Commandment 7: Soundness and Rightness of Will
A commandment is a call to action. One cannot command a feeling, a belief, or an attitude – only command an action. And to develop strength and integrity of character, one must take some crucial actions. I’ve already discussed six important “commandments”: avoid a sense of entitlement by being grateful; gain mastery over your natural urge to seek pleasure by consciously subordinating this basic instinct to the cause of life itself; and gain mastery over your impulses by conscientiously thinking before you act. These are a few. But thinking before acting is not enough to ensure reliable self-control. We also need willpower. And we need more than just willfulness. We need rightness and soundness of will. Striving to develop a sound and correct will is the 7th “commandment”.
Humans Are Not Robots
We humans are not merely products of our constitution or our environment. Yes, we have innate tendencies and predispositions. And yes, things happen to us that influence us. But we’re unique among all creatures in our capacity for choice. And a variety of powerful experiences has taught me that a person’s will is capable of being nurtured, strengthened, and correctly directed.
More than Willfulness
To be a person of sound character it’s not enough to be merely strong-willed. I’ve known many willful people whose lives were a shipwreck. Integrity of character is about choosing mindfully, correctly, and with a fair degree of consistency. There’s an old saying that practice makes perfect. But this is not really accurate advice. “Rehearsing” error only begets more and repeated error. Only correct practice makes perfect. And to develop a strong but healthy will, you must do more than exercise it regularly. You also have to exercise it rightly, guided by sound principle.
Perseverance, patience, and endurance are not really virtues in themselves. A man intent on robbing a gas station may spend hours or days meticulously planning and executing his caper. He may also wait for the just the right time to strike. And some disturbed characters maintain resolve to deal with life in certain ways no matter how many negative consequences ensue. Daring is not the same as courage or forbearance. Nor is obstinacy the same as strength of will. We have to develop both soundness and rightness of purpose with respect to our wills.
Integrity and Will
Most of the character-disturbed individuals I’ve counseled didn’t lack integrity of character because they didn’t believe in themselves. (They might have been told that by well-meaning but off-target counselors.) What they didn’t believe in was something bigger than themselves. But even when they did (with good therapy), they faced an even bigger challenge. That’s the challenge of freely surrendering their wills to a higher purpose or power (as emphasized in one of the “Twelve Steps”).
Willfulness in the service of justice, righteousness, and the common good is indeed a virtue. Accepting moral and social obligation, working hard for the benefit of all, persevering in noble endeavors despite obstacles, relentlessly pursuing justice, and living righteously (i.e., truly loving), are indeed the most noble ways to exercise a will. Putting faith in some sort of higher power helps. And committing oneself to love, regardless of the hardship that sometimes requires, is the most necessary and virtuous act of will. I’ll have more on this topic next week.