By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Discipline is obedient behavior imposed on individuals by their superiors or rulers, such as parents, teachers, officers, employers, and other persons in authority. Parents everywhere tell their children sit up straight, wash, go to bed, eat your vegetables, don’t lie to me, don’t fidget, keep quiet or shush, brush your teeth, don’t yell, don’t play with yourself, and do your homework. Teachers dictate similar behaviors to their students from preschool to graduate school. Supervisors and employers also demand discipline from workers. Be on the job on time, leave on time. Don’t waste time chatting at the water cooler. Don’t watch porno at your desk computer. Ministers, priests, and mullahs contribute to all this dictation of behavior. Eventually such commands become internalized by the vast majority of young people and they behave thereafter with what is called self-discipline. The outcome is much loss of freedom, spontaneity, and creativity for almost every individual–evils for the life of the individual.
How then is a group of people or any society to function without discipline? I don’t care to stop my car at every red light and every stop sign when I can clearly see there’s no cross traffic. It’s an imposition on my personal initiative and freedom for traffic laws to require me to stop. Police or automatic cameras are positioned to catch me violating a law that unnecessarily causes me to lose time when driving.
Try and run an army without discipline. Officers place their men in ranks and march them along in step, sometimes lifting their legs up in the air like geese. It’s a spectacle. In the old armies, men lined up to fire their muskets at the enemy, then fell back to reload, while another rank moved forward to fire. The English in their red coats and fine hats fought that way the American revolutionaries who hid behind trees and rocks. The wounded or dead soldiers fell down and the ranks closed, but did not retreat, with the officer, revolver in hand, ready to shoot down those turning tail and running away from battle.
In the American Civil War the Blues and Grays fought in ranks too, mowed down in large numbers by musket fire and cannon. Lining up soldiers was a way of enforcing discipline on men at risk of injury or death. Then near the end of that most deadly war in history up to that time, Dr. Richard Gatlin invented his rapid-fire gun. Gatlin had hoped that his deadly invention would show men the futility of war. Fine chance! The machine gun put an end to the fighting in ranks and introduced the fox holes and trenches. Still, good disciplined men charged out of trenches to be mowed down by hails of bullets as in World War I. As to marching in line, that was left for parades and other such displays.
Governments, parents too, want us disciplined and obedient so they can control us more easily. Why do they put speed limits for roads? Can I not see that which is a safe speed for driving? Autobahns in Germany allow people to drive at any speed they choose in some areas—that’s freedom and respect for individual prudence.
Now many do-gooders want us to give arms for safety reasons. How about the safety of our freedoms in case our forces are defeated and we’re invaded? How then shall we defend ourselves without firearms?
Governments are prone to impose discipline on citizens for the payment of taxes on property, income, capital gains, sales, tariffs, duties, passports, vehicle registration, driver’s licenses, and even marriage licenses. The money collected from us enables government officials to employ even more inspectors, police, collectors, and other functionaries and impose even more taxes on us.
New laws are passed by legislatures almost daily to restrict our actions and exact penalties for violations. You cannot smoke in a restaurant; you cannot pay somebody below the minimum wage, even though they’re ready and willing to work for that; you cannot serve alcoholic beverages to someone younger than 21 (but it’s okay to have them vote and fight in the army if over 18). It is unlawful to use recreational drugs in our country. You could end up in jail if you do. Have we forgotten Prohibition?
Have you heard the expression, “There ought to be a law”? Yes, some laws are necessary, but please let us have as few of them as possible. Legislators don’t need to justify their existence and their salaries by constantly passing new laws. For every new law passed, an old law should be removed from the statute books.
In certain activities a measure of discipline, or self discipline, is required for performance. Can an orchestra, a ballet, a chorus line, entertain without disciplined musicians? Even jazz musicians have their own special way of working together to harmonize.
Music itself is a collection of organized sounds, as opposed to noise. Notes are standing waves, regular waveforms.
Critics say that drip paintings are signs of abandon, but they too have a level of discipline of their own. But they don’t follow the constraints of old paintings in depicting known structures in nature.
Of course, children need to be disciplined with love; otherwise they behave like monkeys, or at best like chimpanzees. They remain chimps even they become adults if the parents have not taught them civilized behavior. Restricting their freedom of action unduly, however, is the death for them of joyful play and of a spontaneous and creative life.
Even in baboon troops, wolf packs, and lion prides the dominant members impose discipline on the group. All members know their place and function; they follow a self discipline and obey the leaders, or they are harshly disciplined by their superiors, even evicted from the group, forced to fight for survival alone.
