Having put away the heavy clothes of winter and the layered attire of early spring, one's true self, shall we say, is revealed. In summer, the body is front and center and, for many, a time of repentance and resolve has arrived. Coming from a heritage that defines food as an important part of the joy of life, this raises a fearful prospect. Images of my siblings and I circling the dinner table drumming like red-bellied piranhas, make getting into shape a dubious venture. But, the juggling of proteins and fats and carbohydrates as well as considering a new exercise regimen enter my thoughts. Tellingly, I always set my goals and assume my success when I am not hungry. Diet is a pretty nasty word; it calls for sacrifice, awareness, and that most mercurial of qualities— willpower.
Acquiring and maintaining one's "spiritual" shape demands that same willpower. Strength of will is necessary for this and most other goals in life. Mahatma Gandhi reflects, "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." Those who have been successful in developing consistent willpower could detail the method that has worked for them. I offer the way of Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame. He was a man of steeled determination who believed that the will needs to be strengthened as much as the body in order to resist "unholy desires and base passions."
In a review of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, the prodigious willpower of Stanley is explored.
In 1884, Stanley made his third expedition into the depths of the African continent. He and his party suffered every peril that the jungle held which led most of the members of the expedition to disease and starvation … and death for many. A technique used by Stanley to keep him going was what he called, "self-forgetfulness." His focus was not on the privations he was suffering, but on his interests and the task ahead. "For my protection against despair and madness, I had to resort to self-forgetfulness; to the interest that my task brought... This encouraged me to give myself up to all neighborly offices, and was morally fortifying." This approach, in my opinion, was much more than mere distraction; the method often used to forget one's own troubles. Stanley's willpower and morale was being strengthened, as if being nourished, by pursuing those actions for which he came.
We may not have to cope with wild animals, disease, and starvation as we set out on our daily trek into the world, but our society harbors many deadly perils nonetheless. The attempt to be faithful to Christian moral values, you have to realize that many of these values are embattled or ignored in the secularly influenced society of today. In addition, do not underplay the effects of what we perceive "everyone else" is doing. Peer pressure is not to be taken lightly, and the strength of our willpower to resist "unholy desires and base passions" is not to be taken for granted.
How can self-forgetfulness work to our advantage. When we are tempted to perform an action that is sinful (an insult to God and to the gift of your life), you place your focus on the other person or persons affected by your action. You weight that effect against the person you want to be in the estimation of God and others. You turn your motivation from conceit to concern. Your focus on the wider reality causes you to reach satisfaction by somehow resolving or, at least, improving the situation. Your will and your action become an instrument in the hand of God rather than a weapon in your own. The mystics, I believe, illustrate the goodness of this approach by expressing their prayerfulness in approaching God as coming to a point of tranquility (self-forgetfulness) and thus being still and totally receptive before God. In the hustle and bustle of daily interactions, we need to learn to forget ourselves in Christ; to serve others in their ability to see your moral stance as an invitation to walk in the light themselves.
Baumeister and Tierney speak of the will as a resource that can be renewed or depleted, protected or wasted. If strength of will is required to get our spirituality in shape, then we must be most respectful of the role of the will in our lives and strengthen it for the mission with which God has entrusted us.