Posted by: davidlarkin | August 23, 2008

Self-Control – A Meditation

Flan, one of my a favorite desserts, he said wistfully . . .

The man who, in opposition to strong temptation, by a noble effort maintains his integrity, is the happiest man on earth. The more severe his conflict has been, the greater is his triumph. The consciousness of inward worth gives strength to his heart, and makes his countenance to shine. Tempests may beat and floods roar; but he stands firm as a rock, in the joy of a good conscience, and confidence of Divine approbation.

from Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, Essay III, “Of the Principles of Action”, Part III, “Of the Rational Principles of Action”, Chap. VII, “Of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation, Sec. 8, “Operations of the faculty called moral sense.” (1788)

A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, Diabetes, type 2. So, for serious health reasons, these days I have to limit my intake of carbohydrates, especially sugar. I now look at desserts and pastries as the enemy.

It is a battle when I visit them — cheese danish, rich chocolate brownies, classic coffee cake, blueberry muffins, petite vanilla scones — an internal debate while I am waiting in line to order my coffee at Starbucks. I have visions of french fries as I drive past a McDonalds, and potato chips, Snickers and ice cream beckon to me as I walk down the aisle to pick up my prescriptions at Walgreens. There is no way to permanently avoid these occasions of sin and temptation. Carbs are ubiquitous.

The health penalty for not avoiding these foods has limited my occasion for having a pastry with coffee, or grabbing a bag of pretzels when I wheel by with my shopping cart, but I do not enjoy the moments when I consider whether to indulge. Fighting the temptation is stressful. The danger of self-deception lurks behind my thoughts in internal debate. If I fall and eat Haagen Dazs, I have convinced myself that I have not had a sweet for a long time, or that I will lay off for a long time in the future. If I do not fall, I leave the occasion feeling good about my self-control.

But what is this self-control?

For some, self-control is found beyond the self. For the Christian, it is spiritual: a conscious and unnatural effort requiring God’s help to avoid temptation or the occasion of sin because sin offends God. Some with addiction problems seek self-control by working the twelve-steps to conquer their addiction, recognizing first, that they are powerless over their addiction, and second, that a higher power of their choosing can provide the necessary power to overcome.

But for anyone, at the natural level of experience, self-control results from a conscious decision to avoid acting in a manner determined to be against one’s self-interest. As a child, while there is a muddling of self-determination and Pavlovian-produced habit, the motivating self-interest is to avoid punishment from a parent. When we leave home, we become interested in avoiding punishment by society, so we avoid criminal acts because we do not want to be arrested and go to jail. We may tell ourselves that it is not fear of punishment, but willing adherence to our personal moral code that causes us to avoid performing anti-social acts. But we really do not know that for a fact because typically we have not been in a position where we know without doubt that we can act badly without consequences.

We do not know how we would behave given the opportunity to act without jeopardy. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues to Socrates that man’s nature is to act unjustly, a vision of the nature of man similar to the Christian view of original sin. We cannot help ourselves in desiring to act unjustly because it is natural. Glaucon uses the myth of Gyges to illustrate his belief that it is fear of being caught which motivates us not to act badly, our natural inclination:

Now that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result — when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers — on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

Plato’s Republic, Bk II (359c-360d)

Gyges is able to carry out without penalty those dark thoughts that spring forth into consciousness from beneath because he is invisible. We are not invisible, but we have the thoughts and desires to do wrong. We must exercise self-control to regulate our behavior, or pay the consequences. Regardless of what may motivate us to exercise self-control, what means do we have to limit our desires? As creatures of habit, if our desires are habitual, we can change our habits. Although our objects of self-control are commonly more than mere habits of movement, the fact that we can consciously train our bodies and change our habits of movement should encourage us that we can do the same with complex desires. Our desires unchecked activate the motor system of the brain when desires become movement, i.e., eye to cookie, desire enters consciousness, mindless instruction to hand, hand takes cookie, puts in mouth, chewing, and conscious reaction emotion of guilt follows.

