Some of our wonderful readers and fellow philosophers/political commentators have asked for an article on the subject of free-will and self discipline. Readers beware: Be careful what you wish for!
Below is an excerpt from a book I wrote, Foundations, which is a synthesis between philosophy, psychology, social work, science, and spirituality. Don’t worry, the dog’s bark is louder than his bite. This book is easy to read and even funny. (It’s not available yet on Amazon, but hopefully will be soon. You can order — a rather expensive copy — from McNally’s Books, in New York.)
I’m publishing the whole excerpt here; it’s rather long. But, remember, you asked for it. (Just read it in parts.) I think you will find it interesting. So here you are!:
Let’s assume that you, the reader, have accepted the idea that one path to success in life is doing the duty of the present moment. But how can you really practice this idea? How can you get out of bed in the morning when it is the last thing you want to do?
Assagioli and the act of will
Roberto Assagioli, the author of The Act of Will, was a psychoanalyst who believed in the existence of a will in the human personality. He analyzed how one makes a decision and then follows through with it.
Assagioli felt that the person who has a weak will, also called an undisciplined will, can cause much dysfunctional behavior. He believed that a person’s will could be easily strengthened by simply doing will exercises in the same way that a person does exercises for a muscle group. For example, a person could do three will exercises a day for the sole purpose of strengthening her will. She could do three activities a day— regardless of how small or how short of a time span—that she doesn’t want to do and that, for whatever reason, are difficult for her to do. A few examples of such will exercises are the following:
- Put down a piece of unhealthy food when you strongly desire it.
- Mop the floor when it is the last thing that you want to do.
- Get up at 5 a.m. to work on homework or office work.
- Follow through on a project that you feel like quitting.
- Exercise a half hour a day.
- Do 30 minutes of difficult work when you least want to.
- Complete a small project that you have been putting off for months.
- Write a letter that you have been putting off for weeks.
- Make a necessary phone call that you have been putting off for days.
- Pay a bill when it’s the last thing you want to do.
- Make a small effort at time management. Write down a few things you want to do the following day. And then do them. If you don’t do one of them, make it the priority the next day, or cross it off your todo list.
By doing will exercises such as these, a person’s will can become stronger and more disciplined. She can feel more self-confident, stronger, competent, and dignified. With a stronger and more disciplined will, a person is able to do more things that she wants to do or that she feels she has a duty to do. She is freer. And her quality of life could be significantly improved.
Doing difficult things when the moment calls for them, even when a person least feels like doing them, can become a way of life, a habit. And, as James Allen said, habits determine your destiny.
We can see the validity of this idea by asking ourselves these two Socratic questions: 1) How would my life been improved if I had a stronger, more self-disciplined will in the past? 2) How would my life been different if I was able to do the things that needed to be done at key points in my life regardless of how I felt?
Professionalism and the act of will
One of the main—and essential—characteristics of virtually every professional, including professional clinicians, is the ability to do the duty of the present moment. That is, to perform one’s professional duties to the best of one’s ability when the situation calls for it, whether the person feels like doing it or not. When a professional fails to do this duty because of a weak or undisciplined will, it is often dysfunctional.
In show business, there is an invariant belief that “the show must go on.” In military environments, everyone must subordinate their own personalities to the mission. It is often irrelevant what the individual feels like doing. In emergency clinical situations, it is the same. It doesn’t matter what the professional feels like doing. The client comes first. The professional is called to perform his duties.
Every successful person has a disciplined will
“The show must go on” is not only a motto of show business, but can also be seen as a motto for virtually every successful person. Having a disciplined will is a necessary (but not sufficient) variable in successful living. Look at the personal life of any successful person and you will find that they fulfill their duties whether they feel like it or not. You can be guaranteed that any successful career entailed hundreds of difficult duties and the successful person had to fulfill them regardless of how he felt. Otherwise he fails.
“The secret of success is to finish what you start.”
