The Courage to Conquer Fear

Fear often takes on a life of its own. It begins as a reasonable response to actual events during difficult times. But unchecked by hope or courage, fear can consume our rationality, alter our perceptions, and ruin our relationships.

On the heels of a global pandemic, we have legitimate fears for the people of Ukraine and their future as an independent country. We fear the possibility of World War III.

We worry about the continued effects of inflation on the global economy. We worry about new COVID variants, climate change, and hardened political divides.

To add to my own fears and uncertainties, I decided to quit my job a couple of weeks ago and try my hand at freelancing. While my family and friends have been supportive, they’ve also been genuinely concerned, perhaps even fearful, regarding my mental health and the well-being of my family. I try to explain that my desire for flexibility in choosing my own hours and my own projects trumps my desire for a steady paycheck with benefits. I fully understand the risks of making such a career pivot, but I have felt confident about my decision.

Of course, some of my loved ones don’t see it as reasonable. Most notably, my mother-in-law has questioned my wisdom, my work ethic, and my commitment to providing for my family: “Does Paul want to work? I hope he doesn’t not want to work!”

Now my mother-in-law is perfectly within her rights to be concerned about whether I’m making responsible choices. I appreciate that she cares deeply about us. And I appreciate the many friends who’ve reached out to ask what they can do to help me find another job. But I have to be careful that I don’t allow their well-meaning words to feed my personal fears and insecurities until they take on a life of their own.

I can’t do a lot right now to mitigate the chances of World War III. Other than praying and making financial donations to the people of Ukraine, I can’t do much to prevent their suffering. But I can take strength from their courage as I seek to conquer my comparatively smaller fears.

As I personally strive to cultivate a spirit of hope and constructive problem solving in my life, here are some practical tips that I’ve found helpful.

First, know what is important to you and what you personally stand for. In its essence, courage is about doing the right thing in the face of fear. What are you personally willing to sacrifice for? If you haven’t consciously reasoned through the answer to this question, you’re less capable of displaying courage in your life. You have to know what you stand for and who you stand with.

Second, practice doing the right thing. Courage is developed by doing noble things, even when you’re experiencing anxiety or feeling the effects of other personal limitations. Overcoming self-doubt and fear usually doesn’t happen overnight. You have to work at it, exercising practical wisdom and gaining greater confidence in your ability to choose the right each time you succeed. In cultivating courage, remember that your personal golden mean can only be discovered by pushing back against your areas of weakness.

Third, remember that not every courageous act is successful, in terms of righting a wrong, conquering the forces of evil, or rescuing the innocent. For this reason, you have to give yourself permission to fail. This doesn’t mean you give yourself a license to be reckless and risk your life or reputation unwisely. Remember, courage is the happy medium between cowardice and recklessness. Courage acts as directed by reason. But when reason does direct, you need to accept that courage brings with it the risk of failure and the strong possibility of pain.

Fourth, if you want to cultivate the virtue of courage, it’s a good idea to associate with people who are themselves courageous. And as you develop courage, you can inspire others to follow the same course.

In summary, these four tips can help us to cultivate courage: first, know what you stand for; second, use practical wisdom in doing the right thing; third, give yourself permission to fail; and fourth, hang out with courageous people.

Doing the Right Thing

I recently told my friend and neighbor that I have a graduate degree in theological ethics. He asked me to explain more about my field of study. I mentioned that ethics defines principles of behavior that help us distinguish between right and wrong. And I pointed out that religious principles often play an important part in ethical reflection. I went on to explain that ethicists take different approaches in providing guidance for difficult scenarios – and that I’m personally a fan of the perspective offered by character or virtue ethics.

My friend responded respectfully, but with some skepticism: “That sounds interesting. But do we really need ethics to understand the difference between right and wrong? Isn’t it really just about doing the right thing?”

