Long years ago when I was enduring clinical pastoral education, a chaplaincy training program, required for the education of ministers only in the Unitarian Universalist and Episcopal churches, my supervisor, an Episcopalian, said, “You know it’s not really traditional Christians but Unitarians who are the ‘people of the word.’ I’ve never seen anyone else so concerned with the meaning and usage of words.” I suspect that may well be true. It is often merely words and their particular definitions that send us looking for a religion that will not have us saying words that we don’t mean or force us to struggle for different interpretations of words. This is not trivial as many people think it is, although when it becomes overly analytical it can be. We share complicated ideas with words, and the more complicated the idea the more important it is that we have the right words to convey our meaning.
The dictionary is not always terribly helpful. It will give you the commonly accepted definitions, and if you are lucky it will use the word in a sentence for you. It will often give synonyms and antonyms. It will tell you the origin of a word, which often gives extra insight into its meaning. What it won’t do, usually, is make judgments about a word. With the knowledge that language is always evolving, it will not mourn with some of us the increasing lack of specificity or subverted meaning of a word in popular usage.
A word that has been bothering me a lot recently is discipline. It is a concept I have always appreciated, an idea that has mattered to me for many reasons, but there are two places that I hear it all the time nowadays that I don’t appreciate at all, even though in the first usage, at least, that I shall discuss, it is a usage long graced by tradition.
Discipline is a form of the word disciple, meaning one who follows a particular teaching with the commitment to become perfect in it him or herself and to bring others to a sense of its truth. It has meant a body of knowledge which it takes some time, effort, skill and commitment to master. It has also meant, by obvious connection, a quality of mastery of self, a refusal of self-indulgence in the pursuit of something not easy to attain.
In talking about the parlous state of public education in theUnited Statesa frequently heard comment among the majority of lay-folk is that what the schools need is more discipline. In theory, I couldn’t agree with them more. That’s what education is about — bodies of knowledge and the commitment to attain them and the learning of self-mastery in the process of maturation. Except that’s not really what they mean. They mean that teachers should be allowed to paddle students, or at least be given a freer hand in punishment. It is that other definition of discipline, a synonym that you will find in every dictionary: punishment. To discipline = to punish. They say it means to train or to control, and then they have in bold italics:syn., to punish. In the dictionaries I checked, it was the only synonym given.
Well, I understand how it happened. There is a very widespread notion that punishment is a good teaching tool particularly in the teaching of behavior. If people do something bad and you punish them, you teach them to control their behavior in future. They won’t do it again because they don’t want to be punished again, and because they now know it was wrong. They have been disciplined and are, therefore, now disciplined. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, except that there is little evidence that it does work that way. Although swift retribution may have some controlling power, general educators and psychologists are very clear that that is not how learning occurs — except learning about how not to get punished, or how to get punished without other unpleasant consequences. It doesn’t instill a love of learning, it doesn’t create a conscience, it doesn’t provide moral guidelines, it doesn’t clarify a puzzling piece of information. It does teach the timid how to conform, how to avoid risk, what to fear.
Let me make it clear that I share the wide concern and even anger about the state of public education in many, if not all, of the urban areas of our country. When you have to station armed security guards in the schools, you are in serious trouble. Even here inCollierCountythe largest department in the Sheriff’s office is the deputies who are assigned to our schools. However, nothing will convince me that punishment is the answer — or evenananswer. Discipline, however, as I think of it, is at least part of it. Children do need discipline, just as adults need discipline, and it is indeed a lack of discipline that is part cause of the problems in our schools. One vital goal of education, in school and out, is to teach it, and it is something at which we have been sadly failing. It is not surprising. We no longer really value discipline. We don’t even really know what it means.
Which brings me, for the moment, to the second use of the word discipline which causes me discomfort. It is when it is attached to the word spiritual — another word whose definition often escapes us. I was at a workshop once inHoustonin which we were asked to define it, and the answers were mushy to say the least. The most common confusion was to make it a synonym of emotional, probably in the effort to reject the intellectual discipline that has seemed to some to make our faith, which honors the value of reason, occasionally arid. One person even said that spiritual meant anything that wasn’t intellectual. However, I think it may be the word discipline itself which causes at least half of the problem. It really doesn’t seem to mean much of anything when it’s attached to spiritual, except something you do more than once and get some non-material gain from. One of my colleagues even told me that sinking into a hot tub of scented water with a good book was his spiritual discipline. Well, spiritual, perhaps, but discipline — I don’t think so.
