Not everybody wants to be a better person and develop along what can be our hectic journey of life. My cat doesn’t. She’s quite content with the stage she has reached in her life — as long as I feed and stroke her on a daily basis. Nor do those human beings who are uninterested in moral values, want to improve their character. You may be different.
Perhaps you have a vague uneasy feeling that you could be a better person – if only you knew how. Not necessarily because you want people to think well of you but because you would like to live a decent life, becoming more patient, tolerant, kind, fair-minded or whatever. Many people are interested in making spiritual progress.
Becoming a better person through therapy
Much of psychotherapy and personal growth coaching is about strengthening the ego, integrating the self, correcting one’s self-image, building self-confidence, the establishing of realistic goals and so on. However, some therapists tend to believe that self-insight into our hang-ups or personal problems is sufficient for personal healing. And those that don’t actually believe this tend not to report their efforts to tackle the clients’ volition. It is as if new ways of thinking are sufficient for changes in behaviour.
But is this true? Does personal improvement come just from enlightened understanding? Is there really no need for a change of heart in facing a new direction? No need also for effort to change one’s ways?
Becoming a better person through self-discipline
Can I suggest the idea that personal improvement involves the effort of self-discipline. Self-discipline over what we think, say and do.
“Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. And character becomes your destiny.” (Unknown author)
In any trip to the shop there is a price to pay for anything we want to take home. But my point of view is that in becoming a better person it is not so much the wallet or purse that we need to produce but rather the cost of letting go of an attitude that has been with us for perhaps a long time, something that has almost become second nature. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it. So how can you expect to become more patient and tolerant whilst continuing to indulge in impatience or intolerance?
Likewise does not learning self-restraint and moderation mean forgoing excess? If so, every desirable quality has its opposite that needs to be acknowledged as something that needs to die within the individual.
Perhaps this is why Old Testament injunctions regarding religious laws have been often couched in terms of what not to do. Don’t do this and don’t do that. In other words, you can’t do what is good unless you stop doing what is bad.
The world from biblical times on has had people who have acted selfishly or dangerously. So the Bible and the criminal law is expressed in terms of what not to do. Don’t steal, don’t act fraudulently, don’t murder and so on.
Becoming a better person through affirmations
Yet not everyone behaves badly. My plea is that instead of assuming we have what Christianity has traditionally called our ‘original sin’, we might see ourselves as innocent until our individual actions consistently prove us guilty.
Those adopting this stance practice affirmations. They say :
“I am not the impatience/intolerance/closed-mindedness/unkindness etc that I sometimes feel. I disown such traits. They need no longer cling to me.
Instead I can take on board patience/tolerance/open-mindedness/kindness etc.”
“I can learn to identify myself with good traits and as I practice them they will become ingrained into my makeup.”
Of course, saying affirmations is one thing, but following through a commitment to change can be quite another. The conscious decision to change can be viewed as a bridge between acknowledgement and action. If no action ensues then there probably has been no real decision at all but only a flirting with decision.
Becoming a better person through determination
This raises the interesting question about how genuine are our intentions. How real is our decision? The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has pointed out that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godott clearly illustrates a lack of resolve. The characters think, plan, procrastinate. The play ends with this sequence
Vladimir: Shall we go?
Estragon: Let’s go.
[Stage directions: No one moves]
Becoming a better person through trust in a higher power.
Sometimes the going can be very hard. However much you try to change your ways you may fail. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous recognise this and try to put their trust in what they call ‘a higher power’ many of whom think of as God. Religious faith means just this surrender to something beyond ourselves. For example Christians are taught to try to surrender themselves to the work of the Spirit of God working within them. It is said that without the gift of the Holy Spirit of God they cannot acquire better characteristics.
Those outside organised religion who have a similar approach often are more comfortable referring to this Spirit as the Divine Within without which they are powerless to effect change in their lives.
In my opinion the huge problem with both groups is the erroneous way this insight is sometimes applied. As if belief in a higher power absolves our responsibility for self-discipline and self-control. I trust that active co-operation with what I see as the Divine Spirit can transform my character. This is my challenge. It involves my heart and hands as well as my head.
There are many who declare that man is saved through faith, or as they say, if he merely has faith…Faith however is not mere thought …. thought does not save anyone. (Swedenborg: Heavenly secrets section 9363)
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems