Monday, July 13, 2009

Discipline: Obama, Part IV

It occurs to me that our culture does not much 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.

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 that 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.


Twilight said...

AMEN !!!

Wonderful piece, sir. Thank you!
I shall save it in my Favourites File to refer to when the winds of dissatisfaction with our President start to howl in the media.

secret agent woman said...

I think people had this expectation that he would weep in, undo all the damage done by Bush, and make everything perfect. But with only so much time and resource, he is indeed making choices and setting priorities and changing things as he can. I'm also counting on him to take the long view.

Gary said...

It may be that our choices seem infinite while time runs out faster as we age. It is a calculation with some elements missing like an algebra problem.

Obama is working with tools that are broken and fools that are making demands for a quick and optimal turn around. His real enemy is the impatience we all have with the economic predicament in which we all find ourselves entangled. Neither blue dogs nor braying donkeys can bring clarity to the birds nest of tangles the world has on its plate.

You fine condensed thoughts are food for my children's mind's and I thank you for them Peter
for I ask for them to read your work when I feel they can benefit from the content.

Their world is dense with choices and their means to seek answers are so great in number I am occasionally stymied by their requests for direction. The path you've defined above will be posted in their rooms today.

John Torcello said...

During Obama's recent press conference from Italy, I noticed a preponderance of grey hair emerging. If you collect early, then later, photos of all our presidents you can, more often than not, see this phenomena.

Irrespective of one's political view, it is clear that Obama is a very special person; the kind that rise to the fore only ever so infrequently.

Determination and passion are unstoppable forces; particularly when applied with equanimity; and Obama, I think, is a fine example of this force in action; in spite of my own sometimes impatience and misunderstanding.

As Obama continues to garner more credibility and trustworthiness in his role as our president; I breathe a little more easy.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Twilight. A great compliment!

Secret, yes, the expectations were far too high, the pile of shit to great to shovel in so short a time. Let's hope for many more who'll manage to be patient.

Gary, I find it so very moving that you pass these words on to your boys. I feel honored to be, in some small way, their teacher. Bless 'em! (And bless you!)

And let's all keep breathing, John!

gregg chadwick said...

"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."

Brilliant words Peter. Discipline, determination and a steely resolve will take us far in the political realm and in our personal lives.

Thanks for a great piece. And I too love the Tour de France. And since I am writing on July 14th -
"Joyeux Quatorze Juillet !"

PeterAtLarge said...

And the same to you, Gregg. Thanks for stopping by!