Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult, once we truly understand and accept it, then life is no longer difficult. Once it's accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead, they moan incessantly, noisily, or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, or their difficulties. They moan as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that has somehow been specifically forced not upon others, but upon them, their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.
Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them, or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them? Discipline is a basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. Without discipline, we cannot solve anything. With some discipline, we can solve only some problems. With total discipline, we can solve all problems. What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke us in frustration, grief, sadness, loneliness, guilt, regret, anger, fear, anxiety, anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings, often very uncomfortable, often a painful as any kind of physical pain. Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender inside us all that we call them problems. Since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy.
Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school that we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confrontation and the resolution of problems that we learn. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Those things that hurt, instruct." It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.
Most of us are not so wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.
This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness. Since most of us have this tendency to a degree, most of us are mentally ill to a degree, lacking complete mental health. Some of us will go through quite extraordinary lengths to avoid our problems and the suffering they cause, proceeding far away from all that is clearly good and sensible in order to find an easy way out, building the most elaborate fantasies in which to live, sometimes to the total exclusion of reality. In the succinctly elegant words of Carl Jung, "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."
But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid. The neurosis itself becomes the biggest problem. True to form, many will then attempt to avoid this pain and this problem in turn, building layer upon layer of neurosis. Fortunately, however, some possess the courage to face their neuroses and begin, usually with the help of psychotherapy, to learn how to experience legitimate suffering. In any case, when we avoid the legitimate suffering that results from dealing with problems, we also avoid the growth that problems demand from us. It is for this reason that in chronic mental illness we stop growing, we become stuck. And without healing, the human spirit begins to shrivel.
Therefore, let us inculcate in ourselves and in our children, the means of mental and spiritual health. By this I mean, let us teach ourselves and our children the necessity for suffering and the value thereof, the need to face problems directly and to experience the pain involved. I have stated that discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. It will become clear that these tools are techniques of suffering, means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process. When we teach ourselves and our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and also how to grow.
What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four:
- Delaying of gratification
- Acceptance of responsibility
- Dedication to truth
As will be evident, these are not complex tools whose application demands extensive training. To the contrary, they are simple tools, and almost all children are adept in their use by the age of ten. Yet presidents and kings will often forget to use them, to their own downfall. The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools in which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.