Celebration of discipline

The word ‘discipline’ has more than one meaning. So you know the sense I intend here, I’ll begin with a definition: Discipline is an attitude of mind and a way of doing things without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done.

Therefore, I’m not writing about discipline as punishment. During my school years in Scotland I had unwelcome meetings with the tawse[1] (the word is plural of taw which means whip) which inflicted considerable pain on my hand. Thankfully, this so-called discipline was abolished in the 1980s. Punishment is not what I’m meaning here when I use the word ‘discipline’.

Nor does my title ‘celebration of discipline’ imply the meaning of discipline used by Richard Foster in his 1978 book ‘Celebration of Discipline’. Wikipedia describes Foster’s book as an examination of ‘the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study in the Christian life, the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service, and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.’[2] It’s a remarkable book which has sold over a million copies. But I’m not writing about spiritual disciplines.

A few examples will show the sense of ‘discipline’ I mean.

Example 1    At the age of 17 I learned to touch type. (I was taught both shorthand and typing at a further education college, as part of training for journalism. There were only two males in a class with 20 females.) On large, old-fashioned typewriters, we learned to rest our index fingers on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys, and type fffff jjjjj, over and over again. Then we did fjfjfjfjfj and jfjfjfjfjf. The following week we did the same drills with middle fingers on the ‘d’ and ‘k’ keys, moving gradually from ddddd kkkkk to dfjkdfjkdfjk or kjfdkjfdkjfd or even dkfjdkfjdkfj. When more fingers and keys were in play, we moved on to simple words and sentences. Initially these exercises were mind-numbingly boring but, with practice, I did learn to touch type which gave me a great sense of achievement. While most of my fellow journalists typed with only two fingers and stared at their keyboards, I used eight fingers and one thumb (the other thumb is never used), and to this day don’t look at the keyboard. The discipline of those drills gave me a skill for life.

Example 2    For many years I prepared at least one but often two sermons every week. Often I’d write them out in full, some 4000 words each. There were two problems:

1) Never enough time to research and prepare;

2) Sometimes a mind blank about the next sermon.

There were two answers to those two problems:

1) The absolute deadline of an approaching Sunday. I had to be ready by then, which forced me to get on with the preparation;

2) The remark of Scottish theologian William Barclay about ‘writer’s block’: that the art of inspiration is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words, stop faffing about and get on with the work.

The discipline of the deadline and the discipline of just sitting down, starting the work, and letting inspiration come, meant my sermons were always ready.

Example 3    Twice recently we’ve noticed a woman go past our house, but she pauses after every two or three steps. Why stop like that? She’s training her young dog to walk on the lead by her side. She moves forward, so does the dog, but after only a few steps the dog pulls ahead. So, she stops, makes the dog wait, and then begins again. When the dog gets it right, it’s rewarded; when it gets it wrong, she never shouts, just waits and then they restart. Most importantly, she never gives up on the training. My wife Alison knows a lot about dog behaviour and she’s impressed. That woman’s discipline – of herself and the dog – will have huge benefits for years to come.

So, with these examples in mind, I hope you can see why, for this blog, I defined discipline as:

  • an attitude of mind
  • a way of doing things
  • without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done

Discipline is about how we think and how we act. And discipline is necessary to succeed in things that matter.

I’ll expand on each of these.

Discipline as an attitude of mind

I was probably only the right weight once: on the day I was born. That day came only a few years after World War II ended, while food shortages were still common. My parents’ idea was that a chubby child was a healthy child. In fact I was overweight. I’m still chubby, though keep protesting much of it is muscle. I’ve read various books on losing weight. One book effectively pronounced me a lost cause. The author said that, in middle age, almost no overweight person gets back to their ideal weight and stays there. The very few who maintain their right weight have rigid discipline. They’d achieve their daily step count no matter the weather, and would not eat even a single square of chocolate.

