Discipline and truth, force and natural inclination.

Should you force yourself to something, or let it come naturally? Is force discipline, or is it artificiality?

If I don’t like to study or work or exercise, and yet think it’s something I ought to do, then the question of force arises. Someone who studies without liking it one bit might be ‘disciplined’.

Discipline usually carries a positive connotation – it’s something you often hear people wish they had more of. But there’s a negative side to discipline too. That it’s artificiality, brainwashing, or worse, self-flagellation, to convince yourself to do what you don’t want, under the illusion you ‘should’ want it.

All the examples I took – to study, or work, or exercise – are all ‘hard’ things. Perhaps, many would say ‘boring’ things too. Which is why the question of discipline arises – to push oneself towards them, despite resistance, if you think the long run benefit is worth the short term cost. You wouldn’t find people ‘disciplining’ themselves to indulge in momentary joys, to eat cake or watch TV.

If it’s not hard – if I enjoy it – then I don’t need to push. It’s possible that what’s hard for me is easy and fun for someone else. Some people do genuinely enjoy the things most of us find difficult or uninteresting. But ignoring such cases, we come back to the question of force, of discipline.

An excess of discipline, and I never do what I want, only what I think I should want. But devoid of discipline, you have wayward dissipatedness, ever given to indulging in momentary joys.

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”

Take writing. I might have nothing to write about, yet hold myself to a rigid timeline, that I must write every week or every month. That is to write for the sake of it, with nothing to say, but feeling I must write something.

Incidentally, that’s the impression I notice I usually get from marketers and ‘growth hackers’ on LinkedIn – contrived posts, desperate to be engaging or interesting, written because you’re supposed to churn one out every X days to stay relevant.

But it could just be that the very act of sitting down to write can bring to mind something worth writing about. In Pasteur’s words, “chance favors the prepared mind“. Expecting ideas to drop in on me of themselves, without me making an effort, is asking for too much.

The alternative is to write when you feel like, believing that to do otherwise is to artificialize your writing. Of course, I might never feel like though. Besides, such lofty principles might be convenient only for dilettantes like myself; those who make their living writing typically can’t afford to be so snooty. If we applied the same standard to every work, very few jobs would remain. Can an athlete only train when the mood strikes? Or a doctor or engineer or lawyer work only when they feel like?

To exaggerate slightly, it’s a conflict between discipline and ‘truth’. Truth being what I really want to do – at this very moment – and discipline what I think I should do. Taking a long term meaning of the word ‘want’ – what I really want is not what I want at this moment, but what I want over my life – might go some way toward resolving this conflict.

It’s arguing that those who prioritize health over the immediate gratification of junk food choose sprouts over ice-cream (let’s say type A people), those who don’t, choose ice-cream (type B), and both abide by their truths. If there is such a one who wants ice-cream but picks sprouts, you might say he chooses discipline over truth (but to an outside observer, he’s no different from type A). There might even be someone who wants sprouts but chooses ice-cream (perhaps everyone’s having ice-cream and he doesn’t want to be the odd one out) – another one who chooses something else over his truth.

There’s another dilemma of the conflict between force and truth – happiness. All too often, you hear happiness is a choice, a skill, something you choose to be. And it is true, I think, but it’s not the whole truth.

A corollary is that happiness is objective, not dependent on circumstances or possessions. You can have everything and not be happy, or have nothing and be happy. Of course, it’s probably better to have something and be happy – only a renunciate could honestly disagree.

If happiness is a choice, then it makes sense to choose to be happy. Why would anyone not want to be happy? Unless they’re happier not being happy, or even being unhappy (not being happy needn’t imply being unhappy), in which case they still are happy, even if unhappily so.

Nevertheless, let’s assume there is such a person, who believes he isn’t happy, or at least that there’s something lacking in the happiness department. Where does one go from here – assuming that one wants to go somewhere, rather than remain where they are. One route is the happiness as a choice route – that I tell myself that it’s only in my mind, not in circumstances – that I can choose the happiness I want.

The alternative is to acknowledge the deficiency, accept it exists, and identify the causes. Does it make sense to be unhappy about it? I think not; unhappiness as a general state of mind is allowing one specific grievance to inflate and expand to determine your entire mood and mindset. But neither, I think, does it make sense to ignore the grievance one has and attempt to manipulate one’s mind, to convince yourself that yes, you’re happy, to just look at the millions with nothing who can still be happy, why can’t you?

Force would be to seek to ‘will’ myself to happiness, tell myself I must be stoic or zen – even if I’m not. At its saddest, it might be resigning oneself to one’s fate; at its worst, it’s a stoic pseudo-wisdom. Truth would be to acknowledge and accept what I am, though perhaps not make it more than what it is, not exaggeratedly mould one source of ire into a grim life. It’s after you identify truth that you can think about acting on it, about working on what it is that’s the cause of discontent.

It’s when there’s nothing you can do about the situation – think Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz – that truth and force bring you to the same conclusion. But when it’s not out of my control – and it usually isn’t, I suppose – then picking force over truth might not be my best response.