On willpower and how it plays out

Thursday, September 5, 2019

3:30 a.m. All right, friends. Anything for us this morning, or shall I go back to reading? Or – ghastly thought! – even back to working?

Nobody can kick you into working if you don’t want to. It’s in what you want.

I know. Although, that always reverts to Which you?

For you, it does. For another, maybe not, for there might be no conflict. For yet another, paralysis because the conflict might be beyond resolution.

Yes, you’ve made that clear to us over the time..

Yet here is a nuance that perhaps we have not made clear. For some people, it is a matter of one established “I” nevertheless needing to impose its will.

Say some more about that?

You accept what comes. But do you mandate that something come?

You know I don’t.

Then you must accept a certain amount of frustration. The subject may be too fraught and too extended for your present energy level.

But I just got up!

Still, we are not wrong in this.

Well, I can try a five-minute nap. If it goes longer, no loss; just means the coffee may be cold.

And you can return to sleep with this thought in mind – which will facilitate moving it through: How do you – how does anyone – both accept and direct?

3:50 a.m. Well, that didn’t work out very well. I don’t think I got even one minute’s sleep.

Still, let’s begin.

Some people are naturally what is called weak-willed. Some, contrarily, are bulls in china shops, or perhaps we should say relentless bulldozers. And, as usual, everyone else falls somewhere in between. Some are relentless in one direction and quite malleable (because indifferent) in others. Some are mild-mannered but persistent in a low-key way. Some are subject to fits of suborn assertiveness alternated with long stretches of apathy or acceptance or indifference. If we spell out these different stances, it is only to bring them actively to mind, for of course you all see these differences every day; it’s just that you may not have thought of them this way.

Okay. And I get that you are going to say – as usual – that things are not quite as they appear.

You know our methods, Watson. Any phenomenon of life, no matter how familiar, will present unsuspected aspects when examined in a new light or from a different angle.

It has been noted that quite primitive personalities may meet external success in business or politics or other fields of competition because they are entirely undivided in their intent. They set a goal and move without internal friction to accomplish it, and the results may be remarkable.

Douglas MacArthur at West Point.

Yes, that is a good example. You don’t average 98 out of 100 and graduate without a demerit if you are busy overcoming – or trying to overcome – internal conflict.

Yet his later record was littered with official reprimands of various kinds.

His later career was not as clear-cut in its requirements as was West Point. That unified personality, or let’s say that embodied individual will, functions extremely well in situations where the rules are definite and inflexible, and expectations can be met precisely and by intent. Most of life is not like that, of course, so such a person must either impose his will upon inchoate circumstances or suffer frustrations. Or, alternatively, both.

Somewhat, it occurs to me, like Hemingway, MacArthur was superb in dangerous situations, unruly in routine ones. In World War I he was apparently unruffled in the most violent battles, appearing quite heedless of the possibility of injury or death, just like Hemingway 26 years later when he was overtaken by his renewed conviction of invulnerability.

Both, too, were men who imposed their will upon the course of their lives. MacArthur, son and grandson of famous soldiers, willed his way to military excellence, or at any rate to military pre-eminence. Hemingway worked and worried his way through the somewhat formless competition and chaotic requirements of the world of commercial publishing to achieve his own preeminence. In neither case was the position at the top of the heap achieved by accepting what came. They did their best to determine what came. Hemingway spent more time and energy organizing upcoming fun with his friends than some expend on a career. That energy overflowed in him.

However, we don’t wish to give the wrong impression. Hemingway was very self-divided – to the point of internal civil war – in everything in life except his purity of devotion to the act of creation. He wanted to succeed; he worked hard to get Scribner’s to promote his books. But what was non-negotiable for him was the process itself. He came to his writing desk as a priest to the altar.

Much earlier – years ago, now – we contrasted Hemingway and Fitzgerald, doing so in Hemingway’s voice. For Hemingway, writing was his sacred vocation; it was the thing to which he was always true. To Fitzgerald, writing was a means to an end, a talent and skill that he parlayed into fame and wealth. It isn’t that Fitzgerald betrayed his talent (as Hemingway sometimes thought he did) but that the two men thought of writing in two complementary but basically different ways.

