us all.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this Thought Tools article.
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We salute all of our veteran’s who fight for and defend our nation’s freedoms.
“…the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.” ~ George S. Patton Jr.
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