By David Hegg
Our society is increasingly in love with excess. For years we’ve been challenged to go for the gusto, let it all hang out and not allow anything to slow down our dreams. Bigger is better, faster is essential, more is desirable, and the primary motivation in life is getting all you deserve and all the extra you can manage. Just do it!
A consequence of this type of extreme living is the redefinition of restraint as weakness, timidity, or worse. And those who counsel restraint are often painted as old-fashioned killjoys at best and intolerant traditionalists out to rob you of your God-given liberty to live your own life any way you deem best.
Restraint as a concept has joined “tolerance” in the bin of redefinition. While tolerance has been redefined to mean “acceptance” (thus redefining intolerance as hate-filled rejection), restraint is now most often understood to mean an unhealthy restriction on personal freedom and expression. In both cases our society is so much worse as a result.
But I argue that restraint is an essential character quality that will be found in truly productive people. I would argue further that the ability to restrain one’s self is a function of a fundamental ethical belief that just because something is available or permissible does not necessarily mean it is the best option.
Perhaps a better word for restraint is discipline. By discipline I mean the ability to act according to principle rather than impulse. The disciplined person has determined that certain impulses must be eliminated or at least restrained in order to achieve certain goals and remain true to core convictions. For example, the Olympic athlete has determined that pushing her muscles past the place of ease is a necessary discipline if a medal is to be won. Through years of rigorous training, including diet, strength training, mental training, and all of the special skill training her event demands, this world-class performer has determined that the pain associated with rigor is more to be desired than the pleasure of ease simply because the way of pain leads to competitive success.
Discipline as a concept is made up of two necessary convictions: restraint and perseverance. Perseverance is continuing on despite enormous and constant opposition. Restraint is holding back despite the allure of that which we know is both unwise and destructive to our plan for success.
Today we often champion perseverance, and rightly so. In July when the cameras follow the Olympic marathoners we will see perseverance up close and personal. These men and women will keep running, mile after mile, even though their chests and lungs will be screaming for them to stop.
On the other hand, little is said in praise of restraint. This may well be because restraint is invisible. It is only when the restraints are broken and the empowered self is let loose that we begin to consider the concept.
Lately, we’ve watched as angry mobs have looted, burned and terrorized cities in a show of violence ostensibly motivated by a desire for justice. How much more effective would their passion have been if they had showed restraint, and presented their message in ways that caused the public to think deeply rather than cower in fear? Their lack of restraint is what most will remember even if their message had validity.
In the final game of a Stanley Cup championship a few years ago, a New Jersey Devil hockey player skated through all the mental and humanitarian stop signs and brutally fouled one of the Los Angeles Kings’ players. This enormous lack of restraint led to his ejection from the game, and a five-minute penalty during which the short-handed Devils watched the Kings score three goals. Effectively, the game and the season and the Devils’ run for the Cup was over. They lost everything they had worked for. Even worse, his action is irreversible. It can never be undone and will never be forgotten by those in his life.
Restraint is not timidity. Nor is it a lack of self-expression or courage or gusto. Restraint is a massive strength, built over time through ethical deliberation on what is best and right, that holds back those destructive impulses, which, if allowed, will devastate our lives and legacy. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.