Note: One of the most basic, but essential, duties for success is to simply be on time for appointments. Elbert Hubbard, a 19th-century American philosopher and businessman, once said that he owed all of his success in life to the practice of being 15 minutes early for every appointment. You can try this idea yourself. Begin being 15 minutes early for every appointment and experience a decrease in anxiety and stress in your life. Experience being more relaxed, self-confident, and capable of enjoying the moment more. Experience the satisfaction of reducing irritating others with your tardiness.
We can also see this disciplined will clearly in successful parents. They do the necessary duties for their children whether they feel like it or not. Their temporary happiness is secondary to the needs of the child.
Developing virtues as a strategy for increased mental health
Assagioli’s idea of developing one’s will is a variation on a traditional idea found in many religions and secular moral philosophies. This idea is that there exist many core, universal human virtues and a person interested in psychological and spiritual growth could work on developing these virtues.
One traditional virtue that Assagioli advocates developing is fortitude. Some other traditional virtues that are related to fortitude that a person could develop in order to become a self-realized person are magnanimity, confidence, patience, resilience, and perseverance.
A possible informal goal of counseling could encourage a client who shows a weakness in a specific traditional human virtue to have a long-term goal of gradually and gently developing that virtue.
The antithesis to fortitude is the vice of sloth. Although sloth—historically called one of the cardinal sins—is lusciously pleasureful, slipping into a lifestyle of chronic sloth can doom a person to incessant failure. He continually fails to do his everyday duties when life—including his own life goals and values—calls him to perform those duties.
As with many virtues, the attempt to develop one’s will can easily be turned into a neurotic and dysfunctional lifestyle. Hitler, with his emphasis on the “triumph of the will,” is a perfect example. In fact, Hitler may have given the virtue of developing a disciplined will a bad reputation.
With dysfunctional consequences, a person can use his willpower at the expense of compassion and understanding. He can use his strong will to insist on getting his way, as opposed to being considerate of others and compromising with others in a team situation. He can try to ramrod his way through life rather than passively listening to the path to which life is calling him. He can insist on using his willpower without subordinating it to reason. He can also use his willpower to deny, ignore, and suppress his emotions.
The skillful will
A person can use her strong will as opposed to her skillful will. For instance, a person could try to push a car up a hill as opposed to getting in the car and turning the key. She could try to accomplish her goals in a difficult and oppressive environment as opposed to using her reason and moving to a more supportive and affirming environment. She could pursue her goals using thoughtful plans and time management skills instead of pursuing her goals impulsively and at the last minute.
Case study: William James
William James was one of the top psychologists of the 20th century. His most popular book was Varieties of Religious Experience.
At one point in his life, as a young man, James was so depressed and full of despair that he couldn’t get out of bed. He was experiencing the dark night of the soul, much as Tolstoy did. He felt he had no reason to live, no reason to do anything, and no reason to even get out of bed.
Then he did a miraculous, but ordinary, act: he decided to do an act of will. He decided to get out of bed and get on with his daily duties for no reason whatsoever, but rather as a pure act of will, which was an expression of his free will. Once he got going, he went on in his life to realize his monumental accomplishments. His achievements were all based on a free- will decision and an act of will to get out of bed and get on with his life.
Thus, William James gave one answer to two basic questions of existence: Why get out of bed? and Why not commit suicide? His answer was that a person could make a pure decision to go on living, doing one’s duties, accomplishing meaningful goals, and enjoying life as a simple act of free will—and for no other reason.
James later wrote that even the belief in free will was itself a free-will decision. A person could believe that he had free will—as Assagioli decided—or believe that he didn’t have free will—as Einstein decided. Or, as Sartre might say, a person could be unable or unwilling to decide, which was a decision—a decision to be agnostic on the question.
William James laid the theoretical groundwork for Assagioli’s ideas. James stated that it was very important to develop a strong and disciplined will because there are many times in life where a person must act and do difficult tasks regardless of how he feels or how motivated he is. If he cannot do these acts at a critical time, the results can be disastrous.
The Boy Scouts have an invariant motto: “Be prepared.” James would agree with this motto. If you do “will exercises” to develop a strong and disciplined will, you will be prepared for those moments in life when one is called to do difficult tasks when one has no desire to do them.
An act of will and living fully
Thus, for some people, as with James, simple free-will decisions are the basis of their whole life. These people have decided to embrace life and live fully.
