Like the proverbial clockwork, it happens ever year.
When Ash Wednesday dawns, we head solemnly off to Mass, firm in our resolution to spend the next 40 days doing our best imitation of John the Baptist. No beer or chocolate shall pass our lips. We shall pray the Morning Office daily. It will be all wild honey and locusts (or high-fiber cereal) for us this Lent.
But the high-fiber cereal tastes about as good as the locusts, so that resolution falls by the wayside. Then St. Patty’s Day comes and goes ... right along with our pledge to forgo Guinness. Next, we’re met by an onslaught of deadlines at work, and it’s goodbye Morning Office. In these final days of Lent, well, it’s all over but the crying.
Why, during the time of year that’s all about restraint and self-denial, can’t even the best intentioned among us keep our paws out of the cookie jar?
Pretty much for the same reason there’s still $3,000 from our graduate-school days sitting on our credit card.
It’s because of self-control ... or, rather, our lack thereof.
Most important virtue
Self-control, in laymen’s terms, is the little voice inside our head that tells us eating four cookies for breakfast is a bad idea and that going for our morning run is a good idea. It’s the voice that makes us say “yes” when we should say “yes,” “no” when we should say “no,” and nothing at all when we can’t say anything nice. It’s also the voice that helps us keep resolutions.
In recent years, science has shown that this voice resides in a part of our brain called the “prefrontal cortex.” Along with it are all the other voices responsible for what psychologists term “executive functions” — that which enables us to analyze situations, determine and evaluate possible courses of actions, then implement the best possible course.
All those voices have their place in both well-ordered lives, but self-control is arguably the most valuable member of the prefrontal chorus. Without it, no decision or resolution, however good, can be carried out, nor can any lasting happiness, in this life or the next, be had.
“All the research shows that people who exercise self-control have the best lives,” said Daniel Akst, author of “We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess” (Penguin Press, $26.95). “They stay out of jail, have longer lasting marriages and make more money.”
Reason being? Self-control is the virtue that regulates the exercise of all other virtues. We can’t act prudently, justly and charitably, let alone give up chocolate, without it.
Too little restraint
But even more fundamen-tally, we can’t do the very thing we were created to do — enter into an eternally loving relationship with God — without it.
“At every Mass, we offer up to God the Father not only Jesus, but our selves, our egos,” said Father Edward Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. “And the only way we can make an offering of ourselves, is if we have control of ourselves. That’s the purpose of the Christian life — making our egos subject to our souls and our souls subject to Christ.”
That subjugation has never been easy. But these days, as a culture, it’s not just Lenten resolutions we’re breaking. It’s solemn promises year-round. From nursery school to Wall Street, all signs point to a fomenting crisis in self-control.
In his book, Akst chronicles those signs in detail, pointing to the financial collapse of 2008, the abysmal state of marriage, the growing obesity epidemic and mounting credit-card debt as harbingers of a society that has taken Nike’s advice to “Just do it” perilously to heart.
“In modern novels and movies, the hero’s problems are problems of repression and restraint,” Akst told Our Sunday Visitor. “But if we look around, most of the problem we see come not from too much restraint but from too little.”
‘On demand’ culture
Unfortunately, those problems are increasingly found among little kids as well as big ones. According to psychologist Joseph White, who directs the Family Counseling and Family Life Center for the Diocese of Austin, Texas, studies show that when it comes to self-control, today’s 5- and 7-year-olds are two years behind those of 50 years ago.
What accounts for our children’s growing inability to “just say no,” not to mention our own inability to walk away from Facebook, coffee and that charming sweater from J. Crew?
Partly it’s about education. For example, White said, studies show that the switch to more academic-oriented preschools has deprived children of the self-directed play that’s critical to the development of the prefrontal cortex.
It’s also about prosperity and it’s offspring — technology.
“Self-control is like a muscle that has to be exercised in order to grow and develop properly,” White said. “And the way we exercise it is by waiting. We put off something we want immediately for the sake of a larger goal. In prior generations, people practiced delayed gratification by necessity. But today we don’t have to wait long for anything.”
That’s what prosperity and technology have made possible. Information is instantaneous, food is fast and entertainment comes “on demand.”
There’s also less social pressure to practice self-control, added Akst, noting that with the breakup of families, the rise of anonymous suburbs and the waning role of religion in people’s lives, “we’ve lost a lot of the external pressures that used to help us. The superstructure of restraint, the social and moral scaffolding that surrounded people, is no longer there.”
As for why it’s not there, well, in large part it’s because we no longer want it to be.
“We’ve bought into the message that the individual is in charge of himself, that we can be our own bosses, do what ‘feels’ right, and no longer obey an objective moral order,” said Father Connolly. “We’ve declared ourselves master of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s Eden all over again.”
And, like our first parents, we’re discovering that it’s a quick slide down a slippery slope from eating an apple to slaying a brother.
“The more we surrender to our impulses, the harder it gets to do anything but surrender, even in serious matters,” said Father Connolly.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true, the more self-control we exercise in the little things, the easier it gets to exercise self-control in the big things.
“The potential to exercise self-control is hard-wired in all of us,” said White. “But we have to nurture that potential. One of the ways we do that is by exercising certain disciplines, not eating meat on Friday, for example. The self-discipline that creates, builds and spreads over to other areas of our life.”
Which brings us back to Lent, the spring training of the Christian life.
For 40 days, the Church asks us to put ourselves through a demanding spiritual workout so that, come Easter, we have sufficient control over the inner man to give ourselves more completely to Christ and receive the graces of the Resurrection.
That gift of self is the real point of giving up chocolate during the dreariest time of year. It’s not deprivation for deprivation’s sake. It’s deprivation for glory’s sake.
So, these final days of Lent, resolve to be resolved.
Take the advice of White and Akst, first setting small goals for yourself, then, like a marathon runner, asking more of yourself as your self-control muscles grow stronger.
Follow also the advice of the Church’s saints, who are all of one mind when it comes to resisting temptation: avoidance. Keep the means of breaking your resolution and losing control out of both sight and cupboard. At the same time, recommended Father Connolly, take seriously the role of fasting in training the will.
“There’s nothing in the mind that doesn’t come to us first through the senses,” he said. “So, to discipline the soul, start by disciplining the senses.”
Above all, advises White, “Welcome the Holy Spirit’s involvement in your life.” Turn to him first and foremost for help, remembering that grace always abounds for those who ask.
That advice, of course, applies to the year-round exercise of self-control as well. Good resolutions and discipline shouldn’t dissipate with the coming of Eastertide. If we want to end our lives victorious, we need to regularly flex those newly buffed muscles of self-control.
After all, as the ancients said, Vincit qui se vincit — “He conquers who conquers himself.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.