I probably sounded a bit defensive as I explained how life presents some true ethical dilemmas that require thoughtful and extensive deliberation. After I recounted some examples from both medical and business ethics, he was still unimpressed: “But how many ethical dilemmas do we face in our everyday lives? Isn’t it just about doing what we know is right?”

I finally conceded that he had a fair point. In the vast majority of cases, we probably already know how we ought to behave. And if this is true, the good life calls – as much as anything – for a simple commitment to doing what’s right.

Of course Plato would disagree. He would insist that ignorance of the Good is the root of the problem – that when people know what’s actually good for them, they will necessarily choose it.

We don’t have time here to give Plato’s argument the attention it deserves,  but it seems to me that a number of different factors get in the way of my personal ability to do the right thing. Plato might say it’s all about ignorance – that I don’t truly understand what’s best. But I would say that selfishness and emotional instability are often better explanations for my bad behavior than a lack of knowledge.

If ethics does nothing more than recommend principles for determining right and wrong, its influence is too narrow. Moral principles ought to be sound enough to persuade us to act. But they should also incorporate practical suggestions to help us work through any opposition that might prevent us from doing the right thing.

This brings me back to my friend’s suggestion that the good life is more about finding the strength to do what we know is right than it is about agonizing over complex ethical scenarios. It’s about committing ourselves to doing the right thing: being kind when we don’t feel like being kind, taking a deep breath before lashing out at someone in anger, and showing gratitude for life’s blessings by sharing our time and resources with those in need.

Humility as a Theological Virtue

I’ve examined the virtue of humility in previous posts here and here. But the difficulty of achieving true humility has been on my mind again lately.  I’ve noticed that when I’m humbled by difficult circumstances, my attitude can quickly turn into passive aggressiveness or false humility. While I might be stripped of pride for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that the appearance of humility can give me social benefits.

In a situation like this, we may be like the family member who learns that he can drum up sympathy and get what he wants by letting everyone know that he’s feeling particularly worthless or unhappy. Or like the obsequious waiter who meekly bows to his customer’s every wish, hoping to get a more generous tip. Or the comedian who knows she’s more likely to please her audience with self-effacing humor. Or the passive-aggressive spouse who practices the “woe is me” silent treatment as a way to punish his partner.

Of course, genuine humility exists in rare individuals who’ve learned to achieve balance in their lives, becoming confident but not overconfident, grateful for the gifts possessed by others but aware of their own abilities. Most of us know at least someone who’s discovered lasting joy by spending more time thinking about other people than themselves.

But the tendency of humility to morph into false humility is perhaps the main reason this virtue is so elusive. It’s also why humility seems to make more sense as a religious attitude toward God, who can’t be deceived by false appearances.

In the Book of Mormon, a small group of true Christian believers is mistreated by their neighbors “who profess to belong to the church of God.” In Helaman 3:35, we read about how they managed to endure “great persecutions” and “much affliction”:

“Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.”

By submitting their wills to God, these people were able to avoid the more typical path that leads from humility to false humility. In the midst of severe trials, their hearts were purified and they were filled with joy.

My own failure to achieve anything but a fleeting grasp on humility leads me more and more to categorize it as a theological virtue. Like faith, hope, and love, an enduring sense of humility might simply be a divine gift, maintained through consistent acts of devotion to God.

A Piecemeal Approach to Achieving Our Dreams

William James

In December of 1906, William James delivered a series of eight philosophical lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. His topic was pragmatism, which he described as “a new name for some old ways of thinking.” In his final lecture, James discusses the relationship between pragmatism and religion. As a pragmatist, James rejects the philosophical idea of a rational unity within the universe, along with the religious dogma that the world will inevitably be saved.

From the perspective of pragmatism, the world is “pluralistic,” which essentially means that it’s made up of a lot of moving parts, that the world’s salvation depends on our ability to cooperate with other individuals and work toward the possibility of justice, unity, and reconciliation. James is personally open to the reality of God and other “superhuman forces” that are also at work in the world. However, he envisions and promotes a “pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism.”