The rigidity of that statement troubled me then and still. But I got the author’s point that a seriously disciplined mindset was essential. I’ve known people try to break drinking and smoking habits who lost the battle early on because they told themselves ‘Breaking the rules won’t matter just once’ or ‘I can have a holiday day occasionally’. But those ‘just once’ and ‘holiday’ days soon become frequent, and the cause is lost. Sometimes being lax with discipline is immediately and seriously dangerous. If, when I’m riding my motorbike, I wasn’t unfailingly disciplined about doing my life-saver shoulder check, I might be dead.

Whether we’re thinking of personal safety or goal achievement, a ‘happy go lucky’ attitude isn’t good enough. A disciplined way of thinking is essential.

Discipline as a way of working

I’ve had six books published and contributed chapters to two more. Is it difficult to write a book? For me, the honest answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. At any moment I have 50 ideas of things I could write about, and at least one of them makes some sense and would be of interest. So I don’t lack a subject. Then, once the idea is clear, writing isn’t difficult for me. I’ve written easily since I was a child. I could churn out thousands of words a day if I needed to.

But I have at least two difficulties with a major writing project. The first is the simple but hard one of making myself sit down and type the words. My mind will flip to ten other things I could do, some of which will be more fun and give quick rewards. Writing can be a slog, and a book is a long game. The work is tough. The second challenge is editing. Writing the first draft for a book is creative and perhaps exciting, but after that comes revision after revision: correcting typos, clarifying thought, cutting unnecessary material, watching for contradictions, and so on. That’ll happen at least ten times, and I’ve edited some books more than twenty times. Editing is very tedious.

I deal with the first of these – making myself do the work – by creating a non-negotiable deadline (publishers often impose those anyway!) A favourite phrase of mine is ‘A deadline is the mother of motivation’. It works for me.

And I deal with the second – making myself do the boring work – by defining minimum targets I must meet each day. So, when I typed my 400+ page thesis on a typewriter where almost no errors can be corrected, my goal was three pages a day. I would get home from an evening meeting about 10.00, then type and retype from 11.00 to 1.00 in the morning to achieve three perfect pages. I could not do that every night (I was often travelling), but on every day possible I produced three pages without fail. It got done – and the thesis was accepted.

Each person will have their own method, but it must be a disciplined way of working.

Discipline as essential for anything worthwhile or lasting to get done

Three things fit under this heading.

First, you can be casual with trivial things but must be serious to achieve important things. When a young golfer began on the professional tour, his brilliant play got everyone’s attention. He won a few tournaments, and the experts tipped him for the top, saying that with his potential he’d win all the major championships. Yet as he moved through his 20s there were only a handful of modest successes. When he was 30, he admitted he’d put more into living the good life than into his golf game. Now he would change. But he didn’t change. He didn’t dedicate himself to practise or to follow his coach’s instruction, and never succeeded at the highest level. He lacked discipline, and never fulfilled his potential.

We’re constantly tempted to dabble. We do a little of this, then some of that. We start and then stop. We do what we like and avoid what we dislike.

Life can be lived without discipline. But it’ll be a life devoid of what’s most worthwhile.

Second, the best things in life last only with hard work. You can bring in a team of designers, gardeners, labourers and volunteers and create a beautiful garden in one or two days. Plenty TV programmes show that’s possible. But, all too often, the garden they make is at its most gorgeous only until the TV cameras leave, or for only a few days. Why not longer? Why not always? Because a garden is a living, changing thing, and without disciplines like weeding, watering, fertilising, pruning, cutting, planting its beauty won’t last.

Nor does a marriage stay wonderful without constant care and investment. Or a career mature without development and upskilling. Even a product needs continual adjustment or reinvention to meet evolving tastes and needs.

Disciplined hard work is essential for longevity.

Third, to win a race you must both start and finish. In London and Chicago I’ve watched marathon runners stream past heading for their medals at the 26 mile finishing line. I’ve stood off to the side thinking how marvellous it would be to run a marathon and get a medal. But there are two barriers for me. One, I’d never have the courage to enter. Two, I’d never have the ability to finish. And you don’t get the medal without entering and finishing.

