Conquering the Limits of Willpower

Shake it off,” we tell our grandchildren when they fall. When the kids were of pre-school age the words of encouragement were “You’re doing it, you’re doing it”.

Our exhortations mean to convey encouragement and support.

Keep on. Persevere.

Easy to say.

Perseverance can be complicated, not only to enact but to understand.

One of the benefits and challenges of being a clergy person is that you can leave a conversation with someone struggling to reduce their intake of chocolate and Diet Coke and, within moments, be at the bedside of someone facing a diagnosis of cancer and a long, uncertain road of debilitating treatment.

The mild “hang in there” given, with a pat on the back to a chocoholic, rings false at the bedside.

Perseverance can mean endurance. Endure the pain, the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the torture, the isolation - if not with the hope that the situation might one day improve - then because it may be the right to do in the circumstance when we have no power to change even a detail.

Other calls to persevere contain a dash of initiative. Persevere in the effort to change the culture and focus of the workplace, the relationships with families or between nations, or, even personal habits and practices.

Those adhering to a more individualist, bootstrap ideology emphasize the role of individual willpower. “Suck it up, Princess.” No doubt that self-command and self-will are integral to the ability to keep on. 

But while the will is necessary, it is not always sufficient. Some situations and challenges are too big, even for a superhero. 

Amir Atighehchi, Ariel Bunayan and Mikey Ahdoot designed their very helpful Morning Sidekick Journal, to assist with lifestyle changes - “conquer your mornings, conquer your life.” They refer to the first week of attempting change as “hell week.” Those desiring to change highly addictive behaviours view that description as mild.

Religious leaders, such as Jesus, are fully aware of the limitations of individual willpower. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38). St. Paul’s confession has been echoed by many an addict. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

Wrestling with demons like addiction requires a community.

The $66 billion weight loss market and the $25 billion fitness centre industries in North America ($84 billion globally) attest to our sincere yearning to change but know we need something more than willpower to bring about that which we desire. And, for a fee, they offer to provide the missing ingredient.

Caleb has grown tired of the hamster wheel of drug abuse, crime, jail, recovery house, treatment centre, relapse, crime, jail, recovery house, treatment. The court system joins us in acknowledging the pointlessness of the cycle and the potential of devastating loss. Too often, as his father, it feels we come dangerously close to that definition of insanity - keep doing the same things but hope for a different outcome.

The recognition that perseverance is a team sport is only the first step.

The next, critical step involves determining which community is best able to provide the strategic assistance.

Many have found the 12 step communities to be vital. Thank God. Others lean towards models pioneered in Italy and Portugal. They contain a great deal of hope.

Caleb feels the teepees which host the traditional Cree ceremonies and those of the Native American Church best suit him.

I hope so. I know that many of you pray for him weekly, if not daily. We owe a tremendous debt to the network of prayers that have caught him, during many a fall, and to the faithfulness of this work started, so long ago, by the prayer group at Pilgrim United.

I do not know the answer, but I do know it involves more than a hug, the assurance “I love you,” and a pat on the back.

We persevere.

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