By David Hegg
On occasion, an off-the-cuff statement catches my ear and sticks in my brain. Not long ago, a friend remarked, as part of a funny story, that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
It was a great punch line, but even more, it set me to thinking just how many different situations could be tempered in their negative consequences if we took the saying to heart. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Ethically, what this boils down to is what we used to call self-discipline. But somewhere along the line this concept got minimized. Today we are called to go for it, to seize the day, to live life to the fullest. And, in the right context, these all have merit. But it seems to me that, over time, our society has re-defined the beneficial ethic of discipline as equal to the negative-sounding idea of restraint, and turned restraint into a weakness rather than a strength.
Perhaps it is a consequence of our democratic preoccupation with rights. We have become a society intent on our individual rights. If you want it, you should have it. If you need it, you deserve it. This has, in turn, made us consider as enemies anything and anyone who would temper those rights, or suggest self-restraint as often the higher virtue.
But we are finding that the fulfillment of rights without a corresponding discipline of restraint has caused us to become a society with out-of-control spending on the governmental level, out-of-control morality on the ethical level, out of control ranting on the communication level, and out-of-control heartache on the relational level.
While our Congress battles to see a way out of our nation’s massive tribalism, our families are trying to cope with the tragic results of selfish, rights-oriented living that destroys marriages and children, and ultimately, the community. So much of the problem can be traced back to an attitude of personal and corporate entitlement driven by the simple fact that we all want what we want, and we want it now.
We intend to do what we want to do, live the way we want to live, and we defy anyone to say that we should curb our desires or our rights. But the scoreboard tells the terrible story that, while we are amassing moments of personal pleasure, we are piling up days, years and lifetimes of regret over broken health, broken finances, broken promises and, most of all, broken relationships. Again, it is time to remember that just because we can do something, or think we deserve something, doesn’t mean we should do it if, ultimately, it isn’t best in the long run.
And so, we come to the point: The reason self-discipline in so many areas is quickly becoming seen as the enemy of “really living” is that we have largely lost the ability to prize the virtue of delayed gratification. We are quickly becoming a society that can’t look beyond the next few hours. If it feels good, let’s do it. And let’s do it now. It’s our right, and immediate satisfaction is the stuff of authentic living.
But, sadly, we’re reaping the consequences, and we all know it. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
Every strong society and every strong moral leader have had to overcome the primal urge for immediate satisfaction through the virtue of delayed gratification. It is only when we take the time to see the long-term consequences of our actions that we build the fortitude to say “no” to what we can do in order to say “yes” to what we should do.
When our desires are understood to be lethal to our destiny, they must be disciplined away from being our masters. And when our desires become our slaves rather than our masters, we are more able to see the future clearly, to deal with problems honestly and to muster up the courage necessary to tackle them effectively. Saying “no” to self builds moral muscle, and it will take all the moral muscle we can find to salvage our nation from its profligate ways, and our homes from the tragedy of broken promises and financial ruin.
Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And doing what we should do will mean identifying what is best, what is most virtuous, not only for ourselves, but also for those we love and lead, and the children to whom we will leave this great nation in the years to come.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.