Many read a novel and think they could write just as well as the author. Or listen to a singer and reckon their voice is just as good. Or consider they could give advice just as ingenious as the consultant their firm brought in. But they don’t do any of these things. They don’t start, or, if they do, they don’t finish. They lack determination and they lack perseverance, both of which require discipline. Only with those do the best things actually get done.

Let me finish with this. Some people are super-disciplined. Some people are ill-disciplined. Then there are those who are disciplined in some things but not others. I’m in that middle category. Usually I long to be more disciplined. I’d achieve more of the things that really matter to me. Yet I wouldn’t want the possible downsides, such as the inflexibility that I sometimes see in my super-disciplined friends. So, in respect of discipline, my report card would read: ‘Has some discipline, but might benefit from more!’ Perhaps you’d like to ponder what your report card would say…


[1] More about the tawse here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawse

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Foster_(theologian)

Will life always be this way?

A central character in Ken Follett’s novel ‘The Eye of the Needle’ is hurt and weak, but rouses himself with this thought: ‘It was important not to permit oneself the psychological attitudes of the invalid’.

I read that sentence twice. And then a third time. It meant something to me personally.

I suspect all Follett had in mind was that the injured character galvanised himself into readiness to fight. He wasn’t thinking that all ‘invalids’ have the same psychological attitudes.

But what he wrote took me back to a critical moment in my mid-thirties.

I’ll begin my story when I was 18. I was a trainee journalist working in Edinburgh, when one day I felt back pain and by the next day could hardly move. My doctor prescribed pain killers and bed rest. Two days later my parents arrived to persuade me that I couldn’t just lie in my one room bed-sitter, unable to shop or prepare meals, and they’d take me home with them.  I agreed, but I might not if I’d realised their plan was that my bed would have a wooden board over the mattress. Back then, that was the accepted wisdom for people with bad backs. Drugged and desperate I lay on that board, but it made my pain much worse. Eventually they had mercy and removed the board, and slowly I got better.

That was only the beginning. I had similar struggles through my twenties. Some chronic pain was always there, then every few years it would become severe and everything would stop for a few weeks. Mostly I kept going through university studies and church ministry, and even played scrum half in my college’s rugby team.

Then came my mid-thirties. By then I had been a full-time pastor for some years, and Alison and I had four young children. We’d had a wonderful experience planting a new church in Livingston, not far from Edinburgh. Now I’d been called to become pastor in the north east Scotland city of Aberdeen. Getting ready for that change involved long journeys, extra meetings, and final get-togethers. Life was busier than I ever imagined it could be.

A week before our move my back gave in. The pain was immense. Any movement was agony. It didn’t matter if I stood, sat or lay down; every position was bad. My doctor prescribed strong medication which dulled all my senses. Friends gave up their bedroom for me. Not just to let me lie there day and night, but so Alison with her friend Kathy could pack up the home we were leaving. One evening I was eased into our car, the seat reclined, and with kids in the back Alison drove us 130 miles to Aberdeen. There I lay on a thin mattress on the floor. Somehow I managed to attend the service where I was inducted as minister of the church, and even preached. Then I went home, and lay again on the floor. A few days later the top orthopaedic surgeon from the hospital arrived to examine me, and promptly admitted me to hospital. I was put on traction, and for two weeks I just lay there.

Then, with pain slightly eased, I was sent home and my back slowly improved. About two months later than scheduled I began my ministry properly at the Aberdeen church. Good things happened during the following weeks. But my back was not stable. Pain worsened, and again I was taken into hospital. This time they carried out a diagnostic imaging test – a myelogram – which involved a contrast dye injected into my spinal column. That allowed the medics a much clearer view of what was happening around my spinal canal than standard X-rays could give. But my body reacted negatively to the dye, causing more pain and keeping me in hospital for another two weeks. During that time I was measured and fitted for an upper body harness – metal bars sheathed in leather with tight straps to hold my body in the right posture. The idea, I was told, was that I’d be unable to move in unhelpful ways, and thus let my back heal. I felt almost unable to move in any way, except by making penguin-like rigid motions. But at least I could go home.

