Turn and Turnabout

Overnight the wind picked up, clouds rolled in, and trees dropped their glorious burdens. While I wasn’t looking, gold and red became russet and gray as true November arrived trailing the calendar by eleven days.  The loosed yellow leaves whip by so fast and so high I keep thinking they are goldfinches.credit: Photos from Nowhere http://www.crymble.ca/photoblog/

A season of life has passed by since the last time I wrote here.  Things got crazy, as they always do, and writing for pleasure had to slumber in the back of my mind while crises came and went.  But my youngest is now off to high school, and the rhythm of my days has changed.

It’s time to try again.  A little wiser, a little more slack in my schedule, a little more likely to be able to continue. Looking back, I see my posts were too long, both for me and for you, poor reader.  This time around, I will try to write more ‘little and often’ and less wordy.

See you soon.


The Way of the Will 3: Diversion

If you’ve had a toddler, you know this tactic.  When your child reaches for a fragile or unwholesome object, you divert his attention with some other attractive activity.  Aunt Grace’s shiny knickknack is not good to touch, but the silky ears of her puppy are!  But for children who are learning boundaries, it is not good to rely exclusively on diversion; they do need to be taught that some things are simply forbidden.  So as they get older we drop this ploy and expect them to develop self-control.  But happily, some few children discover how to divert themselves.

As explained in the last post, the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that children who successfully resisted the temptation to eat a treat went on to have greater success in many areas of their teen and adult lives.  What made these children special?  How were they able, at such a young age, to control themselves while temptation was staring them in the face?  They used what Professor Walter Mischel calls “strategic allocation of attention.”  In other words —they distracted themselves.

STRATEGIC ALLOCATION OF RESOURCES: UR DOIN IT WRONG“Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow…the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.  ‘If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,’ Mischel says. ‘The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.'”

Many of the children who failed had engaged temptation head on.  They would attempt to stare down the marshmallow, trying to control themselves by force of will.  This approach is doomed.  What we would think of as summoning up determination —“I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow,” is not effective at all.  What does work is distraction, or as Charlotte Mason termed it, diversion.

“Children should be taught…

    • That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts away from that which we desire but do not will.
    • That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of, or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting…

This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort that we may ‘will’ again with added power.”

—Charlotte Mason                                                      

Diversion is like the martial art of Aikido.  You don’t block a blow, you divert it.

Although a large force is necessary to stop the punch directly, only a small force is needed to deflect it.

Similarly, a large force of will is necessary to resist temptation directly, but only a small force of will is needed to deflect it.  Your choice of weapon for this task is important.  It should be a “quite different thing, entertaining or interesting.”   Consider your tactics beforehand, so you are ready when the time comes.  Ideally you should find a diversion that is both compelling and innocuous.  Sift through your habitual daydreams, the thoughts that have worn deep ruts in your mind.  They will be easy to turn to.  Or alternatively there may be a fascinating idea that has recently captured your attention.  Choose wisely!  You don’t want to reinforce your bad habits.  Examine your ideas for toxicity and don’t turn to anything that you would not otherwise will  for yourself. 

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things…practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.                                                                —Philippians 4:8-9                                   

Note that you don’t have to try to divert yourself with only lofty ‘spiritual’  ideas.  Whatever is good, if there is any excellence—sports or novels or home improvement or happy memories or Fermat’s Last Theorem if that floats your boat—just so long as it’s wholesome.

Sometimes, redirecting the thoughts is not enough.  Temptation will not be banished, and you feel your resolve weakening.  Then it is time for action.  “Do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting.”  Physically remove yourself from the temptation: the website, the snacks,  the bad company.  Again, don’t be a martyr about it; go to an activity you can enjoy.  Think about this beforehand.  What do you like to do that isn’t bad for you?  Take a leisurely walk outside, or keep a good novel handy.  Take a little time for a creative pursuit you never get around to.  Call a friend. 

This may seem counterproductive.  You think you don’t have time to indulge yourself, and what you really need is the willpower to quit dillydallying and get to work.  But remember diversion is a tactic, not an end in itself.   Charlotte said that “after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour.”  How is this so?  Like a muscle, will is replenished after a rest.  Diversion is useful when the will is depleted and needs a strategic retreat to regroup.  By choosing to divert yourself with a wholesome activity rather than an addictive time sink, you are exercising the will muscle with small weights.  With practice you will become able to lift heavier ones. 

“When the overstrained will asks for repose, it may not relax to yielding point but may and must seek recreation, diversion. A change of physical or mental occupation is very good, but if no other change is convenient, let us think of something else, no matter how trifling. A story book we are reading, a friend we hope to see, anything….   In a surprisingly short time (the will) is able to return to the charge and to choose this day the path of duty, however dull or tiresome, difficult or dangerous. This ‘way of the will’ is a secret of power, the secret of self-government, with which people should be furnished….”

