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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

OUTSOURCING DISCIPLINE

I was six bites into my lunch when my purse-shrouded phone vibrated with an urgency that couldn’t be ignored. Although I didn’t want to be ‘that woman’—the one who abandons friends she can see for the one she can hear—I reached for my phone. The message on the screen alerted me this was not a call, but an electronic reminder, one of many that regulate my days and keep me on track.

I am not alone in depending on technology for the prompts necessary for a disciplined life. Friends’ watches vibrate when they sit too long. When they get up and move, they calculate and tally the number of steps taken. There is even an app to regulate caloric intake.

Recently my iPhone installed an upgrade called ‘Bedtime,’ a feature that tells you when to go to bed in addition to sending a wake up call. It seems like living with an overprotective mother—without the benefit of warm cinnamon milk at night and the smell of bacon in the morning.

Once upon a time, traits necessary for a well-ordered society, like punctuality, temperance and perseverance were virtues to attain. Striving to achieve them marked a person as disciplined. Now we are free from depending solely on such antiquated devices as fragmented memory and erratic willpower. Instead we can rely on electronic gadgets to mark the cadence of a regulated life—as long as we remember to set them correctly.  In the electronic age, we can outsource discipline.

I, for one, could not be happier!

This development comes at a perfect time—the time in my life when I am transitioning from established routines to some as-yet-to be-determined ones. I am a novice in this pursuit. Although a lot of routine was established during four decades of marriage, it was my husband who was born for routine. I mostly adopted his ways. We discussed the rules of engagement early in our marriage.

We agreed on the what—that we would develop couple rhythms that kept us together as much as possible. We had witnessed marriages disintegrate, and based on our own observations with no corroborating research, we had concluded that bedtime, breakfast together and a predictable dinner hour were keys to a solid marriage.

We had to negotiate the how because he had been nurtured by an early-to-bed, early-to-rise family, and I was raised in a family of routine-adverse owls. We came to terms on a middle ground that leaned more heavily toward his way of organizing life than mine. I let that slide for two reasons. First, his way seemed the better of the two, and I hoped I could improve by emulating his habits (although I never admitted this to him).  Secondly, it wasn’t hard to give up habits I didn’t possess to adopt ones that meant a lot to him.

And so our life together was framed by structures that signaled we lived a disciplined life. He was up before the birds began their morning song; perhaps he even summoned them to sing. I was never sure. I may have been less enthusiastic, but I was not far behind. I could have set my watch by when he was ready to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. Countless other patterns made for a regulated and predictable life. He was a creature of habit…but he was not a man of discipline.

A disciplined man would have resisted ice cream every night before bed. He would have chosen a shiny red apple or a juice-filled orange, not chocolate with toffee crunch—especially after high cholesterol became his constant companion and dominated the consultation at every doctor visit. Nevertheless, his nearly nightly ritual—after an evening shower, and precisely at 9—was to go to the freezer with a bowl in hand, find the ice cream and finish off the day with a couple of generous scoops. It was one of his favorite routines, but I digress.

Routines of a lifetime, along with the disciplines of everyday, are up for renewal. Their continuing presence in the lineup of my life depends on the benefits they offer. Routines like bedtime ice cream were his alone, and they have disappeared. Other routines remain, offering comforting familiarity and a lingering bond with the woman I used to be.

As I am in the market for new routines, I am aware that routine can spring up willy-nilly or be cultivated through thoughtful decision and disciplined follow-through. It is the latter kind of routine I seek; routine chosen with intentionality to order my hours and organize my days. Life-giving routine doesn’t appear overnight. It develops through careful choices and white-knuckle tenacity. It takes discipline until a thought becomes action, action becomes habit and habit becomes routine. 

It may require the aid of all of my electronics, but I think I can do it as long as I outsource the discipline.