To change a habit of physical movement, the motor systems in the brain that manage movement and habitual movement patterns must be reworked. When I was beginning my acting classes at the Loft Studio in Hollywood in the 80s, our teacher, William Traylor, told us stand in a line facing him and relax. Then we were each asked why do you have your hands in your pockets, or why are you holding the wrist of one arm with the hand of the other, or why are your arms crossed? None of us stood with our hands at our sides. He told us that we must train ourselves to keep our hands at our sides.

The body is naturally uncomfortable with the hands. We don’t know what to do with them so we put them in our pockets or clasp them together, anything but drop them to our sides. You can tell if an actor in a film is professionally trained if their hands drop naturally to their sides. Once the actor has made the words his own, the power of the words dominate, and any hand movements will be appropriately chosen and controlled by the actor and will have power when made, rather than distracting from speech. Obviously, the point was to get control of the arms and hands, not to act at all times with hands at the side. After being taught this, I remember seeing Richard Burton standing in the rain giving a speech to Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper. His hands were at his side, and the viewer’s eye was riveted to his face and the words from his lips were heard without distraction. On the other hand, untrained young actors appear on sit-coms where their uncontrolled waiving arms and hands are unnecessarily distracting from what the actor is supposed to do with voice and words.

We were told to practice standing with our hands at our sides in public places. I went to public meetings for a couple of weeks and stood in the back with my hands at my side. It took conscious effort to change that habit; it was uncomfortable with my hands at my sides, my hands wanted to go into my pocket or my arms wanted to get crossed. It felt like everyone was looking at me with my hands at my sides. If they were, it was because I looked noticeably uncomfortable. With practice, I learned to let my hands drop to the side when standing, and they still do that 25 years later. My neural circuits in my brain’s motor system were reworked by conscious effort. I must say that I am not tempted to put my hands other than at my side. It was a professional choice to rework those circuits, but the alternative of putting my hands in my pocket has no independent sensual appeal, unlike the high carb load plate of homemade pasta with marinara topped with fresh grated parmesan cheese.

Is that what we do to avoid or withstand temptation, simply rework our neural circuits? Is the exercise of my will to avoid sweets reworking neural circuits, or am I just losing interest in sweets? Is my desire itself dissipated or are new brain circuits intervening, causing me not to reflexively act to eat sweets? I suppose the nature of desire is an issue here. If desire for sweets is physiological, then it would seem necessary to establish a new habit of intervention. This would account for my need now to look at pastry as the enemy rather than with indifference. It seems that over time, a particular desire might disappear. The object of our desires obviously change over time.

So, it is not the nature of “desire” that is central to the issue of self-control, but the nature of the desire that we decide is against our self-interest, that we try to control with conscious intervention. Just saying “no” is the obvious solution, but were it that easy, there would be no Alcoholics Anonymous, no liposuction, no nicotine patches.

There is a wack-a-mole principle operating beneath the surface, with the devil pushing the moles through the holes. You make a decision to cut out the red meat, and you eat too much of everything else. Temptations persist, despite remedial efforts. If this were not so, the Lord’s Prayer would not conclude with “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” You do not have to be a Christian to see the need for this petition. Obesity is a scourge of our nation because we cannot resist temptation, whether you think it is the devil or a corporate executive behind the seductive advertising for a happy meal. The child’s eyes are tempted by the happy face behind the high carbo load in a box, and the mother is tempted by the ease of meal preparation, and not having to work to prepare a nutritious meal and clean up after. There is work involved in resisting temptation. It’s easier to fall.

Studies have shown that after resisting a temptation, the mind is fatigued, will power is sapped.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.

New York Times, April 2, 2008

The economics of will-power are beyond my intended scope here, but clearly, the planning and exercise of self-control — watching your weight, cutting down on drinking, gambling, smoking, staying off the internet when your are supposed to be working, studying, writing — is stressful and often, distressing. Conquering one sin may build confidence, but it is no guarantee that the next sin will be conquered. I quit drinking 25 years ago, smoking 24 years ago, but quitting eating is another matter. Water is tasting better every day.

