For every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing.
The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours – it is an amazing journey – and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.
It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.
Perhaps it’s a lack of self-control. What is self-control? It is that elusive quality which restrains us and keeps us out of trouble. It keeps us from falling prey to temptations that feel pleasing now, but bring disaster down the road. Yet… self-control is so difficult to attain for so many of us that entire books can be written about the subject.
We have met the enemy…
“We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” is a book by Daniel Akst which looks at the growing problems caused by a lack of self-control. Instant gratification is becoming the norm. First, we are punishing ourselves with poor health. In the U.S. and in many other wealthy countries around the world, waistlines have been expanding at an alarming rate. Nearly 1 out of 3 Americans is now obese, and nearly 2 thirds are overweight. Cooking healthy food used to be the norm, but nowadays it’s so easy to go out and buy junk food, or to stick some frozen food in the microwave and heat it up.
We are doing ourselves in mentally as well. Self-discipline, determination, and strength of character are seen as desirable traits to have, but traits that are becoming replaced by a “Me, myself, and I” mentality. Many of us never really fully develop into adults, but remain dependent children, and the technology and services available today make this easier than ever before.
Don’t feel like exercising, but just want to watch TV all day? Well, you don’t even have to wait for your show to come on anymore: Just download everything from the Internet. Want to take an expensive trip, but don’t have the money for it? Well, that’s what your credit card is for! Got yourself in over your head, and don’t know what to do now? Don’t worry: Uncle Sam probably has some sort of bailout to help you wash your hands of the mess that you created.
With so many temptations at every corner, and free candy for the taking… is it any wonder that so many of us develop a stomache ache?
The nature of the enemy
On one hand, one has to marvel at the benefits that have come with technological progress, with a cornucopia of food, media, and information available for our consumption. Not too long ago, the problem was finding enough food to eat and survive. Is it really such a bad thing that we have such an abundance of wealth in today’s world?
Well, it can be, when we don’t control our consumption of this wealth. Part of the problem is due to excusitis — the rationalization and the excusing of our failure to exercise control over ourselves. Have you failed to pay your taxes on time? Perhaps you suffer from “non-filer’s syndrome”, as some in government apparently do. However, some people really do have medical or biological reasons why they are unable to exercise adequate self-control — is it really someone’s fault if they have a brain tumour?
Unlike other animals, we can exercise an incredible degree of control over our bodies with our minds, but we are still very much a product of nature, our genetic makeup, and evolution. We know that teens have more problems with judgment and clear, rational thinking, which is why we have an age of majority and different legal rules for those under it; it’s kind of hard to blame teens for the way they are when science has shown clear biological underpinnings for these differences in behavior.
Perhaps all life has evolved to discount the future in a certain way: Other animals have been observed to have the same short-sighted time preference that we do. Perhaps the fact that we evolved in a world of widespread scarcity explains in part why we have such trouble coping with the abundance of today’s world.
We can also blame ourselves for the decisions we make at the voting booth. An ideal government is one that enforces sanctions to prevent people from hurting each other, whether through fraud, deception, or outright force, and does no more than that. A society with such a structure would have a small government or quasi-government, but today’s governments are far more powerful than the ideal outlined here. They tax, spend, and redistribute with impunity, and often at the voter’s bequest.
This relationship between the voter and the government creates incentives against self-control; after all, why should you be responsible when you can just get bailed out? Why should you save when everything will be taken care of for you? By exercising the vote, each voter can steal a little bit from every other voter. The voter receives many benefits, such as social security, free tuition, and medicare. Yet, no voter wants to pay the true cost of these services, so the government must issue debt and inflate the currency.
In the process of entrusting the government with so much responsibility, much wealth is siphoned away and lost. Eventually, the promises must be broken or the system will collapse, but which politician would get elected by giving people the cold, hard, and ugly truth? People don’t want to give up the easy life and they will fight to keep it, even at the cost of more pain down the road.
Is there any hope?
If part of our behavior is determined by our environment, genes, and evolution, then how can we possibly manage to overcome such hard constraints?
I personally believe that even if nature sets the boundaries, it’s still up to us where we end up within those boundaries. We can make a lot of progress simply by acknowledging the problem, and our own weaknesses and limitations. The author makes a good case for reducing temptations by simplifying your life and structuring your environment to be more conducive to reaching your goals. Social pressure can help — want to add pressure toward reaching your resolutions? Tell everyone about them. There is hope for us, but we need to be actively involved in the solution.
From the inside fold: “Using self-control as a lens rather than a cudgel, We Have Met the Enemy draws a vivid picture of the many-sided problem of desire – and delivers a blueprint for how we can steer shrewdly toward the wants we most want for ourselves. At stake is not just our health but our humanity, for what could make us more fully human than the ability to set aside impulse when we choose to do so? We Have Met the Enemy explains not just why you can’t, but how you can.”
As a bonus to my readers, I am giving away one free copy, courtesy of the publisher! To enter, just tell me your thoughts and stories regarding personal self-control. I will pick a winner in two weeks’ time… good luck!