MacArthur was something of a blend of the two, because his situation was different. He was Army to his boot tips, but he was MacArthur to those same boot tips. He did not face (if he even recognized) conflicts between the role and the profession, or between either and himself.

Have we wandered off any conceivable point, here? It feels like we have.

Perhaps we have, a little. We can bring it to point by comparing them to you, but the difference in achievement may be too vast to allow our point to shine clearly. So find us our examples. You know what we want.

I do. Well, in the Army, how about Bradley or Eisenhower? Both highly professional, both at the pinnacle of professional success, neither was an egomaniac. And in writing, I don’t know, Dos Passos?

You are in the right ball park to illustrate the point. Bradley and Eisenhower were modest men who were team players; they didn’t have to be the star; they concentrated on doing their job as best they could. Their will, you see, was not focused solely on their own careers and preeminence. They were not weak-willed – that isn’t how one advances up a pyramid – but their will wasn’t one-pointed. In a sense, one could say MacArthur was always at an extreme of tension; Bradley was not. Eisenhower was not. They were balanced in a way MacArthur was not, or rather, their point of balance was not his. It isn’t that MacArthur was unbalanced, but that he was centered entirely upon one thing, in a way they were not.

Dos Passos, too, was centered differently than Hemingway. He considered becoming an artist as a young man. His success with his first novel surprised him. His life centered upon other things than writing as a sacred profession. He was skilled, he was serious, he was professional, but he was not a priest in the way Hemingway was. This did not make him less of a man, and perhaps no greater amount of intense concentration could have brought his prose to the level of Hemingway’s, but the difference was there.

I don’t know, I’m still unclear on the connection of all this to will.

Sometimes what appears to be a matter of will (or lack of will) is actually something else. Bulldozers don’t maneuver well. Sometimes a bicycle goes places bulldozers can’t go.

A little more explicitly, please.

Everyone chooses. Life is choice, and the result of choice, and the preparation for choice. But the criteria selected, and the goals selected, make life a very different thing for different kinds of people. Some are single-pointed and are quite successful in achieving what they can conceptualize – and may be quite blind to anything else, and may be quite disoriented, even helpless, when confronted with situations outside their accustomed areas of operation. Some are diffuse, achieving no single-pointed success but instead enjoying a well-roundedness unimaginable (because most of the facets are invisible to them) to the one-pointed person. And some are not focused at all, or are focused let’s say by default, being shaped by the currents they find themselves in. There is room for all these in life, else life wouldn’t allow them.

And so?

And so if you wish to be frustrated, there’s nothing to it: Merely measure your life by the wrong yardstick.


Enough for now. Notice, your brief disengagement and reengagement did what you needed.

I guess it did. Okay, thanks for all of this.


One thought on “On willpower and how it plays out

  1. Thanks Frank – I really enjoy your writings.

    One upon a time(cannot recall how long back in time)when Charles – or was it you? Who recommended to read Peter Ralston: “The Principles of Effortless Power.” Titled: ” The Book of Not Knowing,” subtitled as “Exploring the True Nature of Self, Mind, and Consiousness.”

    Many comments about Ramana(do not know who Ramana is thou) – Ramana counselled: “Keep your mind still, that is enough.”

    And Rita(our eternal friend) says: ” If you trace any particular threads/progress, through the weaving, life is seen as a journey, a progression in development…”

    Here comes another one which I do like – splendid if may say so…”The Aim of all practices is to give up all practices. If the Mind is in Peace, one begins to experience them.”

    ….it fits me very well, because I`m lazy by nature…and me thinking all the time WHY running around(and about)…and ALWAYS “working”.. or into the habit of MUST DO “something”?

    Seth says: “You are Always Creative, even if sitting still in the sofa or a chair. You are Creative one and only being born as YOU.”

    Very nice is it not?
    Laughter…and feeling Comfortable in it…and back to the ego-trip “I AM what I AM”: LOL

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