January 10, 2013

The virtue of self-control (with God's help)


By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 10, 2013

The virtue of self-control (with God's help)

The other day I saw an internet poster of the movie star Johnny Depp. The caption read: "You can close your eyes to the things you don't want to see, but you can't close your heart to the things you don't want to feel." Mr. Depp is a fine actor, but I disagree with his philosophical quip.

Please bear with me as I explain.

Sure, I can close my eyes to what I don't want to see, literally or figuratively. That is, I can shut my actual eyelids over my eyeballs if, say, I don't want to see the bloody scene on television. Or I can shut my figurative eyelids to the plight of others by, say, not helping people who don't have clean drinking water or food.

But, we should ask: Is it true that I must feel those things I don't want to feel? In other words, we should ask: Has Johnny Depp never made an effort to develop his moral character?

Think about it. I feel a desire to see pornographic images. Must I continue to feel that desire? Answer: No. I can starve this desire to death. How? By not feeding it.

In other words, I can train my heart to tell my feelings when to get off the bus. It's called self-control—an old-fashioned moral virtue.

Think about it some more. I feel a desire to have a cigarette. Must I continue to feel that desire? Answer: No, I can kill the desire by not indulging it.

I feel a desire to get drunk. Must I continue to feel that desire? Answer: No, I can dry up the desire by not fueling it.

I feel hatred toward my neighbour. Must I keep my heart open to that hatred? Must I nurture that hatred? Answer: No, I can decide to engage in actions of love—actions that end up blessing my neighbour and changing my heart.

I speak from experience here.

Before I accepted Jesus of Nazareth as Lord (God), I would often succumb to pornographic images (Playboy magazines and the like), but now I don't. My heart has become closed to this trash.

I was also an addicted cigarette smoker for about 15 years, but managed to quit. I've had about three puffs over the past two decades, but the desire now is a phantom, easily dismissed from my heart.

I also used to drink alcohol often and often got drunk. In fact, I was in the grip of alcoholism. Moreover, in the depths of my being I couldn't imagine my life without alcohol. But now my heart is closed to alcohol. The feeling to drink to excess has dried up via a life of choosing (with God's help) not to drink to excess.

Allow me to get even more personal. A few years ago I seriously thought about killing my neighbour (who lived in the basement suite). His music and video games had kept me from sound sleep for nearly three months, in spite of my many requests of him to turn down the volume.

Late one sleepless night, I entertained the idea of stabbing my neighbour with a kitchen carving knife. I indulged the idea, even mentally rehearsing the physical steps. I hated him, and I wanted to murder him.

But then, in a flash of sanity, I prayed for help. I immediately had the sense that I should act as if I love my neighbour even when my heart's desire was to murder him. (I also recalled having read this strategy for moral action in a book by C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in a section called "Let's Pretend.")

Interestingly, a few minutes later my neighbour knocked on my door seeking medical attention for a wound to his hand. I forced myself to clean and bandage his hand. I then noticed that he was shaking. It turned out that he hadn't eaten since the previous day. So I fixed him a sandwich and gave him a glass of milk. As he ate, I began to feel a love for this fellow, a love I believe came from God—a love that overwhelmed and replaced the feeling of murderous hatred in my heart.

In other words, I was able, with God's help, to close my heart to what I didn't want to feel, and I was able, with God's help, to open my heart to what God wanted me to feel.

I'm sure that the desire or temptation to lust, smoke, get drunk, or hate will return to my heart, and I'm sure that I will sometimes stumble. But I also have a growing assurance that, with God's help, I can resist the temptations—and that I will walk more often than stumble.

Johnny Depp is a fine actor, to be sure. But his philosophical quip is deeply mistaken, for which I am deeply grateful—and for which, I strongly suspect, my neighbour is deeply grateful too. (Thanks be to God!)

I pray that God would continue to work in me in the New Year, and I pray that God would help my readers to grow in Him too.

Happy New Year!

(Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., teaches ethics at Providence University College. He believes that objective [i.e., real] moral truth exists and that part of discerning objective moral truth involves developing those virtues which dispose us to act in accordance with such truthThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Climenheise said...

Thank you, Hendrik. Your comments remind me of Jean Twenge's book, "Generation Me", in which she observes that our culture's fascination with a good self-image produces narcissists, which psychologists (like Twenge) recognize as unhealthy. Self-control, she suggests, is worth much more than feeling good. Then a good self-image comes from self-control, which echoes Paul's description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

High School Sermons said...

This is concisely argued and remarkably honest. Our culture seems to believe freedom is the ability to live in accordance with the heart. A misguided notion that leads to much suffering.