The snowball of depression and will-less-ness
Depression often has biological causes. But also there is a connection between a person’s chemistry, her thoughts, and her decisions. For example, a person can have a biologically induced feeling of despair and then make a decision that “life is worthless.” This fundamental decision could create a cognitive belief that affects the person’s mood for the rest of her life.
The same person could undergo a traumatic event, which she reacted to by making the same decision—that life was worthless. This core cognitive belief could affect her chemistry, which in turn could induce chronic depression.
In the same way, a weak and undisciplined will can influence one’s chemistry and create a tendency toward depression, and this could have a snowball effect. When in a depression— induced by a variety of factors—a person could simply give up. He could wallow in his hopelessness and become even more weak-willed. He could neglect more and more of his everyday duties. This in turn could lead to a more dysfunctional life, and then to deeper depressive feelings and confirmations on his beliefs about of the worthlessness of his life. There are few things in life more depressing and hopeless than living a life with a weak will. The person can’t do anything.
Case study: The spoiled child gives up
Steve was raised having spoiled child syndrome. He was the “baby” of a family of five children. His parents believed that he was “special.” Steve was a good-looking child who grew up to be a handsome, charming, and athletic adult. He was the brightest of all the children and went on to get a master’s degree in economics and to create a variety of small businesses, which were usually successful in the short run. His other siblings did not go to college and had reasonably successful careers in unprofessional jobs and ended up with well-functioning, loving families.
Steve was bright enough to get through college without doing much work, and he was charming and clever enough to always have business partners who would do the brunt of the work.
Steve lived at home and was taken care of by his mother until she died. Steve never married, but went from one relationship to another, never wanting to do the hard work of an authentic relationship and always wanting to be treated like an adult spoiled child. None of the women he dated wanted to be his mother.
Toward the end of his career, all his business ventures eventually failed. His business partners all eventually left and he couldn’t find others who would do most of the difficult work. Steve constantly complained about the fact that he had to do duties that were beneath him, because of his talent and intelligence, and that he couldn’t get others to do the work that he didn’t want to do. He believed there was something wrong with society.
When his parents died, they left the bulk of their inheritance to Steve because they believed that he couldn’t take care of himself without their help—unlike his siblings, who were all financially independent. Eventually Steve went through hundreds of thousands of dollars in one failed business venture after another, where he tried to pursue his business dreams without doing unpleasant work.
Steve had a pattern that when things went wrong, he would give up and go into a depression. He would go into a downward spiral into a state of will-less-ness until friends and family would help him out.
Once, in one of his snowballs of depression, he was admitted into a psychiatric hospital to deal with his depression—all paid with his medical insurance. He was hospitalized for over six months and had underwent most of the therapies for depression they had, including shock treatments, medication, and various forms of psychotherapy. When his insurance ran out, the treatments were stopped and he was discharged, with little improvement in his depression. He continued to see various psychotherapists for over 20 years, and neither the therapy nor psychiatric medication helped him live a functional lifestyle nor prevented him from periodically giving up on everything and going into states of will-less depression.
After years of treatments, he concluded that his depression was “situational.” He believed that he would have never gone into a depression if only someone would have given him a good secure job, paying around $100,000 a year, where he could pursue his dreams and do whatever he wanted to do.
Eventually, Steve lost every job he had because he wouldn’t do his duties—he wouldn’t even come to work on time. Then when his last source of money ran out, he gave up again, became depressed, and entered an extended psychiatric care facility for over a year. At age 55, he was discharged to a nursing home. He was the youngest and the most educated person in the nursing home. They took care of all his needs and he stayed there for the rest of his life, refusing all authentic help from professionals, family, and friends. He constantly complained about how no one really cared for him and that the health care system was “rotten.”
Although this case study is depressing in itself, it is not only true (changing some of the facts to protect the privacy of the client) but common. This state of will-less-ness is often camouflaged by other diagnoses—for example, anti-social personality disorders (where the client spends long stints in jail where he is cared for), depression, alcohol or drug addictions, and eating disorders. Addictions of choice are often used to numb a client’s feelings that result from living a meaningless and self-destructive lifestyle.