—Charlotte Mason

You can also take advantage of “productive procrastination” at times when you have the mental energy for it.   Rather than succumbing entirely to, for instance, surfing instead of writing, leverage your disinclination into less daunting but still productive work, like starting dinner early, or decluttering a part of your office.  The trick is to choose a task that gives satisfying, quick results.  You don’t want to get sucked down a rabbit trail that causes you to abandon your goal.  You want to distract your brain from the idea of giving up, and provide an ego boost.  This gives you a little momentum to carry forward into your other work.  Set a timer for 15 minutes or so if you need to remind yourself when it’s time to switch back.


The old adage, “a change is good as a rest” does not apply to physical labor, but to the work of the mind.  Charlotte advocated short, varied lessons for primary school children for this reason.

“…the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again.”

As children were trained in the mental habit of paying attention lessons would be lengthened, but still varied, in order to give one mental muscle a rest while another is put to use.  So can we take advantage of this principle to stay productive when we are inclined to quit.

Imagine you are learning to ride.  You are beginning to get the hang of controlling this powerful animal, but can’t yet make it do everything you want it to.  You are riding across a green field when something spooks it and suddenly you find yourself on a runaway horse!  You pull back on the reins as hard as you can, but he has the bit between his teeth and won’t slow down at all.  Then you see it straight ahead—the edge of the forest!  The branches are thick and dense. Your horse may weave through safely, but you will surely be knocked off!  What do you do?  Give up trying to stop the horse, and steer him instead. You pull the reins to the right, and the horse veers off, back around the field.  Disaster is averted.  The horse may still be running, but at least you can direct him.  Let him run on the level grass until he calms down and will obey again.  This can happen to even the best riders, but as you practice and become more skillful, you will be less likely to lose control and quicker to regain it.

The Way of the Will part 2: Will Like a Muscle

Last year, Roy Baumeister’s Willpower made a big splash in productivity circles by reviving the idea of will.  Building on research done by his team over the last 15 years, he coined the term ‘ego depletion’ to describe the way in which, like a muscle, our willpower becomes fatigued with use.  In other words, after successfully using the will for a difficult task, further attempts to resist temptation are likelier to fail.

I haven’t yet read this entire book, so this will not be a full analysis.  My thoughts here are based on book reviews, interviews, excerpts—the usual meme-trail things leave on the internet.  I became excited about these ideas because I see modern science corroborating my biggest find of the 19th century.  Some years ago while researching homeschooling I found a mentor in Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century British teacher who led a small revolution in children’s education.  She rejected the current Darwinian idea that lower-class children were not suited for a full education, and laid out a rigorous yet humane course of instruction based on use of the best literature, careful formation of mental habits, and respect for the student as a self-governing individual.  Her six-volume series on education is a rich source of wisdom on not only child-training, but human nature and character development in general.  When I read the sections about training your child’s will, it was game-changing for me.  I realized that the first child in my life who needed this training was ME.  This was a whole new way of looking at self-control, habits, and character which answered many of the questions I had about my own inner struggles.  My chief feeling was, “WHY HAS NOBODY EVER TOLD ME THIS BEFORE?  WHY ISN’T EVERYBODY TOLD THIS?”

In a back-handed compliment Baumeister credits the Victorians for having “this vague idea of it (willpower) being some form of mental energy.”  Mason’s understanding of the will was anything but vague.  Excited by recent research in her era into the physiology of the brain, and informed by her experiences and spiritual beliefs, she detailed her unique understanding of will, habit, and personality that modern psychology is just now beginning to catch up to.

Mason’s, and Baumeister’s, observation is that the mental operation of the will resembles the physical operation of muscles in key ways.  One, as we have noted, is that its ability to operate becomes depleted as it is used.  The will has two specific operations:

  • decision making
  • carrying out our decisions in the face of external or internal pressure to do otherwise

We spoke last time of the will’s role in decision making.  This act of choosing ranges from the trivia of which cereal to buy, to the choice of a mate, to the self-sacrifice of martyrdom in a noble cause.  Once a choice is made, however, the will’s work is not over.  For sustained efforts, we must re-choose continually, at each moment of temptation, distraction, or pressure.  Some helpful momentum occurs after the initial effort,  but each further act of will requires its share of mental energy, leading to poorer and less freely willed decisions as fatigue grows.

So choosing and sustaining our choices uses up mental energy, the willpower itself.  But, like a muscle, the will also recuperates when rested, gains strength through regular exercise, and requires proper nourishment.

One exercises the will just as one does a muscle, by using it.

“The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites.  But…the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these; for though the will appears to be of purely spiritual nature, yet it behaves like any member of the body in this––that it becomes vigorous and capable in proportion as it is duly nourished and fitly employed.”               —Charlotte Mason

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. 

