01 September 2011

Discipline is Not a Dirty Word

In light of the fact that language is taking certain shifts these days and words that used to have a positive connotation now have a negative or impotent one and vice versa (i.e. on So You Think You Can Dance, calling a dance “nasty” is generally offered as a high compliment. Or the word “awesome” which is supposed to mean “inspires awe” but instead, apparently, means “that's nice”—and if you’re feeling additionally expressive, it connotes an exclamation point as well) I feel the need to put in a good word for the very good word “discipline.” I don’t want it to get a bad reputation.

The word disciplined still has a fairly decent rap, but disciplinarian is not always well-treated and either word sometimes conjures in the young, modern mind an image of something rigid, binding, unrelenting and, perhaps, uncreative.

I beg to differ. It seems to me that even the most creative of people, if they truly wish to develop that creativity, will be driven to the intense discipline of honing their natural skills. I say this as someone who is not a naturally disciplined person and whatever else I am, I’m not organized. I have spurts of organization (where I will schedule whole months of meals to cook and miles to run) but generally I find discipline difficult. Which is what makes me respect its acquisition so highly.

The Disciplines:
Discipline is a tricky beast and it has a variety of meanings:

1. A parent disciplines a child: Had my parents not done this, I would likely be one of the following: a vagrant, a mercenary, a criminal mastermind, or at least in jail for something or other. I have violent and heartless tendencies, and no amount of sweet-smiled “oh she’ll grow out of it” would have tempered that. I’m STILL working on it.
2. You can study in an academic discipline: I am not so academically keen, but they call them “disciplines” for  a reason. Reading, study, research, verification, comparison, hours and hours and hours.
3. Discipline of habit/persistence: You do something enough times, the discipline becomes habit—an instinctive part of daily life.
4. Disciplined: To be regimented, organized…regularized.

For a Girl Who Doesn’t Like Grammar:
In his essay “The Weight of Glory” C.S. Lewis talks about the transformation of external discipline to intrinsic meaning saying that“…poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”

It should go noted that the things “replaced” do not actually disappear. Grammar, law and obedience are still present, but their meaning has gone bone-deep.
Furthermore, Lewis talks about the person who aims to acquire a certain knowledge through discipline:

“His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural and proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it.”

The student, the soldier, the runner—they are working towards a reward that is not instantaneous and which they do not fully understand until its culmination. Discipline and passing pleasures are not much connected. Discipline and lasting ones are.

“…enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery,” he goes on to say. And“…the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given but are the activity itself in consummation.”

He give the example of a school child learning Greek grammar (something I suppose few school children do these days. I certainly never did) and the enjoyment of its poetry being the proper reward for the tedious study that preceded it. Yet, he notes, the school-child could not have known how he might enjoy the poetry while he was yet immersed in the tedium. Had this theoretical school child demanded to know what value he would receive at the end of his endeavors, he would have received an explanation he either did not understand, or was disinclined to believe—because the daily study did not, to him, bear the marks of a pleasant, rewarding thing. It was a struggle, and its end was hazy.

In Language:
As I said, I have not studied Greek, but I have studied other languages and the reward of fluency is beyond concise explanation. Suffice it to say it opens up whole new worlds of political media, poetry, literature, culture, music, idiom, perspective and conversation. And it starts with the discipline of use, immersion and persistence.

I couldn't have fully known what it would mean when I was starting fresh with alphabets and vocabulary.

In Running:
Another discipline with which I have become familiar is that of running, and it being a raw physical example doesn’t exclude it from being just as relevant.

When I first-very-first started running I was resistant to the discipline of it. I balked at the mere idea of doing an exercise just for the sake of exercise, which is how I saw it. (I still have a slight aversion to treadmills for their going-nowhere-ness, even though I have used them when they were what was available.)

I remember the first time I ran a mile and a half. I remember how excited I was. I remember two miles. I also remember how long those two miles took me and it was laughable. There was a lot of on-off start-stop running over the years, but eventually a habit formed out of sheer mercenary necessity: I was joining the Marine Corps and I had to be able to run 3 miles in a certain time. And I didn’t want to just pass the test. I wanted to ACE it.

Only now do I know that the rewards of that discipline far outweighed my perception of them. I thought “I’ll have an impressive run time, and be fit.” That happened. But more than that. I found the joy in running. The thrill of a good clip, or a wild trail, or of jumping over things (like snakes). The joy of sunsets and sunrises seen from a dozen different angles. The adventure of happening upon new roads, paths, nooks and crannies. The confidence of increased endurance and knowing how this could be used not only on my behalf, but on behalf of others.

