We live in an age where taking personal responsibility for oneself and one’s behavior is an endangered commodity. Increasingly, we have become a culture of “vitimitis,” where no one is really ever a fault for anything. Instead, our problems, whatever they may be, are the result of the malfeasance of another or some series of bad breaks and misunderstandings. When all else fails and we can’t find someone or something to blame our troubles on, we can assert along with Stooge Curly Joe: “I’m just a victim of circumstance.”
Let’s face facts and not seek to become overly intellectual or get bogged down in a mire and muck of philosophical sophistication. The reality of the situation is actually quite simple: until you establish control over your thoughts, feelings, and behavior you life is going to be characterized by instability and difficulty. Until you develop personal discipline, you will exist but never truly live.
Referring to an undisciplined person, James Allen states:
He does not intelligently reflect upon life, and lives in a series of sensations, longings, and confused memories which are unrelated to any central idea or principle. A man whose inner life is so ungoverned and chaotic must necessarily manifest this confusion in the visible conditions of his outer life in the world; and though for a time, running with the stream of his desires, he may draw to himself amore or less large share of the outer necessities and comforts of life, he never achieves any real success nor accomplishes any real good, and sooner or later worldly failure and disaster are inevitable, as the direct result of the inward failure to properly adjust and regulate those mental forces which make the outer life.
I still clearly recall the time I first read these words by James Allen, along with the above cited comments about taking a meandering route down “trackless wastes of perplexity.” If ever a message described my undisciplined nature, especially related to my thought life, this one surely did. Allen’s words hit me between the eyes with the impact of a 2×4. It was, in short, one of those personal epiphanies that we are blessed with from time to time. I’ll be the first to admit that at the time it didn’t especially seem like a blessing, but in retrospect, that is exactly what it was. It was this revelation, engineered no doubt by divine forces, that began the process of a profound change in my thought life. Did that transformation take place overnight? Of course not; but it did take place and I am forever thankful. Allen, in his remarkable little work entitled, Byways to Blessedness, continues by describing the necessity of getting a grip on our cognitive life:
Before a man accomplish anything of an enduring nature in the world he must first of all acquire some measure of success in the management of his own mind. This is as mathematical a truism as that two and two are four, for, “out of the heart are the issues of life.” (Here Allen is referring to Proverbs 4:23). If a man cannot govern the forces within himself, he cannot hold a firm hand upon the outer activities which form his visible life. On the other hand, as a man succeeds, in governing himself he rises to higher and higher levels of power and usefulness and success in the world.
We all seek a North Star, a point of reference to which we can align ourselves and thereby judge our position. Without such a point of reference, we waste valuable time and energy, flitting here and wandering there and ending up nowhere. John Wesley wisely taught that when seeking such an anchor for our lives, we can turn to four sources: tradition, scripture, reason, and experience. During the course of my life, there have been occasions where I have used any one or combination of these sources to make proper judgments and reach vital decisions. Yet more than any other source, I have found greatest value in that “inner light” which God deposited in me. Known by many names, this is indeed the “light which lights every man that comes into the world” as John so aptly put it in the famous Prologue to his gospel. It is this same inner luminous core that George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, spoke of as the radiant wellspring of Christian revelation.
If we are to reach any degree of mastery over our lower self, we must establish, deepen, and maintain steadfast contact with this inner light. James Allen, speaking in context of establishing an anchor for our lives, describes the process in very succinct terms:
A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace. If he trusts to that which fluctuates, he also will fluctuate; if he leans upon that which may be withdrawn he will fall and be bruised; if he looks for satisfaction in perishable accumulations he will starve for happiness in the midst of plenty…Be contented that others shall manage or mismanage their own little kingdom, and see to it that you reign strongly over your own. Your entire well-being and the well-being of the whole world lies there. You have a conscience, follow it; you have a mind, clarify it; you have a judgment, use and improve it; you have a will, employ and strengthen it; you have knowledge, increase it; there is a light within your soul, watch it, tend it, encourage it, shield it from the winds of passion, and help it to burn with a steadier and ever steadier radiance. Leave the world and come back to yourself. Think as a man, live as a man. Be rich in yourself, be complete in yourself. Find the abiding center within you and obey it.
Often the Holy Spirit brings to our attention areas of our thought, feeling, action, or belief that are either inaccurate or no longer serve a useful purpose. It then is incumbent upon us that we cast aside these aspects of our being. Paul speaks to this theme repeatedly when he tells us to take off the old and to put on the new. James Allen tells us:
He who would be clothed in new garments must first cast away the old, and who would find the True must sacrifice the false. The gardener digs in the weeds in order that they may feed, with their decay, the plants that are good for food; and the Tree of Wisdom can only flourish on the compost of uprooted follies.
At first glance, it would seem this process of personal mastery and changing problematic behaviors would be simple. We just identify those behaviors and make up our minds not to engage in them anymore. However, as anyone who has ever tried to change deeply ingrained behaviors will attest, this process is far more difficult that it seems. Further, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of personal mastery.
From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.
I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.
The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.
A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.
One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing an hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.
Two days later I bought a new glove.
My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.
Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be.
To be continued……
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved