The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming there is no execution or accomplishment.
(Promise of Universal Peace: page 100)
In the previous post we looked at the resurrection of willpower as a valid construct to describe a key component influencing human behaviour. We stopped just at the point when its importance in that respect had been established and before the agnostic authors of an intriguing book on the topic moved on to consider religion. This is where it all gets really interesting or totally soft in the head depending on your point of view.
Surrender to a Higher Power
Baumeister and Tierney surprised me by quoting the following conclusion at the start of their exploration of this topic (Kindle reference: 2488): “His “real self,” as Bula Matari [the explorer Henry Morton Stanley's name among locals in the Congo] saw it, was his will.” Even so, they are almost embarrassed to open their discussion of religion (2551):
Although many scientists are skeptical of institutions that promote spirituality—and psychologists, for some reason, have been particularly skeptical of religion—self-control researchers have developed a grudging respect for the practical results.
They begin their consideration of this issue with two dramatic examples of prominent agnostics surrendering to ‘a higher power.’ One concerns Eric Clapton whose biography they quote: the other is Mary Karr, the author of The Liars’ Club.
Here is Clapton’s story (2528):
Drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he writes in his autobiography, Clapton. “I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.” As he was panicking one night alone in his room at the clinic, he found himself sinking to his knees and begging for help. “I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether,” he recalls. “I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.” Since that moment, he says, he has never seriously considered taking another drink, not even on the horrifying day in New York when he had to identify the body of his son, Conor, who had fallen fifty-three stories to his death.
They close with the crucial question (ibid):
Why did Clapton’s decision to “surrender” leave him with more self-control?
It is this question that moves them to consider religion, but not before considering one more example of ‘surrender.’
Mary Karr’s story has close parallels with Clapton’s (2545):
Religion was so irrational, and yet, when she found herself desperately craving a drink at a cocktail party for the New York literati at the Morgan Library, she retreated to the ladies’ room, went into a stall, and irrationally sank to her knees to pray: Please keep me away from a drink. I know I haven’t been really asking, but I really need it. Please, please, please. Just as with Clapton, it worked for her: “The primal chattering in my skull has dissipated as if some wizard conjured it away.”
Interestingly, this resonates strongly with my own experience. I left the Catholic Church for good when I was 17. I oscillated between atheism and agnosticism until I was 38 years old and completing my MSc in Clinical Psychology.
I was snowbound in a tiny village in Sussex and enmeshed in what seemed an intractable web of mistakes, all of my own making. It was close to Christmas – not that this counted for much with me. Sheep were dying in snowdrifts all over the country. The roads were virtually impassible. I was literally and emotionally trapped. As evening fell one day, without premeditation I sank down on my knees with tears in my eyes and prayed to God: ‘If you exist, please, please help me.’ The prayer came from my heart and not my head.
It took 12 months or more to clear a path out of my frozen mental wasteland and the situation it had created. It felt as though I was helped to do so. At the end of that time, by coincidence or providence, I found the Faith I’m following still. I suppose you could say either that this makes me a biased reader of these passages in this book or particularly well equipped to test their truth. I’ll have to leave that choice to you. Not surprisingly I find them compelling and authentic.
Religion – the Evidence
Baumeister and Tierney then move on to quoting from the extensive research that demonstrates religion’s many benefits (from 2675):
Any sort of religious activity increases your longevity, according to the psychologist Michael McCullough (who isn’t religiously devout himself). . . . . .
It turned out that the nonreligious people died off sooner, and that at any given point, a religiously active person was 25 percent more likely than a nonreligious person to remain alive. . . . . . .
Religious people are less likely than others to develop unhealthy habits, like getting drunk, engaging in risky sex, taking illicit drugs, and smoking cigarettes. They’re more likely to wear seat belts, visit a dentist, and take vitamins. They have better social support, and their faith helps them cope psychologically with misfortunes. And they have better self-control. . . . . . .
Less obvious benefits included the finding that religion reduces people’s inner conflicts among different goals and values.
What is even more interesting is that they locate these benefits principally in the positive effect religion has upon people’s ability to self-regulate (2690-2708):
More important, religion affects two central mechanisms for self-control: building willpower and improving monitoring. . . . . . .
When neuroscientists observe people praying or meditating, they see strong activity in two parts of the brain that are also important for self-regulation and control of attention. . . . .
Religion also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps to self-control. Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them.
They are able to eliminate other variables with some confidence, for example just hanging around religious people (2730):
Psychologists have found that people who attend religious services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress others or make social connections, don’t have the same high level of self-control as the true believers.
They are so impressed with the evidence that they quote advice to the effect that ‘agnostics [should] look for their own set of hallowed values.” (2734)
They suggest that many of us have replaced God with other Goods (2736):
It’s probably no coincidence that environmentalism is especially strong in rich countries where traditional religion has waned. The devotion to God seems to give way to a reverence for nature’s beauty and transcendence.
In the end, what this seems to mean is that, if we are to make the best use of our willpower we need not only practice/exercise, standards and self-awareness but also the highest most inclusive idea of a Higher Good that we can entertain. Erich Fromm was probably right. We are programmed for devotion. In a post on conviction (see link below) I quoted from his seminal book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973: page 260) where he develops this idea very clearly. He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.
Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.
This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. And we’d better be careful what we decide to be devoted to because not only our own future as individuals but the future of our civilisation depends upon the combined impact of all our choices. That’s a thought sobering enough to stop even the most hardened drinker in his tracks if only his head were clear enough for him to hear it.
Interestingly Steven Pressfield in his book, The War of Art, finds spiritual experiences lie very close to the heart of creativity (316):
We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. The act of courage calls forth infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.
So perhaps we can close on an inspiring note with the video Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox put me onto, where Elizabeth Gilbert shares her ideas about genius. Which brings us back to where I started with my first post on the willpower book: creativity.
- Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal; Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney – review
- Study Finds Religion Helps Us Gain Self-Control
- Conversion: my return from exile
- Conviction: the double-edged sword (2/3)