James asks us to imagine that the “world’s author” allowed us to choose  whether we wanted to participate in a world that offered no guarantee of safety and security:

“I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

The decision to wholeheartedly and clearheadedly embrace life as a true adventure requires unmitigated faith—faith in ourselves, faith in our fellow human beings, and for many of us, faith in God. The abundant life does not require rational evidence that each of our ventures will be successful. And it doesn’t necessarily require a religious belief that everything will work out in the end.

As we try to make the world a better place for ourselves, our families, and our communities, we can find evidence that some things are improving. There is always hope. But it’s often easier to make the case for pessimism, that goodness cannot overcome evil.

For me personally, I see more than enough evidence that our flawed world provides the necessary conditions for ultimate joy and fulfillment. But I become distracted by opposing evidence, by vexing problems that I can’t control. I begin to lose heart, to doubt that I’m capable of doing anything substantial to combat evil.

But I need to be more relentless in simply doing what I can. This often means the willingness to take a “piecemeal approach” to my daily work. I can’t wait until everything in my life is lined up in perfect harmony, ready for a smooth push to the end. I embrace the challenge of doing my “level best,” working with others within the limits of my power and circumstances.

The Inexhaustible Meaning of Experience

As an educator, I’ve never been comfortable presenting historical facts and social scientific research as “the final word.” This can be difficult, especially since most students look to their teachers as experts who’ve mastered their field of study. They don’t want wishy washy, tentative expressions of truth. Student hunger for the reassurance that comes from facts stated clearly and authoritatively. They need anchors in their quest for truth.

Mathematics, engineering, and the hard sciences can and should be taught as definitive disciplines. But as Aristotle noted over 2,300 years ago, we should not expect precision in other fields of study, particularly those that attempt to describe human experience.

The social sciences provide theories and constructs to help us make sense out of human behavior, social movements, and political activities. These include abstract concepts such as race, culture, technology, and the desire for power. As we navigate interpersonal relationships, we learn to describe our feelings and experiences using terms such as love, happiness, loyalty, trust, compatibility, reciprocity, forgiveness, and emotional intelligence.

But personal experience can never be reduced to either empirical facts or abstract concepts. While these conceptual tools allow us to communicate rationally with each other, they can never plumb the depths of actual, lived experience.

In his 1972 book, The Present Revelation, Roman Catholic theologian Gabriel Moran observes: “The more intently one tries, the more one might set up an obstacle to getting at the full range of experience. It might be that people are not so desirous as they think they are to experience life. It may be safer to use one’s head all the time than to drop one’s guard and let experience flow in and out.”

As we interact with friends and family, as we encounter strangers and political opponents, it’s always a challenge to consider new concepts and opposing viewpoints. But we would also do well to simply open our hearts and minds a bit more to the mystery of human experience.

A Pandemic Puppy

With my long-overdue first blog post of 2020, I’ve decided not to write about the global pandemic or anything directly related to the current economic, social, and political unrest in the country. I do care about public health, social justice, and engaging in dialogue to solve our problems. But right now I’m fatigued by the never-ending news cycle, the divisiveness, and the cynicism of the present moment. I want to explore other things.

Two Dogs
Mako and Togo

I’ve written before about our family Labradoodle, noting how he used to chew up the sprinklers and wolf down an entire plate of brownies delivered to us by the neighbors. Mako has long outgrown the puppy stage, although he still barks up a storm whenever the doorbell rings, even if the visitor turns out to be a familiar-smelling family member. He also bolts out an open door if he senses another dog nearby. But on the whole, he’s a trusted and beloved family pet. Always a peacemaker, Mako dashes over and blocks anyone who’s raising their voice or behaving aggressively.