What can be done?
As an antithesis, while in a state of despair and hopelessness, the person could continue doing his duties, simply as an act of will. Also as an act of will, even though he believed that these acts wouldn’t help his situation, he could choose to retain his faith that he was a worthy person, that he was a competent person, and that life was worth living. In this way, by continuing to do his daily duties, his daily life experiences could become more rewarding. His life would become more functional and he could not only develop a more positive view of his situation in life, but also develop a more disciplined will along the way.
This person may even go on to live a reasonably successful life, despite having an underlying depression—even one that had biological causes. He could go on living fairly successfully, despite knowing that he is always walking on a cliff of happiness and could fall off at any moment. Once falling off, he could make the decision, again and again, to use an act of will to climb back up to a more positive view of life and get on with his life’s duties.
He could live a life, as many of us do, being a fairly mentally healthy person, knowing and accepting the fact that our depressive shadow is an authentic part of our personality.
Spirituality as an act of will
With James’s and Assagioli’s cognitive eyeglasses, we can see that for many people a pure and simple act of will is even the basis of their religious or philosophical beliefs, and such a belief can help a person in the existential hole of will-less-ness and despair. A person, after years of indecisiveness and seeking, may decide to accept Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or another spiritual leader. Some people may base their faith on personal experiences or intellectual reasoning, while others may base their faith on nothing at all, just a simple free-will decision.
Use in therapy
Even though a diagnosis of a weak and undisciplined will is not in the DSM-5, it can be informally made by a therapist and a client can be encouraged to begin doing small acts of will as an exercise. These acts of will can be gradually increased, made a little more difficult, and be more long-term. Although this therapeutic tool may not resolve a myriad of other problems the client may have, his having a stronger and more disciplined will might be essential for his increase in functioning and may lead the client to a higher quality of life.
Let’s look at another true-life example of a simple act of will.
Case study: True love
Joe and Mary were high school sweethearts. They were crazy about each other. They couldn’t get enough of each other. They spent hours on the phone almost every night when they weren’t together. They enjoyed almost every minute together.
They went to separate colleges, but after college they were still madly in love and quickly got married. Their first years of marriage were heavenly and they immediately had a couple of children. After a few more years and after having a couple of more children, their lives became routine and their relationship became boring. Then after about 10 years, their marriage felt empty. They had constant arguments; there was no love, no sex, no nothing.
They began to discuss divorce. Perhaps their lives would be better living alone or living with another person. They analyzed the pros and cons of a divorce and quickly saw that it would be a disaster. The kids would suffer; they would both struggle financially; their extended families would be split; there was little chance of successfully getting back into the dating game; and there was little chance of meeting the real love of their lives.
So, à la James and Assagioli, they made a free-will decision to continue the marriage “until death do we part.” The decision wasn’t based on love, on sexual attraction, on biochemical attraction, or on any other desire; it was based on a pure free-will decision led by reason.
After this free-will commitment, they went back to their duties as husband and wife, father and mother. Eventually, as the years rolled on, they began liking each other and enjoying each other more. Perhaps they stopped making unrealistic demands on each other, which stemmed from their romantic ideals or their youthful enlightenment.
Then after even more years passed, they began loving each other more, and this love took on a satisfying and sensual sexual expression. After 10 years went by since their decision, they found themselves more in love than they were in high school! Only now their love was based on a free-will decision and not on youthful passion. It was based on the reality of each other, not an idealization of each other.
59 Science and free will
It is interesting to note that the whole phenomenon of human will is denied in many psychological and scientific theories. These theorists, including Freud and Einstein, perceived the universe as a mechanical universe where everything had a cause and an effect. In other words, if you understood all the causes and all the effects in life, you would understand everything and be able to control everything. They believed there was no such thing as a free will.
Once the phenomenon of human will is accepted, the world suddenly becomes mystical, for human will is one of the most mystical aspects of reality. It is an ultimate mystery of existence that a human being can make free decisions that can have significant effects on history, either big or small. It is no wonder believers in a mechanical universe want to deny the mystery of free will.