Prolonged discipline is hard, though I’m sure this is hardly a revelation to anyone. It seems our minds and our bodies are prone to derail from whatever project we undertake. It is possible to be really focused on a short-term project—I can even get a bit obsessive—but the long run, day after relentless day of discipline is tough, especially if it is an open-ended project.
A class might be tough, but it has a clearly defined end; the end of the period or semester. Other things are more along the lines of “til death do us part,” including prayer and every other spiritual discipline. In my profession, preaching can feel that way; there is always the next sermon to prepare.
Even my experiment with 500 words per day on this blog, only in its 3rd month, has had highs and lows in energy and enthusiasm. Some days, the ideas pile up and I have to decide which one to pursue. Other days, I sit and stare at a blank screen. At least I have accountability in my very dedicated editor who asks me each day if my blog is ready yet. Without that, this project may have fizzled already.
But what about those things that only we really care about? How do we stay the course with them? I think part of the genius of monasticism is that they are accountable to someone. They voluntarily submit to a regula, a rule for life, and are held to it by someone. As believers today, most of us do not have that and I think it is a great loss.
Even in less eternal pursuits like learning a language or an instrument, the difficulty of prolonged discipline is evident. With the volume of information at our fingertips today, most of us could be self-taught in these areas instead of depending on knowledge delivered piecemeal from a particular person. Writings, videos, and recordings exist, yet we tend to fizzle and never get very far. Basics of Biblical Greek sits on my shelf and a bass guitar sits behind me and both speak to this phenomena. I can play the bass, but I haven’t progressed much beyond where I was 6 years ago, and I’ve worked through the first half-dozen chapters of Greek twice so far.
Why is it that we need someone to kick us in the seat of the pants in order to get past initial interest in a subject or skill? Maybe we have too many interests. I have seriously considered selling my bass not because playing it distracts me from other things—I hardly ever play it anymore—but because it distracts me with a nagging feeling that “if I have it, I should learn to play it better.”
I’ve pretty well decided the only way I’m ever going to really (re)learn Greek is to either start a dedicated study group or enroll in a class; mostly because then I would feel obligated to follow through. It has become obvious that my own desire is often more of a velleity¹ most of the time. I am only internally motivated to a point and then I either need a swift kick or something to re-spark my desire. Swift kicks I can arrange for; sparks of inspiration, unfortunately, I cannot.
¹Velleity n. The weakest desire or volition. A mere wish that does not lead to the slightest action.