For her, discipline used to be synonymous with punishment. In the world of the little girl, discipline was her mother with furious eyes and steaming anger quickly approaching her with a large wooden spoon. With every swat on her fleshy buttocks, her first understanding of discipline was etched.
When she began school, discipline took on a new dimension. It meant studying over books and doing homework. At first, she didn’t think the work was too hard and she liked filling out the answers in the appropriate lines. There was a sense of satisfaction in completing her assignments, a wholeness in the activity her young self enjoyed.
In middle school, the concepts became more difficult. It required an effort, the work required studying and practice and review. She tried her very best to get good grades, she wanted the praise of her parents when the report card was sent home, she wanted to see their smiles, their approving nods and hugs.
Then came high school, harder still, demanding even more effort. She struggled with her geometry class, all of the formulas and angles and numbers, it was all so conceptual and none of it came easy…she fought to understand it but her effort did not result in good grades. She remembers the day she brought home the first "D" on her report card. She thought it would be the end of the world. She imagined the look of disappointment in her mother's eyes and the gruff tone of her father's voice. "No! Not a D!" Maybe they would go get the spoon again. Walking home that afternoon, she berated herself for not trying harder.
To her surprise, her parents, although not pleased with her grade, were understanding. Perhaps sympathetic from their own memories of geometry, they encouraged her to try her best and to not bring anything lower than a "C" on future report cards. She was stunned by their reaction. She interpreted their understanding as a license to goof off. There were no consequences, no beatings, not even a harsh tone from her father and because of this, because there was no punishment, any sense of self discipline she had once had to get good grades flew out the window.
She spent the rest of her time in high school doing the minimum amount of work required to get a "C" on her report cards. She developed a consistent habit of giving the least amount of effort and energy to her tasks and skated just above the rim of failing. Even today, she recalls bragging to her friends that all she had to do was listen in class and she could get a "C" on a test. She never took one single book home. She didn’t study or spend her weekends trying to grasp the difficult texts of literature or the new ideas presented to her in classes. She took pride in her lack of effort. She wore it like a pretty new dress, with her head up and chest out.
Not any more. Instead of the badge of honor, she holds the memories of her past like the painful glimpses of a diseased relative. She thinks often of her moment of realization back in high school, the moment her machine smiled and took over and battled down the weaker part within her that wanted to work and complete tasks and feel the palpable sense of wholeness before beginning on the next project. That day of the "D," her machine won, the lazy and sloppy machine won. Sometimes she spends whole afternoons imagining what would have happened if she had tried harder…she probably could have gotten all "A’s." Maybe she could have gone on to college and become a doctor. If she had made different choices, maybe she could have been better able to provide for herself and her family. Maybe she could have avoided living in cockroach ridden apartments and living off Kraft Macaroni & Cheese made without the milk and butter, made with only water.
But snapping out of her afternoons of despair, she remembers that looking back with regret is only another way to avoid the work of the moment. There is no way to affect the lazy machine of the past, but now, she can begin to rein in the deeply ingrained habits of half-hearted effort and learn the delicate art of true discipline.
She might never be a doctor or a lawyer, she might never have a high paying job or a lavish house in the hills, but the material benefits of a lifetime of good grades would not bring her any closer to wakefulness. The obvious consequences of lazy habits and bad grades were monetary, she did manual labor and assembly line work, and came home to a crumbling apartment. It is not the financial reality of her life she needs to change, but the deep negative habits of laziness, learned young and practiced often.
Her machine will fight and the undisciplined robot must learn to push through the desire to goof off or fantasize about a future that never was. The work begins now. New habits are forged with sweat and persistence and, sometimes, a rapidly beating heart. Discipline does not come naturally or easily. It is a delicately crafted inner art form that can take years and lifetimes to master, but each step taken today is an effort in the right direction. Slowly and delicately, she can begin to move towards a new kind of discipline, without fear, without the weight of past failures, without the promise of future delights. Somewhere beyond these barriers, the real work begins.