Wally Conron, the Australian dog breeder credited for inventing the Labradoodle, has in recent years expressed regret over creating a “Frankenstein’s monster.” He’s referring mostly to the unscrupulous breeders who create puppy mills and carelessly propagate mental or physical health problems in the breed. The Labradoodle was originally designed for people who were allergic to Labrador Retrievers but needed a good service dog. With the proper training, our Mako could certainly fill such a need. Since he’s just a first generation Labradoodle (his father was a poodle and his mother was a lab), he requires frequent haircuts to keep shedding to a minimum. But we think he’s very nearly the perfect pet.

Over the summer, our nine-year-old daughter begged us to get another dog. She argued that Mako needed a companion, and we finally relented. Of course her real reason was the irresistible enchantment of owning a cute puppy. We ultimately decided on and paid too much for a Yorkshire Terrier / Poodle / Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix.

As a typical puppy who nips at your heals, chews up your socks, and has frequent accidents in the house, Togo quickly left the honeymoon phase, convincing our daughter that what she really wanted was a kitten. To her credit, she hasn’t given up on her puppy training, and Togo will now sit, lay, and shake both paws on a consistent basis. He’s also a good lap dog, willing to quietly cuddle on the couch or daintily chew on a toy while we watch a movie. Togo still won’t obediently come when he’s caught up in something more interesting outside. And he’s often a little too feisty with our two-year-old granddaughters. But his biggest problem is that he doesn’t get along with Mako.

As they enter their third month together, Togo still spends a good part of each day leaping up on his older brother, biting his ears, back legs, and anything else he can sink his teeth into. Mako moans and groans as he firmly yet gently pins Togo on his little back again and again, asserting his dominance as the Alpha male. But Togo doesn’t quit, repeating the same pattern of behavior day after day and night after night. Of course a lot of this could be written off to playfulness or the dog-equivalent of sibling rivalry. And it has never turned into a real dogfight. But it’s almost as hard for me to watch as the first presidential debate of 2020, which by some curious coincidence is taking place this evening as I write. As far as I know, very little blood has been drawn and both dogs remain healthy. But just about every chance he gets, Mako removes himself from the presence of his annoying little brother. If Togo is outside, Mako prefers staying inside.

So what’s going on with these two dogs who don’t seem to like each other very much? With a little research, I discovered some helpful historical insights about Yorkshire Terriers. Before they became popular as upper class companion dogs in the late 19th century, Yorkies were used as “ratters,” small dogs that miners or mill workers would carry with them to control rats and other rodents. Yorkies were also used to hunt fox, badgers, and other wild animals in the fields. As they cornered burrowing animals who were defending their dens, Yorkies displayed the pugnacious and courageous qualities of hunting dogs.

Perhaps this historical background can help me come to grips with the natural instincts behind dysfunctional doggie relationships. I’m hopeful that Togo and Mako will learn to like each other and become the friendly companions that my daughter had envisioned. Only time will tell if they’re capable of living in peace and harmony, and I’ll have to report back on their progress in a couple of years. In the meantime, I’d prefer not watching two dogs who seem to be vying to become the pack leader. For that matter, I’d also prefer not watching presidential debates.

Investing in the Things that Matter Most in 2020

Since my 50th birthday, I’ve been paying more attention to online advertisements that promote financial investment strategies. My wife and I are pleased that we’ve made some progress with our retirement savings this past year. We’re hoping for an even more prosperous year in 2020.

Of course a life well-lived extends far beyond financial security. Integrity, selflessness, and generosity all require investing in the things that matter most.

As we enter a new decade, I invite each of us to to strengthen our retirement portfolios with the following key investments.

