The Self-Control Unicorn

The Self-Control Unicorn January 30, 2019

This was an entertaining, if rather old, article. Apparently, self-control is not just elusive, it is a myth, like that pony you think you’re going to buy next year, or that great paying job you’re sure exists in the rust belt, or that unicorn you saw dancing around at the back of Walmart in the camping, or was it crafting, section. That ancient sin, says Vox, because they have totally read the Bible, wasn’t about idolatry, it was a lack of self-control. Eve, as you might have heard, couldn’t resist the apple. Then, poor thing, several millennia worth of human people looked down on her as if she had suffered some moral failing. But it wasn’t that at all. See, it’s not possible to have self-control in the first place, and so we need to take the moral stigma away and deal with it as a purely practical problem. Which it is, because we’re getting rounder and rounder and more and more addicted to our cell-phones, and also heroine.

Miraculously, after a lot of studying—involving, to be sure, completely replicable studies, I’m sure there is nothing questionable about any of the methods anywhere along the way—leading thought leader psychologists discovered the key. And believe me, it is world-changing. No one knew it ever before. Ready?

Them as does not suffer from temptations have an easier time avoiding those things by which they are not, in fact, tempted.

The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.

To say it another way, if you’re tempted by something—really tempted—you will give way to that thing. You may say no once or twice, but you will not keep saying no, not over and over again. If you have to pass the donut shop on the way to work, you may walk by it going, but after a long slog at your day job, you will definitely stumble into it coming home in the evening. Because self-care, and other critical functions of modern life.

The voxsplainers at Vox drive the nail home, “‘There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial,’ Milyavskaya, a professor at Carleton University, tells me. ‘And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.’”

Except, incidentally, that it is, because the next section is called What Can We Learn From People Who Are Good At Self-Control. This is where it gets good. The first thing we learn is that people who are good at self-control aren’t actually exercising that precious and non-existent commodity. They just like doing the things they’re supposed to do. They like to eat healthy food. They like going to the gym. They like to study or work. They are probably unicorns, and I feel like it is fine to fear, envy, and loath them.

The second thing we learn is that they, those self-controlled people who are not actually acting with self-control, have developed good habits that carry the emotional weight of those rare ‘good’ activities that they might not enjoy quite as much. They’re not always having to decide to do difficult things.

Third, people who are self-controlled are sometimes genetically predisposed to experience less temptation. Boy I’d like to see the study on this one. But also, thank goodness, because that lets me out, and everyone. It’s not my fault, it’s that of all my ancestors.

And finally, fourth, the researchers learned that money really helps. Wealth is one of the best ways to get a handle on your temptations. This, as we know, is the Just Be Rich approach to life that I have stolen from my dear and closest friends. Self-care absolutely works better when you are rich, and so does self-control. If you’re rich, for example, you know there is more where that came from, so you can say no to the marshmallow in front of you now. If you are poor, you know there is no more where that came from, so you go ahead and eat the marshmallow.

Personally, I am happy that Vox has uncovered a basic, if Anglican, truth. Some famous Anglican or other said, as a lot of you know, ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.’ If you love God, you will want to do what he wants, and it won’t feel quite so much like the terrible work that it is, because you’ll want to do it. If you want to be fit more than anything, going to the gym will be the thing that you want to do. If you don’t want to die of heart disease, you’ll probably listen when your doctor tells you to stop smoking and eat something healthy. What you want to do is what you do. This is a basic Christian principle. And why that business with Eve was so telling. The temptation was that she wanted to be like God, not that she was particularly hungry for some strange tasting fruit. As soon as she saw what she wanted, she acted.

That’s why ‘self-control’ is one of those unhelpful things promised in the Bible—because God knows we don’t want it and can’t do it on our own. And so the first help, of course, is desire itself. You find, as you begin to love God, that you also very much want to do those things that he wants you to do that you never wanted to do before.

But it’s true, good habits that take emotional weight out of difficult choices help too. Changing the way you carry on your ordinary life so that you don’t have to face the unhappy reality of bread every few minutes is one way, and another way is to reward yourself for doing the things you know you’re supposed to be doing, so that your desire to do that thing increases slowly over time. I say you because I have this all sorted out and am well disciplined and never do anything bad or wrong.

Which is another important point. Self-discipline is a moral quality, but it doesn’t need to be a shaming one. Just because we’re all bad at it doesn’t make it suddenly no big deal. Doing the thing that you ought to do is morally good, and doing the thing which you ought not to do is morally bad. Fantastically, the grace and forgiveness of God is there for everyone who fails, which is everyone. So there need not be unkindness and blame, but there could be prayer, even that horribly difficult one. How does that go? “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep your law.”

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