For the Christian, it is by petitioning God in prayer, as in the final petition in the Lord’s Prayer, where peace may be found. Psychologically, the burden is placed elsewhere and spiritually, the burden is where it is supposed to be. The alcoholic’s act of recognizing the need for the intervention of a higher power is an act of humility. Peace may be found in humility, but an attitude of humility is not easily adopted. There is pride, of course, in overcoming through will-power alone, and for those who do, they have the applause of those they impress to fortify their success, and especially a “consciousness of inward worth gives strength to his heart, and makes his countenance to shine.” (Thomas Reid, quoted above) But for most, sobriety is a humbling day-to-day battle to overcome the changing appearance of temptation, and the temporary distress of discouragement and defeat is a consistent barrier to successful self-control.

St. Augustine speculated about the psychological state of Adam and Eve before Eve ate the apple. They were in a sinless state of grace, enjoying the Garden of Eden and all its fruits but one. But made in the image of God, they had a free will to choose evil. Although Augustine does not speculate what temptations, other than the forbidden fruit, they might have had before the serpent appeared. Presumably they could have given in to a natural temptation to gluttony without the serpent’s help and gorged themselves on some especially tempting newly discovered nectarines growing miraculously on a nearby peach tree. St. Augustine writes this of Adam and Eve before the Fall:

The pair lived in a partnership of unalloyed felicity; their love for God and for each other was undisturbed. This love was the source of immense gladness, since the beloved object was always at hand for their enjoyment. There was a serene avoidance of sin; and as long as this continued, there was no encroachment of any kind of evil, from any quarter to bring them sadness. Or could it have been that they desired to lay hands on the forbidden tree, so as to eat its fruit, but that they were afraid of dying? In that case both desire and fear was already disturbing them, even in that place. But never let us imagine that this should have happened where there was no sin of any kind. For it must be a sin to desire what the Law of God forbids, and to abstain merely from fear of punishment and not for love of righteousness. Never let us suppose, I repeat, that before all sin there already existed such a sin, the same sin, committed in respect of that tree, which the Lord spoke of in respect of a woman, when he said, “if anyone looks at a woman with the eyes of lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Matt. 5:28]

How fortunate, then, were the first human beings! They were not distressed by any agitations of the mind, nor pained by any disorders of the body. . . .

St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 10. (trans. Henry Bettenson) [emphasis added]

On my doctor’s strong recommendation, I have lost 30 pounds in the past year and a half, but I have been stuck at my current weight for more than six months. I must lose another 20 pounds. I feel the pressure everyday. If I could turn down the hot fudge sundae without being distressed by any agitations of the mind and experience a “serene avoidance of sin”, weight loss would be a piece of cake. There is serenity over time with regular exercise of will power as habits are changed and the memories of pleasure dim. But each of us has to find a source for the strength of will necessary to resist unwanted desires.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Exodus 15:2

Here is a prayer for self-control and discipline that I say everyday:


O Lord, give me in all my life the discipline which will enable me to walk in your footsteps, and which all of your true followers should show.

Help me to discipline my passions and desires that I may never in an unguarded moment do that which I would afterwards regret.

Help me to discipline my appetites, that greed and gluttony and self-indulgence may have no part in my life.

Help me to discipline my speech, that no false or untrue word, no soiled or impure word, no bitter or angry word may ever pass my lips.

Help me to discipline myself in my work, that slackness, idleness, laziness and carelessness may find no place in my life, that I may not try to find how quickly I can do a thing but how well I can do it, that I may be more concerned with how much I can put into a task than with how much I can get out of it.

Help me to discipline myself in my pleasure, that no pleasure may ever so master me that it takes away the will-power to resist it.

Help me to discipline myself in my devotion, that I may faithfully share in the public worship of your people, that no day may ever pass when in the silence, I do not speak and listen to you.

Help me to discipline even my thoughts, that they may never move in any forbidden pathways or linger on any forbidden thing, so that I may too be pure in heart and so see you.

This I ask for your love’s sake, in Jesus name, Amen.

— adapted from William Barclay “First Sunday in Lent” in Prayers for the Christian Year (1964)

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