  1. Invest in Relationships – In 1938, scientists began tracking the health and happiness of 268 Harvard sophomores. This longitudinal study has continued to the present day, expanding to the children and grandchildren of the original subjects. One of its most resounding conclusions is that relationships are more important than anything else, including money, fame, and personal accomplishments. Researchers found that those who enjoyed warm and satisfying relationships at age 50 were by far the happiest at age 80. They had more robust physical, mental, and emotional health. The takeaway? If you want enduring happiness well into your golden years, make your investments in family and close friendships the most important part of your retirement portfolio.
  2. Invest in Learning – Many religious traditions affirm that knowledge is the only thing we can carry with us into the eternities. Whether or not this is true, most of us understand the power of education and the value of truth. But too often we rest on our laurels and stop learning, essentially cutting ourselves off from the vast tree of knowledge that fills the earth. Confucius taught that while the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their endless quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware of what they do not In many cases, truth can only be found by examining both sides of an issue. Rigid, uncompromising positions can blind both our hearts and our minds. One of our most difficult challenges is to learn from those we disagree with, those who might oppose our worldview. But with an open mind and a little humility, we can rise above ignorance and learn something new every day of our lives.
  3. Invest in Kindness – When we invest money in financial markets, we expect to see a vigorous return at some future time. But some of life’s greatest rewards come when we give selfless gifts without expecting anything in return. Such gifts are more likely to produce gratitude, which in turn inspires generosity toward others who might be incapable of returning the favor. All the while, karma works steadily in the background, generating priceless, immaterial gifts that make their way back to the original giver. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to this as the law of compensation: “Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.” While love and kindness are not always reciprocated immediately, the cosmic laws of nature ensure that we will be compensated in the long run. Emerson affirms that sooner or later, benevolence returns to us through the intervention of “a third silent party to all our bargains.”
  4. Invest in the Present Moment – Over the past twenty years or so, the field of positive psychology has exploded with thousands of studies on the science of happiness. Researchers often promote character strengths and attitudes that lead to more flourishing lives. For example, they maintain that one of the keys to happiness is to live more fully in the present. This doesn’t mean that we neglect our responsibility to prepare for the future. In fact, having an eye toward the future can guide and inspire our present actions. True joy can then be found in the small and simple things, as we immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature and the pleasure of family and friends. Many of us struggle to slow down and live in the moment, while others lack the patience and foresight to prepare for the future. As we cultivate the ability to do both, we’re more likely to achieve the balance that leads to lasting happiness.

As the new year approaches, may we all invest in timeless wisdom that can light our path toward the abundant life. May we find an abundance of love, an abundance of joy, and an abundance of truth. And may this abundance overflow into the lives of those we encounter every day.

10 Tips for Cultivating Patience in an Impatient World

As an elementary school teacher, my wife finds great fulfillment in helping her sixth graders improve their math skills. But she almost always has to deal with a few students who moan about having to learn new things. They lack the patience to correct their mistakes and practice until they’ve achieved mastery. Their impatience in turn tries the patience of their teacher.

At church, at home, and in the workplace our impatience can start to feed on the impatience of others. Since none of us have the patience of Job, all of us try each other’s patience. Stopping this vicious circle requires a little more patience from all of us. This means being willing to give others – and ourselves – time to change.

Of course, patience is not always a virtue. Sometimes teachers need to send disruptive students to the principal’s office. Sometimes we need to seize the day and take immediate action. Justice, courage, and kindness often call on us to make a difference without delay.

But it goes without saying that most of life’s challenges require patience. It takes patience to accomplish worthwhile goals. It takes patience to face unexpected trials such as serious illness, financial setbacks, and failed relationships. It takes patience to deal with life’s daily problems, including backed up freeways, bad weather, and slow lines at the grocery store.

One of the obstacles to developing patience is that our modern world caters to convenience and immediate gratification. We don’t need to grow a garden when we can pick up whatever we need from a convenience store. We don’t need to spend our time with home-cooked meals when restaurants and pre-packaged meals are always available. We don’t need to save up money to buy a new car when we can get a low-interest loan and buy it now. We don’t need to wait a week for our favorite television show when we can watch the entire series over the weekend on Netflix. And we don’t need patience to travel a thousand miles when we can hop on a plane and be there in a couple of hours.

So how can we cultivate patience in an impatient world? Here are ten tips.