In 1970 a group of children were given a test of their ability to delay gratification.

Don't be squishy like these marshmallows!

“The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice (cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel) was placed on a table, by a chair. The children could eat the marshmallow, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.”

Of course some children were able to resist temptation, and others were not.  But the interesting bit occurred years later.

“Since Mischel’s daughters knew and grew up with many of the original test subjects, through casual conversation, (he) discovered there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later.  The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that preschool children who delayed gratification longer…were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.  A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.”

Further studies showed continued life success in the group with greater self-control, and actual differences in the structure of the brain itself.

But what about those kids who ate the marshmallow straight off?  Are they stuck without willpower for life?  No, we can change.  We can change ourselves.  Not overnight, but over time.  Any regular exercise of the will strengthens it for use in all areas of life.  Recently researchers found that people who successfully stick with diet plans tend to make gains in other unrelated areas of their lives.  Regardless of the plan used, those who lost weight also reported other positive changes such as stopping smoking, improving relationships, and becoming more organized.  Exercising self-control in eating enhanced the ability to control self overall.

You do not have to change into a powerhouse of stoicism overnight.  You can start small, just as when you begin lifting weights.  You start with small weights and work your way up.  So pick one little thing you would like to change about your behavior, something doable.  And stick with it.  One of the major pitfalls of any attempt at change is the idea that ‘just this once won’t hurt.’  It’s true that one cookie, or one day off, or giving in once doesn’t make a measurable difference in the long run.  But the act of choosing to give in does.  Each lapse is an opportunity lost.  Each time you stick to your resolve, even for something that’s ‘not that big a deal’, you strengthen your will muscles.  So tell yourself, when temptation arises, that you are not just avoiding 30 calories, you are not just gaining 5 minutes, you are not just keeping that one spot clutter-free, you are becoming more awesome.

Once you start wearing your willpower glasses, a host of small decisions will become clearer.  “Why not?” turns into, “That would be giving in!”  Any little thing you know you should do, but usually slack off on, is an opportunity for a win.  Your whole day becomes more epic when lunch, making your bed, keeping off of social media, etc. are little victories that make you stronger.  You are becoming Superman!

Baumeister even recommends small, arbitrary changes like mousing with your non-dominant hand to exercise will further.  But really, if you have your act so together that you have to invent difficulties for yourself in order to practice self-control, why are you reading this blog?  Go save the world or something.  The rest of us should pick battles that advance our goals in order to make the most of a limited resource.  You’ve only got so much willpower to begin with; use it wisely.

But what to do when will power is depleted?  How do you stick to your resolve when you’re all willed out?  Are we then helpless?  No, Charlotte has a secret:

“Another thing to be observed is that even the constant will has its times of rise and fall, and one of the secrets of living is how to tide over the times of fall in will power.” —Charlotte Mason

Next time we will learn how to create a diversion.

The Way of the Will: part 1

‘Will’ is a word that gets tossed around a lot: willpower, the strong-willed child, men of good will, where there’s a will there’s a way, breaking someone’s will. Does anyone ever say what will actually is? Take a moment; do you have any idea what will actually is?

  • A toddler pushes everyone’s buttons to get his own way, and we say he’s strong-willed.
  • But if a woman stops smoking, loses weight, and starts running marathons we say she has a lot of willpower.

How can an unruly 2 year old have a lot of will, but so does the disciplined athlete?

‘Will’, like ‘love’, is used for many things, some of them mutually exclusive. The Free Online Dictionary has 42 definitions for it. The definition I want, the one that makes or breaks your life, is the first:

The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action

The Will is our chooser. It looks at all the conflicting impulses inside of us, and decides which one of them we’re going to follow:

  • What we’re going to think.
  • What we’re going to believe.
  • How we’re going to act.

Theology tells us that we have free will. In other words, we are free to choose as we like, not constrained by fate or circumstances. Free to choose according to our desires, or according to our principles. Free to choose good or evil.

I think most people picture a sort of inner set of scales. Our desires, morals, influences, habits pile up here and there, and when the pans tip decisively one way or another—we act. Under this view we have no free will, only complex reactions to particular inputs. The danger of this determinism is that, largely, it is true for you to the extent that you believe in it. If you think you have no real control over your own actions, then guess what, you won’t. If you believe you’re a victim of circumstances, you will be. If you ‘can’t help’ your feelings, you’ll be a slave to your emotions. The extreme end lies in fatalism and apathy, but one need not go so far as that to suffer from an atrophied will.

