The Clean Slate Phenomena
Take the prevalence of New Year’s resolutions. The Wharton professor Katherine Milkman said she found it striking that “at the start of a new year, we feel like we have a clean slate. It’s the ‘fresh start effect’ . . . all of my past failures are from last year and I can think, ‘Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.’ ”
In other words, New Year’s resolutions are not really about the resolutions. After all, for most people, the resolutions haven’t changed. Most people wanted to lose weight and save money on December 31, too. What we’re doing on New Year’s Day is more like a mental accounting trick. Our past failures are left on the ledger of Old Me. New Me starts today.
Disciplining Daily Deeds
We can learn a thing or two about discipleship and the discipline required of a disciple from our fourth-century monastic brothers and sisters. Like them, we do basic, ordinary activities every day. We get dressed, we buy things and take them home, we think, we eat, we hang out with friends, we talk (a lot), we work (a lot), and we rest. But what we don’t realize is that we tend to do these activities in selfish and vicious ways.
We do these things in ways that hurt our neighbor (and are unhealthy for us). And we are completely unaware of it because we have been doing things this way since childhood. And to top it all off, this way of doing things is unassumingly reinforced by culture and society—this is what everyone does and how everyone does it! But what the lives of these monks reveal to us is that we have to relearn how to be a human being and how God intended for us to act and live on a very basic human level.
We have to relearn how to use our minds—not the mental faculties but the thoughts. We have to relearn how to eat—not the use of utensils but how much to consume. We have to relearn how to socialize—not to network for future jobs but to give people space.
We have to discipline our daily deeds. As John Cassian rightly saw them, what we nowadays call spiritual disciplines are practices for a community to reform its way of life together—the thoughts, attitudes, habits, practices, and behavior of individuals, and the general lifestyle or way of living of the community. These practices are for a community as it interacts in healthy and harmonious ways in shared spaces.
Doing the Work Before the Work
In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:
Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.
His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.
I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.
How to Make a Sacrifice
How do you define what it means to “make a sacrifice?” We say we sacrifice for our family, or sacrifice for our careers. We speak of Jesus sacrificing himself so that we can experience eternal life. Augustine of Hippo, the great North African bishop, defined sacrifice as “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else.” Which begs the question, what are we willing to sacrifice, and
for whom or what?
Every day we make decisions based on our priorities, and those priorities sacrifice one thing for another thing. Sadly, we often fall
into habits, where we no longer can recognize our selfish, self-centered priorities. If sacrifice is, as Augustine once said, “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else,” then what are you surrendering for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom?
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Our Problem with Discipline
Many of us don’t like this word “discipline.” It makes us feel uncomfortable, even icky. It has negative connotations. We often associate it with punishment or retribution. To discipline is to punish, right? When a child does something wrong, we discipline him and send him to time-out. He sits in time-out as punishment for the wrong he committed. He has violated some rule in the house, and to make up for the “crime” we send him to time-out.
And sometimes we tell him that he won’t get a snack later. We are disciplining him; we are punishing him. To our contemporary mind, they are one and the same. But this confusion is unfortunate. Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. The root of the word “discipline” carries a much more favorable connotation than punishment.
“Discipline” means instruction. To discipline is to teach, and to be disciplined is to be instructed. In meaning and practice, it is worlds apart from punishment. Whereas punishment is about paying a penalty or compensating for a wrong committed, discipline is about making things right. It’s about getting back on track. It’s about settling the matter. It’s about resolving the issue. It’s about fixing the problem. It’s about healing a broken agreement or promise. It’s about reconciling so that we can keep going.
Sitting in the Light
A piano sits in a room, gathering dust. It is full of the music of the masters, but in order for such strains to flow from it, fingers must strike the keys… trained fingers, representing endless hours of disciplined dedication. You do not have to practice. The piano neither requires it nor demands it. If, however, you want to draw a beautiful music from the piano, that discipline is required.…
You do not have to pay the price to grow and expand intellectually. The mind neither requires it nor demands it. If, however, you want to experience the joy of discovery and the pleasure of plowing new and fertile soil, effort is required. Light won’t automatically shine upon you nor will truth silently seep into your head by means of rocking-chair osmosis. It’s up to you. It’s your move.
What “Now” Means
A friend often told me about the problems he had getting his son to clean his room. The son would always agree to tidy up, but then wouldn’t follow through. After high school the young man joined the Marine Corps. When he came home for leave after basic training, his father asked him what he had learned in the service.
“Dad,” he said. “I learned what ‘now’ means.”
Jan King, “Humor in Uniform,” Readers Digest, May, 1996, p. 174.
See also Illustrations on Accountability
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Discipline. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!