The first two are taken from a 2017 journal article published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality by Sarah Schnitker and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary.

1. Attach meaning to suffering.

Schnitker describes how religious communities generally promote the idea that some forms of suffering can be redemptive, leading to self-mastery, empathy, and greater life-fulfillment. This is what she calls a “transcendent narrative identity.” It provides the strength to look beyond present suffering and work toward a future where our lives have changed for the better.

2. Learn to control your emotions.

Schnitker and her fellow psychologists identify emotional regulation as another core aspect of patience. It’s easy to become frustrated, annoyed, and even bitter when things don’t go our way. But acting on negative emotions almost always makes situations worse. When I start to get impatient, I try to imagine how I would respond in my present circumstances if I were patient. Every once in a while, this sort of cognitive reappraisal helps me respond more calmly with a long-term perspective.

3. Look to nature for inspiration.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” It takes time to develop a strong root system that can support sturdy branches and bear fruit. We’re more likely to develop patience when we understand that disappointment and heartache can make us more capable of tasting the fruit of happiness in the future.

4. View patience as a golden mean

Aristotle helpfully describes most virtues as the golden mean between two extremes. For example, true courage is found somewhere between cowardice, on one hand, and recklessness, on the other. In a similar way, possessing patience means that we avoid foolish, impetuous actions. But it also means that we avoid a passive or lazy acceptance of suffering, injustice, and mediocrity.

5. Be humble enough to take small steps

For me personally, patience implies the willingness to take small steps to improve my life and the lives of those around me. Building a business, raising a family, and getting an education are made up of little things that add up over a long period of time. This same principle applies to recovering from the emotional wounds caused by unhealthy relationships. Shakespeare’s Othello explains it best: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

6. Be consistent in taking the small steps

In working toward an ambitious goal, I find that I need to set aside non-negotiable time every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something concrete. If I go more than a day or two without taking any steps toward realizing my goal, the future that I had envisioned grows dim and I begin to lose hope. This is one of the reasons why scriptural counsel often pairs patience with diligence.

7. Be a finisher

Because I’m naturally an impatient person, I tend to get discouraged and move on to something else when I don’t see results as quickly as I’d like. This brings up the importance of personal commitment. Devote yourself to worthy causes and see your projects through to the end. Knowing that you’re a finisher can help you stay the course.

8. Don’t try to control other people

Self-mastery is one of the cornerstones of a happy life. We need to control our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is trying to control other people. Persuade family members, friends, and strangers through your example. Then give the people you love room to change. Try to remain pleasant and never give up on them.

9. Remember how tough you are

Patience is more about toughness than weakness and passivity. When life gets overwhelming, remind yourself of the many challenges and difficulties you’ve overcome in the past. You’ll find hidden strength and happiness if you just keep moving forward.

10. Cultivate hope for a brighter future

Patience is much more than a willingness to endure suffering. It’s about believing in a brighter future that comes one small, imperfect step at a time.

Ambition and the Virtue that Cannot be Named


Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken another long break from most of my online distractions, including news articles and streaming movies. The timing has been particularly good, because I’m working toward an ambitious project deadline at work. Outside of work, I’ve spent more time than usual fixing sprinklers, cleaning the garage, and playing games with my family. With less anxiety and greater mental focus, my voluntary “fasting” from online entertainment has again been a very good thing.

One of the insights I’ve gained this time around is the importance of having some sort of passion or ambition to fill the void left by the things I’ve taken out of my life. A lack of ambition is often what leads to overindulgence in diversions in the first place. However, ambition can also get out of hand. An all-encompassing sort of ambition leads to neglecting personal health, family relationships, and other important aspects of our lives.

Once again, our discussion of character leads back to Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that we typically use the word “ambition” (philotimia, or the love of honor) to refer to someone who has excessive ambition. And we usually call someone “unambitious” if they suffer from a deficiency in their desire for honor or excellence.