That was two days before I was to conduct a wedding. The couple had sat by my hospital bed while I prepared them for the service. On the wedding day I unbuckled and removed my harness almost as the wedding march was being played, and put it back on as soon as the service was over.

Over the following months and for a couple of years I was better. Life was good. The ministry was being appreciated.

But the debilitating pain was just hiding. It returned with a vengeance. This time I met with a neurosurgeon who recommended an intriguing operation called, I believe, ‘Chemonucleolysis of Lumbar Disc Herniation’. An enzyme would be injected into my bulging disc which would dissolve disc material and thus release pressure on the spinal nerve. Only a needle would be used, no scalpels. It all sounded good. I went into hospital the day before the operation. The neurosurgeon came to explain that my body would never have encountered the enzyme before, so its reaction couldn’t be exactly known. My body could go into shock which, in rare cases, would be fatal. That wasn’t comforting. Before the operation a small access port was inserted into my arm, ‘in case we have to give you urgent treatment later’. I knew what that meant. The procedure was done while I was conscious but face down on a special operating table. When they were finished no-one moved. I had to lie still, and the medical team stood around me for ten minutes. No-one said they were waiting to see if I would die, but I suspect they were.

Did it work? For about six to nine months I did feel better. But not significantly after that. I found out that they stopped performing the operation two years later, perhaps because of risks associated with it, but mainly because the long-term results weren’t great. Which, unfortunately, was my experience.

Something like normal life kept happening around these hospital stays and operations. Congregation numbers grew so much we had to move to a larger building. Our children were growing up. Alison began studies towards a health science degree.

What I didn’t care for was that I’d become known as the pastor who began his ministry in Aberdeen as a hospital patient. Whenever I met people they asked ‘How’s your back these days?’ I appreciated their concern but wished for anything else as the opening line of conversation.

Then a deeply unwelcome possibility intensified in my mind. ‘Here I am, aged in my late thirties, constantly immobilised by back problems. Doctors and well-wishers can do no more than urge me to protect myself. Maybe this is how life is always going to be.’

That last thought – that this might be how my life is always going to be – was deeply distressing. I’d always believed I’d get better. Perhaps my back pain would simply go away. If not, then surely there was some more or less invasive treatment that would cure it. No other kind of illness in my life had been permanent. I always got well. And I’d assumed that would happen with my back pain. I wasn’t yet 40-years-old. Life couldn’t always be like this.

But it could. Well-meaning friends and medical professionals (surgeons, general practitioners, physiotherapists) were telling me to manage my back carefully. They were urging a defensive strategy – a ‘do no harm to yourself’ way of living. I mustn’t exhaust myself, or work too hard, or sit too long at my desk or in meetings, or lift anything heavy, or drive long distances. I should always insist on comfortable seating, and avoid strenuous sports or hobbies. While never having to dig the garden sounded good, the implications of the rest were dire. But perhaps it had to happen. I’d have to accept my life ahead would be significantly limited.

I can’t explain why, but I woke up one day knowing I wouldn’t accept it. I couldn’t be that person if there was any option not to be that person. There were still many directions in which my life could go. Was I supposed to delete half the options, leaving only what was ‘safe’ and undemanding? Were outdoor sports like hill climbing and golf – good not just for my physical health but also my mental health – just to be abandoned? Would I never throw a frisbee or play tennis with my children? Would I not lift them up and hug them? Would I consign Alison to carry all the shopping, or take luggage out of the car, or move  the furniture around? I wouldn’t. That day I decided that as long as possible and as much as possible, I’d live life to the full.

