Discipline (Obama, Part IV)

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It occurs to me that our culture doesn't do much to encourage us to respect discipline, much less practice it. We grow up believing it to be the enemy of creativity and an obstruction to our imagined freedoms; and while we grudgingly acknowledge its value -- for others, chiefly! -- it is not something we embrace with enthusiasm in our own lives.

This is a shame, because it's discipline alone that can teach us to prioritize, to strategize, to persist, and to achieve -- in our politics as well as in our personal lives. Let's start with the personal.

Each one of us, I think, faces multiple choices in our daily lives, and we do not have time for all of them. I don't know about you, but for me the days are more likely to seem too short than too long. Between the chores and errands and the necessities (like eating!), it's often hard to find the time to do those things I actually want to do; and there are so many of those that I won't get any of them done unless I make some choices. I have to prioritize, to choose among them those that are the most important. It's a kind of mental triage, much better performed when it's done mindfully than when I allow pure circumstance to make the choices for me.

Once the choices are made, it's a similar practice of discipline that I need in order to strategize the implementation of my plans. Without some basic organization, things tend to go rapidly awry. I will need the basic materials, I may need to enlist the support of others--who may be more reluctant than I to see it through. I will certainly need to organize my thoughts; or, if I prefer not to start out with the thoughts but rather develop them along the way, at least find that starting thread that will lead me where I want to go, and determine the time and place I need to make it happen.

Of all the disciplines involved, however, I think persistence is the most important -- and possibly the most difficult. There will inevitably be many distractions and many disappointments along the way, any one of which can weaken my resolve. The telephone rings, it's an important call that needs my immediate attention. The dog barfs on the carpet. The bills have not been paid, the leaves need sweeping outside in the garden. Or... the work is proving harder than I had imagined. The words won't flow the way I want them to. What I thought at first was an excellent idea turns out to lead me nowhere. I begin to worry about whether I've said it right, about how I might be judged by others.

I can soon find myself in a stew that only persistence can help me out of. Persistence is a discipline, too. It's a rejection of every distraction and excuse that comes along and a return of the attention to the task at hand. It's a refusal to be deterred from the purpose I have set myself, a quiet insistence on the pursuit of this particular goal. If I don't have it and put it into practice, I can forget about achievement. I'm not going anywhere.

These thoughts were prompted in good part by a much broader concern, this one on the national, even global scale: my continuing -- even increasing -- worry that we stand to squander the very opportunity we created with the election of President Obama. I keep coming back to this because I believe the country -- and indeed the world -- to be in very real danger. We're at a moment in our history where we need ourselves to exercise some of the discipline that attracted us to Obama in the first place, after the spectacle of a president who seemingly had none, and who drove us mindlessly into the abysmal mess in which we find ourselves today.

As I said earlier, we grudgingly admire in others the discipline that we lack ourselves, or fail to exercise. At the same time, it unnerves us. Our natural tendency -- eternal children that we are -- is to rebel against it. Barack Obama, it seems to me, is a man of steely resolve. How else could he have achieved what he has already achieved? How else could he have won the presidency, other than with those abilities to prioritize, to strategize, and to persist? And yet when we see him now -- prioritizing, strategizing, persisting -- we get impatient. Because the achievement of a particular goal might require a sidestep, a feint, a parry rather than a thrust, we are ready with accusations of backsliding and promises unkept. If a principle we hold dear becomes a willow rather than an oak, adapting its strength to the force of the wind instead of snapping in the attempt to remain upright at all costs, we natter on about the loss of integrity and the abandonment of principle.

I only hope that Obama's discipline will outlast our impatience and our skepticism. A man of willowy strength, he understands better than his adversaries the power of knowing when to bend -- and when it's important to stand straight. I choose to believe in his integrity, that those things he put forward as his beliefs and the promises he made when he campaigned and we elected him are still his beliefs and promises. He may not be able to achieve them all in the time at his disposal. It's possible that he'll be brought down by the weight of the multitude of less disciplined minds who seek to satisfy more immediate needs and reap more immediate rewards. For myself, having trusted him enough to cast my vote for him, I'm planning to trust him to take the longer view.