Self-discipline and sacrifice
This morning I realized that self-discipline was my ego’s attempt to tyrannize the rest of my psyche. Self-discipline’s ministry of propaganda had convinced me that my ego wanted what was best for me. My failure to comply was evidence of my defective character. I should condemn myself for weakness, inconsistency, and moral failure. I believed this. But like ministries of propaganda everywhere, this one was full of shit.
This morning as I thought about sacrifice, I saw through the con. Sacrifice and self-discipline both seem like ways to make a better world. Not so. I realized why I’d spent my life resisting self-discipline even as I had tried to enforce it. Self-discipline is tyrannical, and I oppose tyrants. Why wouldn’t I fight myself as a tyrant even as I tried to tyrannize myself?
Jordan Peterson captures my reaction (my emphasis):
Who wants to work for a tyrant like that? Not you. That’s why you don’t do what you want yourself to do._
You’re a bad employee—but a worse boss.
Sacrifice is the voluntary surrender of something of value to gain something of greater value. Self-discipline is the attempt to force yourself to gain value by brute and brutal force.
Look it up. The dictionary always knows. Discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Obey! Rules! Punishment! No wonder I’ve resisted. Even in service of something good, self-discipline is a blunt, crude tool. There is no caring, understanding, compassion, or charity in it. Self-discipline is the weapon of the inner bully, the psychological dictator, the totalitarian of the soul.
Let’s go for sacrifice. (And not self-sacrifice, either. That just lets tyrants, and worse take over.) Let’s go for real sacrifice.
Sacrifice and the sacred
Sacrifice shares its root with the word sacred. Sacrifice is a holy endeavor. It’s a spiritual act. When you correctly label an action as a sacrifice, you elevate it. I do, anyway. YMMV, but I hope your mileage is similar. It’s a pretty good ride.
Of course, there has to be a higher purpose. Otherwise, it’s not sacrifice. It’s waste. Wasting your potential is an even greater sin than selfish refusal to sacrifice when you’ve got the chance. Trust me. I’ve been there.
I celebrate my abundance when I sacrifice some of my abundance. When I sacrifice a more limited resource—like time, of which I can never have enough—I acknowledge that even though what I have is limited, what I have is sufficient. And what I am sacrificing for is worth it. Or it’s not a sacrifice. It’s a waste.
Coercion has no role in sacrifice. If you think you’re being coerced to sacrifice, you’re not. You’re being coerced, alright, but not to sacrifice. Sacrifice requires an open, giving heart. Coercion requires a thug and a victim.
A simple procedure
To sacrifice, you need to decide on the higher good you want and what you are willing to let go of to realize it.
Consider the potential in your life. I don’t know you, but I’m sure you’ve got a lot of potential. You might want to use some of that potential to make a better self. You might want to make a better family. You might want to help someone in the family. Or the community. The world is full of potential. Everywhere you look you have a chance to create a higher good, something that’s worth your sacrifice.
If you can’t find something that you’d like to improve, check again. No matter how good things are, something can be better. The world is not perfect. It’s full of defects and full of potential. Find something. Not just for the world, for yourself. Sacrifice is paradoxical like the paradoxes of gratitude and forgiveness. The more you give, the more you get.
Now see what you can sacrifice.
Make a list (or keep a record) of what you do during the day
Rank order by most beneficial to the world at the top, most beneficial only to you at the bottom
Cross off anything that’s necessary to your continued well-being. You might want to sacrifice brushing your teeth, or eating, or getting enough sleep, but those are probably bad ideas. But an occasional skipped meal might be a good sacrifice.
Start at the bottom of the list and find things that you can sacrifice and then look at your list of higher goods to see what you could get for what you sacrifice.
You can’t sacrifice everything that isn’t necessary, nor should you try. But it’s certain that there’s something, however small, that you can comfortably—even gladly—sacrifice. If you can’t anything then either you’ve “set your house in perfect order” (congratulations), or you are lying to yourself about what’s essential. Respond appropriately.
Or do it the easy way. Just ask yourself what’s worth sacrificing. You know the answer. Start there.
Don’t resort to self-discipline
If you’ve found something that you’d like to make better, and you’ve found something that you could sacrifice, but you don’t want to sacrifice it, don’t resort to self-discipline, That’s the road back to hell. Instead, realize that there’s an internal conflict. Find out what it is and find a way to resolve it. There are lots of ways.
Doing this exercise will give you an aspiration—something that you want to make better, a means— the sacrifice of what is least valuable. If it also gives you a problem—figuring out why you don’t want to exchange something for something that’s better—that’s fine. Problems are not bad. As David Deutsch says: problems are inevitable. And he also says problems whose solutions don’t violate the laws of physics, are solvable—given the right knowledge. See: David Deutsch — reading and viewing 1 of several
I’ve sacrificed part of my day to writing this post. I think it was worth it. I hope you do as well.
Got anything you’d like to sacrifice?