No people on earth are completely free, but Americans are freer to live the lives they choose than most other nations. Are we freer than we were in past generations? Although some taboos have been removed from behavior, such as in sexual activity, the continuous passage of new laws has imposed disciplines from the outside which should be self imposed by a responsible person.
Take the matter of saving and investment for retirement, for example. People used to take care of that on their own or rely on their children for support when they became too old to work. Then, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Congress passed Social security laws imposing a new tax on those who worked to support those who retired. That seemed like a good idea until those who collected benefits increased substantially in numbers compared to those who paid into the system. What’s the end result? The Social Security System is headed towards bankruptcy.
In addition to social security, most modern states impose the discipline of taxes to support those unfit or unwilling to take care of themselves. Much of the income of those who work gainfully, save, invest, and grow financially is redistributed to those who don’t do these things.
As the state increases the amount of discipline it imposes on citizens, the amount of self discipline enforced by the people decreases. Parents should remember this effect when dealing with their children. It is best to let children learn from their mistakes, if their lives are not threatened, and correct their own behavior voluntarily. Let a child burn a little bit from touching hot objects to be more careful rather than yell or spank before the event. Ouch, that’s a tough thing for a loving parent to do. If children refuse to eat vegetables, let them go hungry enough to appreciate them.
Discipline by a parent or superior is direct and immediate; self discipline takes time and effort from the individual.
` We may dislike constraints imposed on us, but we enjoy discipline in certain activities. Poems traditionally are well structured, with a specific rhythm or cadence, iambic for example, and rhyming. Free verse is less admired, but it also holds cadence and lyricism.
Order in our own minds, thoughts and feelings, can be invaluable to well functioning, but the free play of day dreaming also has benefits on occasion.
Orderly thoughts along habitual tracks make for greater efficiency; the unconstrained run of ideas, free association, can contribute more to the creation of new ideas and products.
Good self discipline is essential for the maintenance and improvement of health. You cannot remain healthy if you habitually give in to temptations such as smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating, not sleeping enough with regular hours, not brushing and flossing your teeth or seeing your dentist regularly (hated by most people).
Some disciplines or self disciplines are constraints upon personal freedom, enslaving us to the dictates of superiors or to our own habits. Self discipline, however, in connection with addictions is liberating. No slavery is worse than that of a vicious habit, such as overeating, drug addiction, gambling, or sexual promiscuity. Self discipline in such behaviors is liberating, making us into true humans, healthier as well as more powerful.
The fruit of self discipline, if not excessive, is freedom.
Some nations, notably Germany and Japan, have a culture of discipline which is greater than that of other nations. Northern populations tend to practice discipline and self discipline more than southern ones. That is probably the result of the evolution of population genes and of culture in cold winter environments. Southerners are usually more easygoing and free wheeling both in Europe and America.
Few disciplines are more valuable than control of the emotions. Discouragement and disappointment are seldom beneficial. If you can avoid them you get ahead. Hatred with anger and fear with running are rarely of any use in modern society, where you get into trouble with police or superiors if you vent them unduly.
The marshal arts can help develop self discipline and control of actions. These arts made world famous the Shaolin Chan Buddhist monastery in Dengfeng, China. Students train to perform marshal movements in perfect synchrony.
Opera singers and dancers all sing and move in an organized way for our pleasure, unless influenced by African American culture. That culture is fun too with its free-style expressions, as in jazz. What is not fun is a show with predictable and boring outcomes.
The Music Man is a classic musical with the famous song of 76 trombones. He taught kids to play a little music together, although he was a conniving salesman of instruments. An awful performance, but appreciated by the parents. Have you compared the music of student orchestras with the music of professionals? The difference is discipline, earned by many years of practice.
We desire and love disciplined actions because they satisfy our desire for order, or low entropy; we want to break out from that when we thirst for change and invention.
With strict self discipline geared to our life goals we can achieve great things. Every act, every word we say, every thought we make must contribute to the attainment of our goals. We will, however, reach even higher peaks of achievement if we allow our focused imagination free play occasionally during the day or at night even in our dreams.
Trudging continuously along beaten paths imposed by others or ourselves will not lead to breakthroughs of invention.
The highest form of self discipline is probably that of reasoning well with perfect validity in each statement we think and state. We look at the world with calm eyes, unperturbed and figure out all possible outcomes, pleasant or painful without passion, calm and collected, as if we reside on Mount Olympus.