Most people recognise that the only way world class athletes get to be world class athletes is through training. They train their bodies to do what’s required, and that training is a day in, day out, comprehensive, life-dominating activity. What they eat and drink, when they eat and drink, how much sleep they get, what specific skills they practice and repeat to improve, all are conscious choices with a goal in mind.
I hadn’t really thought about living well alone in this way until I read in A Book of Silence about the ascetic disciplines of the early Desert Fathers, the hermits who lived in the desert in order to pursue a life focused on God.
Monks & nuns, then and now, see their way of life as a discipline that requires constant practice. In fact, any way of life, intentional or not, is ultimately the result of practice. It’s just that half the time we’re not aware of what it is we’re practising, so we’re not necessarily aligning what we’re doing daily with the kind of life we want to lead.
Self discipline sounds much more appealing (to me at any rate) when framed in terms of athletic training. What’s the goal? It’s not an Olympic medal in self denial, but it might be something like “When I retire, I want to be healthy, active, engaged in interests, and financially independent.” If that is so, my daily routines and choices become a question of whether or not they will help me achieve my goal.
Retirement is probably still a few too many years away to feel like an immediate enough goal, but the principle is the same: how do I want my life to look a year from now? A month from now? By the time I go to bed tonight?
As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Self discipline is about spending our days practising the life we want to have lived.