“Unlike every other power…the will is able to do what it likes, is a free agent, and the one thing the will has to do is to prefer. “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose. But, choice, the effort of decision, is a heavy labor, whether it be between two lovers or two gowns. So, many people minimize this labor by following the fashion in their clothes, rooms, reading, amusements, the pictures they admire and the friends they select. We are zealous in choosing for others but shirk the responsibility of decisions for ourselves.”                         — Charlotte Mason

Stories dramatize the choice between good and evil (don’t give in to the dark side, Luke!), but in everyday life the number of people who deliberately, knowingly choose evil is small. Some do; they shake their fists at the cosmos in pain, and turn their backs on God and man in an orgy of angry selfishness. Much more common is to drift into an insipid, proxy evil by declining to choose at all. It’s perfectly possible to live an entire life, even a respectable one, without ever once exercising the will. Just go along to get along. Learn to behave, to do well in school, to be nice to people because it’s easier. Praise is pleasant. Being in trouble is a pain. It becomes very easy, once in the habit of not making waves, to do what everybody else is doing, think what everybody else approves of, and be a perfectly inoffensive person absolutely without any will of your own. The balance tips toward the path of least resistance and you follow it as naturally as water runs downhill.

thumb on scalesIn defiance of this, the Will puts its thumb on the scale. It weighs all considerations in the balance: desire, consequences, commands, beliefs, practicality, principles, and a hundred others. But the balance is never so heavily tilted that a sufficiently strong will cannot say, “No. These considerations may be weighty, but I choose otherwise. This I will do, that I will not.”

A sufficiently strong will—there’s the catch. Well, some are born strong-willed, and some of us aren’t. You see it even in babies. Not much we can do about it, is there?

Actually, there is. Not only can you do something about it, you must, because every day you don’t control yourself, make decisions, choose your actions—someone or something else is gaining control. You have to develop strength of will. Work on it, put effort into it. It’s not easy to fight yourself, your own lazy inclinations. It’s worth it because gains made in self-control make everything else easier.

I know I promised you last post to tell you how-to, but first we needed our what and our why. Next week I’ll talk about how to strengthen the Will—about muscles and marshmallows and Mason.

“… just as to reign is the distinctive function of a king, so to will is the function of a man. A king is not a king unless he reigns and a man is less than a man unless he wills.”  — Charlotte Mason

Why all the ‘How-To’s are really ‘What-To’s, and what I’m going to do about it.

Consider the average citizen.  Socialized by ubiquitous television, standardized schooling, and carefully edited sound bites he comes to embrace a shockingly unremarkable set of behaviors.  Insulated by the echo chamber of contemporary media and congenial conversation, he rarely engages unsympathetic ideas or impulses, except to mock them, or perhaps sadly shake his head.  All his decisions are foregone conclusions.  Easy middle-class morality, commercials, force of habit supply the input–and behavior results.

Now, few people are as average as all that.  Our passions and our causes differentiate and invigorate us more or less.  For a few important things we will stir ourselves, really think and really act.

This is the challenge: Think and act.  Just a little more than you did yesterday.  Every day.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Hey!” you object.  “Who is this ‘Mother Wit’, to insult the average citizen?”

I am a fellow traveler on the way.  Many of the things I will blog about here I am currently thrashing out in my own life.  It can be a long road to:

  • see a truth
  • understand it
  • know how to implement it for yourself
  • be able to communicate it to others

It doesn’t always happen in that order.  It has taken me roughly 35 years at playing around with writing to believe I had learned something worth sharing that hasn’t already been said better elsewhere.  What have I learned?

Everybody tells you what to do.  Your parents, your teachers, your pastor,  your doctor.  OTHER people’s parents, teachers, pastors, doctors.  Your boss, your husband, wife, kids.  The guy in the coffee shop.  Blogs.  Books.  But how many people tell you how to do it?  Oh, sure, there’s a million how-to guides.  But they never really tell you how-to, they only tell you what-to, in order to achieve some end.  But how do you actually follow the how-tos?  How many times have you tried and failed?

I’ll be talking about how to do the things you already know to do.  Build yourself into the you you want to be, were meant to be.

  • How to think and how to think for yourself
  • Habits and what to do about them
  • Where to look for wisdom
  • The difference between work and play

There may be more urgent issues or more important truths but, as C.S. Lewis said,  I will go where I see the line is thinnest.

Some of these are ideas long forgotten and due for a revival, some will be from the newest corners of the internet.  Some are from my own observations.  They will all be filtered through my own mother wit.

“…every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom new treasures and old.”  

Matthew 13:52



Welcome to Mother Wit

Many times when we get talking about parenting, politics, or philosophy, at some point in the conversation, one of my girls will say to me, “Mom, you should write a book!”

Well, a book may be beyond me at this season of life, but I might be able to carve out enough time for a blog.  Watch this space for weekly(?) ruminations, perhaps even essays, from my brainspace.

April 5, 1974

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

by Richard Wilbur