If I had to name an important tool from my childhood that has helped me in my recovery from depression and anxiety, it would be the discipline I mastered in order to learn how to play Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” on the baby grand piano my grandmother left to me.
Discipline is the one essential piece of recovery that can carry you from day one to day two.
It’s all discipline. Making your body do something over and over again until your mind finally shows up to the appointment and is clued into the action that you are supposed to be enjoying.
I’m lucky in that I was born an obedient and dutiful kid–as most of us are who live with anxiety. My mom never had to remind me to do my homework because I was already afraid of what would happen if I didn’t–my teacher would frown with disappointment, a facial expression that would stay with me for, say, 20 years.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher, once wrote that “self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”
We don’t see many examples of discipline today. Everything in our culture screams instant gratification. We’re constantly hit with advertisements and images appealing to our senses–faking us into believing that we need the Absolute Vodka, the Mercedes, the diamond necklace to feel good and wanted and desirable. I’ve yet to come across a billboard that says: “Better wait on that, kid.” The closest I ever got to that is a huge sign at a neighborhood church around the corner from me that says “Jesus Is the Answer.” But half of its letters are off, so I’m always doing a word scramble to see what else could be the answer besides Sus, whoever that is.
M. Scott Peck describes self-discipline this way in his classic, “The Road Less Traveled”:
Discipline has been defined as a system of techniques of dealing constructively with the pain of problem-solving–instead of avoiding that pain–in such a way that all of life’s problems can be solved. Four basic techniques have been distinguished and elaborated: delaying gratification, assumption of responsibility, dedication to the truth or reality, and balancing. Discipline is a system of techniques, because these techniques are very much interrelated. In a single act one may utilize two, three or even all of the techniques at the same time and in such a way that thy may be indistinguishable from each other. The strength, energy, and willingness to use these techniques are provided by love.
Somehow, breaking the term discipline into four techniques makes it less intimidating and overwhelming to me on days like today, when I’m feeling bereft of any will power. If I could, I’d very happily camp out all day in front of the tube, a case of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in my right hand, a carton of cigarettes in my left, and when I’m done with both of those, head for the freezer where I store my frozen Kit Kats. I’d tell the kids to put themselves to sleep, not to worry about brushing teeth, and that their teachers will have to steal food from their pantries in order to feed them at lunch.
I do hereby swear that the life of a depressive requires the self-discipline of a Carmelite nun. Maybe more. Because we are always having to retrain our thoughts, use cognitive-behavioral techniques to quiet our brain’s fear center, delay gratification (a nap sounds nice), assume responsibility (go to work, even when co-worker makes us cry), dedicate ourselves over and over again to the truth or reality (life can be good even though it seems horrible at times), and balancing. Man, do we ever balance. Every minute. Every second. Every millisecond.
Managing our feelings is a full time job when you consider everything that goes into it, according to Peck:
The proper management of one’s feelings clearly lies along a complex (and therefore not simple or easy) balanced middle path, requiring constant judgment and continuing adjustment. Here the owner treats his feelings (slaves) with respect, nurturing them with good food, shelter and medical care, listening and responding to their voices, encouraging them, inquiring as to their health, yet also organizing them, limiting them, deciding clearly between them, redirecting them and teaching them, all the while leaving no doubt as to who is the boss. This is the path of healthy self-discipline.
But the job of discipline does come with an attractive compensation package: self-respect and some sanity if we hack away at it long enough.