I would be the last person to deny that a physical indulgence may indeed have a spiritual dimension. There is nothing that cannot have such a dimension if you have mastered that discipline which enables you to experience the transcendent meaning in all of life. In fact, to lose the sense of the joys of the body as being in some sense spiritual is to lose the integrity of mind and body, heart and soul, which work together for wholeness of being. Nevertheless, indulging the body is not discipline, and usually it is not spiritual either. Now, ifIwere to discover that long hot baths taken while reading were the best way to give transcendent meaning to my material life,thatwould be a spiritual discipline, if I overcame my distaste for them for the sake of spiritual growth. It is not that discipline must or even should be necessarily distasteful or difficult, but it is focused and controlled. It is the opposite of indulgence.
I don’t think that you need to be able to define discipline to be disciplined, nor do you have to be able to define spirituality to be spiritual, but if you are going to prescribe them as cures for society’s evils or individual alienation, you need to reflect a little more deeply than just the offering of a glib use of popular terms. I think that those people who are prescribing discipline for the public schools really do mean discipline in the sense that I mean it, but they think that punishment is enough, that it will achieve the ends that they desire, so they can use the words synonymously without discomfort. I also believe that my friend is a truly spiritual person and that even his baths very likely have a spiritual dimension, but from the other end of the spectrum, he, too, needs to think more deeply about what discipline really means.
It may well be that the search for the spiritual that has become almost obsessive with many people has its genesis in the self-indulgence, the lack of discipline, of our consumer society. People often seem to feel a purposelessness, a lack of meaning in their lives, and seek, quite appropriately, I think, for a life of the spirit. I suspect that were we more disciplined in our approach to life, although we would have the same needs and desires, their fulfillment would be easier, perhaps even almost automatic. However, we have forgotten what it means to be spiritual or to be disciplined and have no idea how to go about it. We cannot teach it to our children nor can we find it naturally in our lives. That may also be why so many of us have become diet fanatics or exercise fanatics or spiritual discipline fanatics. Without having been given the framework of early discipline we must seek it somewhere. We need the limits, the boundaries, the disciplines which will tell us that we are more than just pleasure-seeking semi-sentient, semi-conscious, finite creatures.
We have seen the consequences of a lack of discipline. We have refused to define boundaries, to set limits, to model for our children a disciplined life, and we see the results in drug abuse, in violence, in a dependence on the possession of things to tell us who we are. We don’t want to rely on self-discipline but on magic. We buy lottery tickets and build casinos which we think will save us if we feed their indiscipline; we take herbal compounds to make us smarter or sexier; we rely on crystals or astrology or prayer circles or pop psychotherapy to fix our lives, or punishment, retribution, or other easy answwers to fix society. We refuse responsibility or commitment to anything but our personal gain or pleasure; we perceive restraint and self-control as puritanical at worst, up-tight at best, and wonder why middle-class boys find their sense of self-worth in publicized violence.
Perhaps this is the reason for the renascence of the concept of discipline, however little understood. In the old Unitarian Universalist bylaws, one of the principles spoke of the disciplined search for truth and meaning. In the revision that has almost established itself as a creed in many Unitarian Universalist circles it speaks instead of the responsible search for those things. The revisionists whose primary purpose was to reflect the new feminist sensibility saw the worddisciplineas hierarchical and even patriarchal (perhaps because of its too frequent use as a synonym forpunish). Responsible is certainly a good word, but discipline means something more, an intentionality and even a dedication that responsibility may not have.
We need discipline in our schools. We need it in our society. We need it in our own lives. We need to understand the need to sacrifice present pleasure for future gain, to work for a goal greater than our own physical or psychological well-being, to keep working toward it even when it seems difficult or unattainable, to set limits and stay within them, to do what we know is right, to avoid the wrong, to build our lives and the future with skill and knowledge and faith that we have worked to achieve. We need to put in focused time and effort to make it real. We need to live disciplined lives ourselves and learn to pass the technique of it on to our children. We also need to know when to relax a little, how to keep our earnestness from becoming obsession, and when we need to just take a long hot bath or laugh at a joke or go dancing. We may even need to learn a discipline of being human which includes play and joy and laughter.
The discipline of commitment to a certain body of knowledge or teaching or way of life or spiritual practice is a far cry from punishment, nor can it be learned through punishment, but it can be lived and in being lived can be imparted to others. It is this kind of living that can even achieve the goal of making our lives more meaningful. Although what is spiritual may not be disciplined, perhaps any discipline is spiritual by its very nature in its ability to take us beyond the greeds and fears of scrambling for survival to a place of skill and knowledge and creativity, where we can build for a future greater than we can now know. It is up to us in the discipline of our lives, not to look to a quick fix, a foreign religion, or an easy answer, to make our lives and our world what they ought to be. Instead we need is a certain amount of discipline and a dedication to a life of the spirit.