Aristotle observes that unlike other virtues such as courage, wisdom, or self-mastery, the golden mean with respect to seeking honor does not have a name. But he insists that this virtue has to exist, since it’s possible to seek honor both too much and too little. The person who possesses the golden mean seeks honor in the right way, from the right source, and in the right amount.

From a religious perspective, we might view the “honors of men” as an unworthy pursuit, especially since they typically distract us from the love of God and the love of our fellow beings. To justify any competitive desire for excellence and honor, we could see it as a way to glorify God and inspire others. The 1924 Olympic gold medalist (and Christian missionary) Eric Liddell insisted: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

I personally haven’t figured this all out. I know that ambition can lead people to compromise their integrity and interfere with their devotion to God. But I also believe that a noble form of ambition is essential in fortifying good people against the allure of self-destructive behavior.

Self-Mastery Training

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has defined self-control as a “moral muscle” that can become fatigued through overexertion. Like any other muscle, our ability to exercise self-control has limits. For example, we can’t expect to put ourselves in compromising situations time after time without eventually giving in to temptation. And we need to give ourselves regular breaks from daily challenges and responsibilities — time to relax and recharge our willpower, as it were.

However, we can also engage in a regular exercise regimen to strengthen our moral muscle. I like to call such exercise “moderate asceticism.” We typically associate asceticism with the radical self-denial and otherworldly lifestyle of monks and hermits. But I believe moderate forms of asceticism should have an important place in each of our lives. These practices might not only be appropriate, but essential in cultivating true self-mastery.

It’s interesting that our English word “asceticism” is derived from the Greek word ἄσκησις (pronounced askesis), which originally meant training or exercise, specifically athletic training. If we bring both the ancient and modern meanings together, we might suggest that just as an athlete needs to train his or her mind and body to reach the highest level of competition, we all need to train our minds and bodies to acquire cardinal virtues such as practical wisdom and self-mastery. This is the kind of training that’s not just for addicts and others who need therapy. It’s for all of us who are committed to developing self-mastery a few small steps at a time.

Here are ten practical examples of moderate asceticism that I encourage you to try on a regular basis.

  1. Every month or so, consider fasting for 24 hours, skipping a couple of meals and spending time focusing on the needs of your soul more than the needs of your body. Donate the food or the money you would have spent on food to a local food bank for needy families.
  2. Wake up early in the morning every day for two weeks. Whether it’s 4, 5, or 6 am, wake up at the same time every morning, regardless of when you go to sleep. Spend some time meditating, reflecting on your life’s purpose, and planning for the day. If you’re a man or woman of religious faith, spend a few minutes each morning in earnest prayer.
  3. Strictly limit your technology and media consumption for an entire week. You might consider limiting your use of the Internet and email to your time at work. Use your time at home to engage in old-fashioned activities such as playing board games with the family, reading, and having face-to-face conversations.
  4. Lock up your credit cards for an entire month and limit purchases to your essential needs. At the end of the month, give all of your surplus budget away to charity.
  5. Take a cold shower every morning for a week.
  6. Regularly go through your closet and remove a few items of clothing that you haven’t worn in a long time. Give them away to a local thrift store. Keep doing this every few weeks until you begin to feel that your life has been simplified. Try the same exercise with other material possessions in your life.
  7. If you haven’t developed the habit of exercising regularly, set aside one week to begin such a habit. Choose a time to engage in vigorous exercise every day for that entire week.
  8. Devote an hour each day to learning a foreign language. Fill the entire hour with rigorous, focused study and practice.
  9. Cancel your leisure activities for two weekends in a row. Spend those weekends instead volunteering at a soup kitchen or other community service program.
  10. Commit yourself to a strict one-week diet, limiting your calories by one-third, eliminating sweets, and avoiding all fast food restaurants.

Any one of these practices will improve your moral conditioning and make you more capable of achieving excellence in the things that really matter in your life.

* For more insights on self-mastery and the other cardinal virtues, check out my book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.