There is a world of difference between using punishment to control someone and using self-control to enhance oneself. The first is coercive and the latter is voluntary. This is a touchy matter when we consider how much legislation is necessary in a society. How much do we need to control the population so as to prevent chaos versus how much can we trust people to do the right thing on their own?
In the best case, as people mature we do the right thing by using self-control and self-discipline. Such people do not worry about laws and regulations, not because they are libertines, but because they are in touch with compassion and empathy. This engenders self-respect, which in turn flows over into respect for other people. Such people have such high ethics that they voluntarily set high moral standards for themselves.
The fly in the ointment is that a large percentage of the population does not follow this line of thinking. So, in order to guide food standards, assure better safety of the roads, help keeping us from harming others, etcetera, we have regulations and statutes. Civilization was formed by knowledge of this human condition. Manu, the great Vedic seer may have been the first person to put this realization into practical useage. This has been the case with other leaders such as Hammurabi, and much later, the democratic practices of Ancient Athens, and so on. At the core, the idea is to balance the necessity of punishments with the ideal of individual self-control.
I thought about this balancing act the other day while doing some laundry. When I was a very young boy, my parents had a rule about picking up worn clothing and placing it into a hamper. Failure to do so would result in a mild warning. If I still failed to pick up after myself, this would result in a more serious scolding. Eventually, I did not need to be reminded. This eventually led to helping mom with some basic laundry tasks. This happened with many of my peers, as well.
As is the case with other folks, the practice of regular washing of clothing became a habit. Although there are social mores about wearing clean clothes and there are sanitation laws in place for severe cases of unsanitary living conditions, most people do not need to have the police enforce rules to wear clean clothing. Most of us either begrudgingly or cheerfully take care of this normal task. This is a basic type of self-control.
On a different level people have personal goals regarding our lives. We have evolved with the seeds of discipline and self-control that have been planted in our minds by parents and teachers. We have the choice to neglect these seeds–causing them to whither away. Or we can water them with mindfulness and practice so they can grow healthy and strong. At some point, without any coersion, guilt-tripping, nor threat of punishment, we become self-regulating individuals who cause no harm to others nor ourselves.
We learn that in the self-interest of our own happiness that to live life with a modicum of humility and self-control, we lose indifference to the human condition and our resentment about how life unfolds. We understand that a fair amount of self-discipline yields a more satisfactory life for ourselves and our dealings with others.
We are in the midst of the Holiday Season. These are the days of the year when indulgence and consumption are most encouraged by society and businesses. This is also a prime time to contemplate the nature of self-control and how much of it we have neglected or nurtured. Certainly this goes against the current of social expectations, but now is also the time to test our personal ethics and the strength of our self-control.
It’s OK to enjoy some holiday season indulgences. In the best cases we do so with heart-felt self-control for the good of ourselves and everyone.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes author, public intellectual, psychologist, and psycholinguist, Steven Pinker. “Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.”