And, as best I can, I’ve done that. As a family we’ve climbed Ben Nevis and Snowdon, the highest mountains in Britain. I became a single-figure handicap golfer. I’ve travelled and preached from the Shetland Islands (110 miles north of the Scottish mainland) to churches along the south coast of England. I’ve been in dozens of countries including Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Congo, Angola, Uganda, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, North Korea and Indonesia. I wasn’t supposed to take long plane rides. I wasn’t supposed to journey over arduous terrain. I wasn’t supposed to hike up steep mountains, sleep in rough quarters in remote and dangerous places, and sit on the floor of jungle huts listening to stories of persecution and hardship. But I have done these things, and consider each one an immense privilege. I’ve tried to be a help and a blessing to those I’ve met, but have received back twofold anything I was able to give.

None of that would have happened if – using Follett’s line – I’d permitted myself the psychological attitudes of the invalid. If I’d settled for a highly protected, uneventful life, everything would have been different.

So, has the pain gone away over those years? No, not at all. It’s still the same pattern, manageable most of the time but then critical for periods of several weeks.

But now I do have a better understanding of why it happens.

One of the very painful phases occurred while we lived in America. My doctor prescribed powerful painkillers and directed me towards one of the most eminent orthopaedic surgeons in the Chicago area. He and I met, and before deciding on a course of treatment he sent me for MRI scans. Afterwards I consulted with him again. He put the images on screen and began: ‘Have you spent your whole working life doing manual labour?’ I laughed, and explained I hadn’t spent any of it doing manual labour. He apologised, but said, ‘When we see a back like this, it’s almost always someone whose life has involved heavy physical work over many years.’ He took me through the images and pointed out three herniated discs (commonly called slipped discs). Their pressure on spinal nerves would cause severe pain. And that wasn’t all. He added: ‘You can’t have a back like this and not have arthritis throughout’. I waited for some good news, perhaps a surgical option that would put me right. But there wasn’t one because, he said, no operation would give meaningful benefit. All he could do was recommend physiotherapy and a sensible use of pain medication.

Everything that doctor told me had been true about my back throughout my adult life. No accident had caused it, he said. It was just how my back was. And, in a sense, I’m okay with that. I’d never before really understood why I had ongoing chronic pain with bouts of acute pain. The new knowledge was helpful, and I’d continue to be positive and do everything I should and could.

Is that realistic for everyone? After all, what does a ‘positive approach’ mean for someone severely disabled, such as a soldier who’s lost his legs? That’s a very different situation to mine. I could live life close to what would be normal for someone without a wrecked back. The person who’s lost both legs has much greater challenges to overcome. But that doesn’t mean life must then be lived under a permanent shadow.  Good and positive things can still be done.

As a child I read and re-read the story of Douglas Bader. He’d become an RAF pilot but crashed doing aerobatics, almost died, and had both his legs amputated. He fought hard to regain his strength and with artificial legs regained his flying qualifications. But the RAF forced him to retire on medical grounds. Then World War II began. Experienced fighter pilots were in short supply so even Bader with his tin legs was accepted. He won air battles above the Dunkirk beaches and in the Battle of Britain. In 1941 he was shot down over German-occupied France, and made a POW. Several times he escaped but was recaptured and eventually sent to Colditz Castle. After the war he held senior posts in the oil industry, played golf to a high standard, and was awarded a knighthood by the Queen.

Very few can be like Bader. A biography was written about him, followed by the film Reach for the Sky. Why? Because his story is exceptional. But his positive approach to life doesn’t have to be exceptional.

Every blog piece I write is intended to have at least a little wisdom. What’s the wisdom here?

I hope it’s this. I don’t actually like Follett’s reference to ‘the psychological attitudes of the invalid’. It’s far too sweeping. But I came close to permitting myself to think all ambitions had to go, that I could do nothing of significance, and life would have to be lived defensively and dependent on others. If I’d surrendered to those ‘psychological attitudes’ then, in some sense, I would have become an invalid.

That surrender doesn’t have to happen. There is another way of living. I know people who’ve done great things despite great challenges, and I’m privileged that some of them are my friends.

If, in any way, this account of my health journey helps you lift your eyes to better horizons, to greater possibilities, then there will have been wisdom here after all.


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