This is one example of a discipline that did far more than present me with its known end of ‘fitness’ and a high-scoring run-time.

In Work:
I suppose it goes without saying that military-types are forced to make an intimate acquaintance with discipline of all kinds. Drilling is a quintessential example of this. In physical training. Martial Arts. Or in rifle drill and marching.

One movement. Conducted over and over. And over. ‘Till you bleed. ‘Till your bruised. ‘Till you want to fall over.

The end result? An instinct of the muscles so inherent that your mind need not translate for your body in order for it to know what to do. This is an example of an utterly pragmatic discipline that can also be used in mercenary fashion. You may not realize its worth until the day that your body reacts precisely as it must to the right prompt without it having ever occurred to your mind. Obviously this can be misused as well. Pavlovian responses can easily be good or bad, but in military environments they are about creating survival/offensive/defensive instincts that the average individual may not inherently possess.

This is where the word “discipline” acquires some of its negative connotations. People see uniforms; uniforms connote uniformity; uniformity makes people think of automatons. I—having been in the military—understand but disagree. We forget that we are GLAD when we have created instinctive physical reactions for ourselves when—say—we’re in the car. We turn on the blinker without thinking, check the mirrors, and our foot switches between brake, gas (and/or clutch) without our mind having to get involved. If we had to think too hard about it, this would be a problem. Like I said: this visceral sort of discipline can be well or badly used.

In Everything, Really
So there are disciplines that produce joy in their own right—true, deep joy—and there are other disciplines that have less monumental, less bone-deep rewards but which are satisfying nonetheless: I have been working on simple disciplines which make life smoother…like putting things away in a drawer and a closet when I am done with them. It’s so basic, but I have a tendency not to do it. I’m practicing. The thing is, I find it unlikely that the heights of my joy in life will come from putting a shirt away in the closet. But you know what? There is a tiny sigh of contentment when I think of the tedious work I’m saving myself from so that I have time to do other things…like run, or write this blog post.

So no, you may not necessarily have giddy highs when you scrub down the bathroom on that day that you have disciplined yourself to always scrub it down. But nor will you feel overwhelmed. And besides, a job well and consistently done does make me smile. Sometimes it actually does make me feel a little giddy. Without the discipline it might just make me feel exhausted instead of satisfied.

Take it from someone who had to be disciplined at a higher rate that most of her siblings because she was such a hellion—from someone who dreaded growing up because she thought it would not consist of sufficient tree-climbing and irresponsible running-about—from someone who prefers oblique paths to properly angled ones—from someone who is a fence-hopper and a roof-climber—from someone who finds grammar a scary and unknowable monster of a thing…I like real, true discipline. And boy do I ever need it. Disciple comes from that word. And discipleship.

For some people who have better natural inclinations than I, the verse “He will die for lack of discipline…” in Proverbs may seem extreme. But maybe not. Even the highest quality material still needs to be tempered, honed. It still needs the dross burned off.


  1. This is one to take to heart for sure! I ESPECIALLY appreciated the reference you made to C.S. Lewis's quote and the "Learning Greek" story. He was right, when we are doing the thing the Lord has for us, we don't always know what the ultimate purpose is...we have to trust Him and be content to NOT KNOW EVERYTHING!

  2. Hey, so I like how your sisters are some of your main commentators...
    Ok, Good morning, I am drinking coffee right now, a morning discipline I love...

    Ok for real now, I am also listening to my entire library of Hebrew music.

    I would add in the discipline department, that having discipline in one area of your life does not mean you will have it in others. Discipline is not a transferable skill. The difficult thing is that at times in every single area of your life you have to relearn discipline to an extent.
    I know the discipline of running, and how to do it, but that doesn't transfer to a discipline that when I get chocolate here, it sticks around over a long time as I savor it...no that discipline is still lacking. But I think, like your closet discipline, that is the next discipline I feel I will be working on.

    :) I know that was rambling and random, I am just in that mood this morning :)...have a great weekend!!

  3. To Brandi: While I was writing this I kept thinking "Mom is going to tell me that I'm the one who needs to reading this...am I reading what I'm writing?" And she did. I had just decided a while ago that this was the post I wanted to write that day, and it just happened to be very convicting.

    To Shannon: You and Brandi are my regulars, and you have no idea how much I appreciate that you guys read this. I am also now engaging in my morning discipline of coffee. One of these days I will write about coffee. Anyhow, I agree, one discipline does not equal all discipline...funnily enough.

  4. I needed this today. thanks for the reminders....